After the Genpai wars (1185), the Nara-based Keiha Busshi knew big sculpting commissions were coming as a result of rebuilding the powerful Kofukuji and Todaiji temples. The head of the Kei school, Kokei, and his star pupil Kaikei built momentum and trust by winning bids to repair and replace statuary where there were immediate needs. However, after a year of establishing themselves, Kokei’s first son, Unkei, left Nara and travelled to Eastern Japan in order to carve statuary for the shogunate’s regents in the area.
Whether his actions were the result of an invitation by the shogunate, or a voluntary initiative to further gain the favor of the country’s new leaders remain unclear. Regardless, Unkei aimed to please. His sculpture groups at the Ganjojuin in Izunokuni (1186) and the Jorakiuji in Kanagawa (1189) clearly display a new approach in rendering familiar and popular Buddhist figures, leaning heavily towards the tastes of the militaristic Minamoto clan. Flanking the central Amida images in each temple were Bishamonten and Fudo Myo-ō, whom the warriors primarily credited with aiding in their victories. They present a bold and intimidating strength, with piercing expressions and body language that surely must have impressed his patrons.
Unkei remained in the region for about ten years, returning to Nara in 1196. He shared what he’d learned with his fellow students, and it appears that most of the Keiha were in line with this new direction. By this time, Kaikei, despite claiming no blood relation to Kokei, had certainly grown closer the Kei school’s leader in Unkei’s absence, and a lifelong faux rivalry ensued between the school’s star pupil and its rightful heir. The Keiha spent the next several years repairing Heian period statuary, which further nurtured their intimate mastery of the wood medium. In 1203, this healthy competition climaxed in the most jaw-dropping showdown in woodcarving history at the Todaiji in Nara.
Mainly through the efforts of a monk known as Chogen, funding for rebuilding the great temple and producing statuary continued to pour in. It was decided that a pair of guardian Kongorikishi figures were needed at the Great South Gate of the Todaiji, a commission the Kei school had unquestionably been holding its breath for. There are relatively few extant examples of these guardians kings (commonly called Nio) depicted after the end of the Asuka period (in 710), but Unkei understood the gravity of the commission and also knew exactly how to deliver what the Kamakura shogunate wanted. Thankfully, Kaikei, despite usually preferring to carve with a gentler strength inspired by China’s Song Dynasty (a style unique to himself, afterwards called Annami), was completely on board.
Scholarship seems unable to settle on whether it was 69 days or 71 days, so we’ll safely state that in about 70 astoundingly short days, with only 20 total sculptors, the Keiha carved two colossal Kongorikishi statues that still guard the Great South Gate (called the Nandaimon) to this day. Certainly, the incredible speed with which they carved these statues is due to the years they must have had in planning for this commission. I believe they must have built scaled-down partial wooden models prior to beginning the official project, in order to expedite the creation process. At nearly 28’ tall each (including the base), these statues are the result of a remarkable effort to maximize the architectural potential of the assembled woodblock approach. In conversation, yosegi zukuri (寄木造) fails to accurately define this nearly impossible undertaking, and I prefer to uniquely elevate the woodcarving techniques for producing these sculptures to daiyosegi zukuri (大寄木造 - “dai” (大) meaning great). These gargantuan Nio are presented as heavily muscled dancing wrestlers, menacingly warding off evil from entering the temple’s premises, a traditional image at temple gates which can be traced back to 5th century China.
The central core of each statue is comprised of several large-scale vertical beams of timber, joined with oversized metal staples. Various tenon joins affix shapes and other surface details which protrude over their respective centers of gravity. Arms, abdomens, draperies, facial details and other iconographic details for these statues all needed to be attached, resulting in upwards to 3,000 pieces of wood for each statue. Yosegi Zukuri historically implies completely hollowing out the statue from the inside, but such a technique would have forced figures of such scale to collapse from their own weight. An early 1990s conservation effort of these figures revealed that though there were hollow pockets peppered throughout the statues, the majority of what was on the inside was solid wood. Originally built without guy wires to stabilize their upright positioning, these figures were the largest freestanding wooden sculptures in the ancient world. In terms of a showdown during this, the Renaissance of carving Japanese Buddhist sculpture, we are the fortunate ones, for this “contest” could easily be determined a draw, with each powerful figure complimenting the other, as masterworks of Kongorikishi should.
At a ceremony upon completion of these statues, Unkei received the highest formal ranking a Buddhist sculptor could achieve, which is called Hoin. It was after these events that his fully mature realistic style came to fruition a few years later at the Kofukuji. Arguably one of Japan’s most important sculptors (if not its most famous sculptor), the works and accomplishments of this busshi are not to be understated. Aesthetics and standards he pioneered influenced the direction of Butsuzō production long after his time. Indeed, his reputation precedes him — though we have barely 30 still surviving confirmed works of his, early literature from the Meiji period (quite falsely) attributed that just about every sculpture from Japan was carved by the legendary & prolific master sculptor Unkei!
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018