Kitami Ken’ichi’s “Paradise”: The Daitokuji Temple Shinjuan Sliding Door Painting Project Artists

The austere halls of a Buddhist temple like Shinjuan, part of the Daitokuji Temple complex in Kyoto, seem likely to be home to equally simple ink paintings. But today the manga artist Kitami Ken’ichi, best known for Tsuribaka nisshi (Fishing Fool’s Diary), is bringing his playful, colorful touch and thoroughly modern characters—including many from his own life—to the fusuma doors now undergoing redecoration. The fifth in our series on the restoration of the temple’s art.

Manga Meant to Make Us Laugh

“We’re having steamed meat buns for dinner tonight, right?”

On those days when Kitami Ken’ichi visits Shinjuan, the students in residence at the temple are excited for most of the day. He’s one of the greats of the manga business, known for drawing Tsuribaka nisshi (Fishing Fool’s Diary) for what will be 40 years in 2019. Despite his standing, though, he treats us students kindly, not acting like a big deal. He brings us those delicious nikuman buns every time.

Kitami is an old friend of Yamada Sōshō, the head priest of Shinjuan. When the superior instigated this fusuma painting project, he spoke with Kitami before anyone else. At 77, Kitami is the oldest of the six artists working on the project, and despite his three ongoing manga serials, including Tsuribaka nisshi, keeping him busy, he makes time in his tight schedule to make repeated visits to Shinjuan. Here he is creating “Paradise,” an epic of a mural spanning 16 sliding door screens on the eastern, northern, and western faces of a room in the center of the Hōjō main hall.

The fusuma illustrations on the northern side of the Hōjō hall.

Kitami has been fond of Yoron, an island off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture, since first visiting it while in college some 50 years ago. After many subsequent visits, he even had a cottage built there. He tells us that “Paradise” is based on the parties that are thrown whenever he visits Yoron. Among the almost 400 characters in the painting, one can see Hama-chan and Sū-san, the principals of Tsuribaka nisshi, as well as the late Akatsuka Fujio, Kitami’s mentor, who died in 2008, and even the Shinjuan superior himself, belting out a karaoke number into a microphone on a makeshift stage. The island’s residents are pouring drinks for each other, talking, and dancing. Everyone in Kitami’s image has a joyous smile on their face.

“Manga was always meant to make people laugh,” says Kitami as he looks at “Paradise.”

Kitami’s smile never falters.

A Paradise Full of Remembrances

On the fusuma nearest to the entrance on the eastern side of the room is a figure of a woman, drawn in a higher position than anyone else. This is Kitami’s wife, his companion of many years, now deceased.

“She holds the same place in my life as the Buddha,” Kitami says. “But if she were to see this, she’d likely complain that I should draw her looking prettier than this,” he adds with a wry grin.

The fusuma paintings on the eastern side of the hall.

Kitami’s late wife appears at a door, drawn in a higher place than any other character.

A banyan tree fills the rightmost fusuma on the central section. With its trunks splitting and intertwining as they extend ever higher, the tree represents recollections of the people the artist has met and who has supported him throughout his lives. “No one can live alone,” Kitami says with feeling.

Kitami reminisces as he looks at his paintings, the banyan tree at his back.

An Inclusive Banquet in Paradise

In “Paradise,” the living, the dead, and fictional characters from manga all get together and have a party. In life, things don’t always work out for the best, including the deaths of loved ones. Here, however, friends drink together, pour out their hearts, sing, and dance, which frees them from grief and strife and puts smiles on their faces.

A setting sun can be seen dropping toward the horizon in the central fusuma of the painting’s center section. Someone stands quietly before the sight, apart from the festivities. It must be the superior. What can he be praying for? Whatever the case, the party isn’t likely to end for a while yet.

The festivities depicted in these fusuma paintings will go on for centuries yet.

“Paradise” will have a special showing in its as-yet incomplete state. In order to raise funds for the restoration of the precious Shinjuan fusuma paintings of Soga Jasoku (d. 1483) and Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610), a crowdfunding campaign is underway, in addition to admission being charged for a special showing of the works of Kitami and his fellow participating artists. In a reference to “Ikkyū-san,” persons donating ¥1.93 million (a number whose ichi-kyū-san pronunciation calls to mind the name of the famed monk associated with the temple) will be granted permission to attend this special showing of the still-incomplete “Paradise.”

An outrageous amount, to be sure, but when considered as a means of enticing people to visit Shinjuan centuries after its original artists died to see an all-new “Paradise,” it might well be just the sort of extravagance that the famously clever Ikkyū-san would appreciate.

Kitami smiles as he points out the rendering of himself watching over his friends from on high.

Related > New Art in an Old Setting: The Shinjuan Painting Project at Daitokuji, Kyoto

Daitokuji Shinjuan Special Viewing
  • Dates: September 1 to December 16, 2018 (closed October 19–21)
  • Hours: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm (last entry)
  • Fee: Adults ¥1,200, junior high and high school students ¥600, ages 12 and under free (when accompanied by an adult). Note: preschool age children will not be admitted to the Tsūsen’in study or the Teigyokuken tea ceremony room.
  • Access: from Kyoto station, take the Kyoto municipal subway Karasuma line to Kitaōji. Transfer there to Kyoto city bus routes 1, 101, 102, 204, 205 or 206 and get off at Daitokuji-mae. From there, 7 minutes on foot (total travel time about 35 minutes).
  • Daitokuji Shinjuan special viewing website
  • Crowdfunding website for Kyoto Shinjuan (Japanese language only)

(Originally published in Japanese. Photos by Kuroiwa Masakazu. Banner photo: The artist seated before his “Paradise” fusuma painting.)

Kyoto tourism temple shrine