The Nose

Sketches for ‘The Nose’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

“The Nose” by Ryonusuke Akutagawa

“The Nose” was Akutagawa’s second short story, first published in January 1916. It is based on a thirteenth-century Japanese tale from the Uji Shūi Monogatari.

The Nose : text with my highlighting.

Wikipedia summarises the plot as follows: Zenchi Naigu, a Heian period Buddhist priest, is more concerned with diminishing his overly long, dangling nose than he is with studying and teaching the sūtras. He pretends to ignore his nose in fear it will be mentioned, and studies religious texts in a desperate attempt to find a person with a nose like his. When in private, he constantly checks his nose in a mirror, hoping for even the smallest amount of shrinkage.

One autumn, a disciple reveals he has learned a new technique to shrink noses from a friend, a Chinese doctor who has become a high-ranking priest at the Chōrakuji temple in Kyoto. At first, Naigu feigns disinterest, to appeal to the misconception that he is unconcerned with his nose, but eventually “gives in” to his disciple’s insisting. The disciple first boils the nose, then stomps on it, finally removing the beads of fat the treatment extracts from the nose. To Naigu’s satisfaction, the nose, once dangling past his chin, is now the size of a typical hooked nose.

Naigu, excited but nervous, sets about his weekly routines. He is surprised, however, to find the people he encounters laughing at him far more openly than they had before. Naigu becomes bitter and harsh, to the point where one disciple proclaims: “Naigu will be punished for treating us so harshly instead of teaching us Buddha’s Law”. People continue to laugh at Naigu for his vanity, until one day, Naigu wakes up, and to his relief and rejoicing, his nose has returned to its original length.

Wikipedia summarises the themes: “Akutagawa explores the themes of vanity and egoism in “The Nose”. Naigu’s vanity leads him to obsess only with his nose. This vanity eventually breeds disfigurement and a coldness from his peers, recognizing Naigu’s egotism taking precedence over his religious studies and teaching. Instead of his status as a renowned priest, Naigu views his nose as the source of how society will judge him. 

On first reading I found ‘the Nose’ amusing, and envisaged a Zen ink cartoon. However as I read and re-read the text I started to see more in it than this, as a darker story with parallels in our obsession with appearance and plastic surgery today. I think the issue is not at all just the vanity of Naigu, but the hypocrisy and pressures of society also to conform and look good, even for monks. These constant pressures lead to obsession. Although I had started to experiment with Zen styles and landscapes in Corel Painter, I found that my sketches and ink doodles were also becoming dark rather than amusing (see below).

I researched a bit more on Akutagawa:

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke?, 1 March 1892 – 24 July 1927) was a Japanese writer active in the Taishō period in Japan. He is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story” and Japan’s premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him. The final phase of Akutagawa’s literary career was marked by his deteriorating physical and mental health. He committed suicide at the age of 35 through an overdose of barbital.ūnosuke_Akutagawa 

This led me to change my approach – to start to follow the darkness of my sketches – and also consider the use of colour like Japanese woodcuts (Japanese woodcut prints) and imperial scrolls. I also wanted to use a non linear narrative style drawing on the work I had started to do on Chinese perspective in Assignment 1.

I also wanted the images to speak mostly for themselves with minimum text.