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Well, this is certainly the stinkiest battle we’ve ever seen.

Currently making the rounds on various Western news sites, the He-gassen e-maki (Fart Battle picture scroll), is proving to be quite the hit nearly 200 years after its creation. And, while we’ve already told you how bad for your body it can be to hold in your gas, this picture scroll has an entirely different message.

(Caution: Some of these images, though not sexual in nature, may be unsafe for work as they contain uncovered genitalia.)

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The picture scroll was created sometime around the end of the Edo bakufu, the government that ruled Japan for nearly two-and-a-half hundred in relative peace following centuries of years of civil war, and it depicts…well, exactly what it sounds like! With members from every social class lining up and blasting their gas at each other–toppling enemies, cats, horses, and entire encampments–the e-maki is perhaps one of the funniest pieces of classical art we’ve seen!

The scroll

The scroll, which you can view in its entirety at the Waseda University Library website (we recommend the PDF version for easiest scrolling), starts with a relatively normal mid-eighteenth century scene of what appear to be farmers and middle-class men sitting around chatting. As we move along the page, we come across men traveling–including what looks like a nobleman chastising lower-class workers.

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Next, we have a scene of two groups of men looking somewhat disgruntled. It’s hard to say exactly what all of these scenes are meant to tell us—but what comes next is unmistakably some men cooking and eating followed by the first fart battle. With hats flying off, and their clothes either in disarray or completely gone, these men let it rip with all they’ve got. And from here on, the e-maki is nothing but scenes of utter chaos! Ah, war truly is hell, isn’t it?

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As we continue along the scroll, more and more people become involved, with men, women, and animals all embroiled in this vicious battle.

What does it all mean?

While many will look at this scroll and simply giggle—an entirely understandable reaction—there is actually more than just gas flying around here.

It seems that for people of the time, this scroll would have been immediately understood as a commentary on their contemporary society. Though Japan had been mostly closed off from the rest of the world for hundreds of years, this scroll is believed to be depicting the turmoil of the country as the bakufu fell apart. At the same time, it represents the xenophobia of the ruling class, which had (mostly) banned foreigners from entering the country.

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Then, of course, Commodore Perry’s “black ships” arrived and broke the country open. These events are believed to be metaphorically represented in the scroll as the breaking of a wall (in the picture above). Other sections depict a high-ranking nobleman and large encampment being cast down in disarray—possibly emblematic of civil unrest.

▼Click to see larger size.

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The reaction

Of course, even with this context, it’s impossible not to chuckle at these pictures. The unfortunate participants’ reactions are everything from pained as the cover their noses to laughing at the absurdity around them. One cannot help snickering at the very idea of a 19th century illustrator flinging his brush around, slapping his biting commentary across the page.

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Of course, to a modern Internet audience, we—Western and Eastern alike—cannot help seeing this as a purely raunchy comedy. In fact, it would hardly be surprising to discover these scenes reenacted in the next Jackass movie or on a late-night Japanese variety show. (Hint, hint!)

Some Internet users, enthralled with the scroll, have even made videos about it!

This one simply adds dramatic music as the camera pans through the entire scroll, adding an entirely absurd level of gravitas to the e-maki.

Another video, by Tofugu, uses the scroll in a hilarious spoofing of the History Channel TV show Ancient Aliens, mocking the show with the same satiric bite as the original e-maki.

The legacy

As amusing, bemusing, and confusing as this scroll may be, it’s not the only one!

While fart battle picture scroll aren’t exactly numerous, there have been a few examples throughout history. In fact, Toba Sojo, considered the great, great, great grandfather of manga, produced a fart battle scroll of his own, called Hohi gassen, literally “Breaking Wind Battle.” While the Heian-Period monk, who lived from 1053 to 1140, is most famous for his Choju Jinbutsu Giga (Animal-person Caricatures) scroll which depicted animals acting like people at night, his fart battle scroll is thought to be the first in Japanese history.

▼”I fart in your general direction!”

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There were others created around the end of the bakufu and the beginning of the Meiji era in the ukiyo-e style, though He-gassen remains the most famous.

Hmm, you know, this scroll might be perfect for the next film from anti-war, Studio Ghibli-director Hayao Miyazaki. The wind rises, indeed!

Images: Waseda University, Pun Pun Blog
[ Read in Japanese ]