When you think of traditional Japanese art, you might think of a sumi-e ink painting that evokes a copse of bamboo with a few masterful lines. A haiku that captures the fragility of beauty in the length of a tweet. A garden that somehow conveys the transcendence of all things by elegantly framing the wind in the trees.
While the He-Gassen scroll from roughly the 1840s has little of the Zen-like restraint of the above examples, it definitely shows the wind in the trees. He-Gassen (屁合戦) literally translates into “fart battle” and it shows various men and women with their rears in the air, breaking hurricane-strength wind – blasts so powerful that they can launch cats into the air, blow through walls, knock over buildings and generally send victims reeling. The scroll is easily one of the most remarkable, and hilarious, pieces of art I’ve seen in a long while.
The whole thing might look like an extended sketch from Terreace and Phillip, those gassy Canadian TV stars from South Park, but some argue that He-Gassen might have a political dimension. During the Edo period (1603–1867), flatulence was used as a way to mock westerners. Japan was closed off from the outside world and they were feeling more and more pressure from the West until finally American gun boats led by Commodore Matthew Perry forced the country open in 1853. What better way to thwart these Western interlopers than with a cavalcade of industrial strength gas?
You can see a few choice pictures above, or head over to the Waseda University digital archive and see the whole thing. 38 images in total.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.