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Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts: From Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao

Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts: From Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao

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Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts: From Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao

375 pages
4 heures
Feb 2, 2016


The idea that Japanese art is produced through rote copy and imitation is an eighteenth-century colonial construction, with roots in Romantic ideals of originality. Offering a much-needed corrective to this critique, Michael Lucken demonstrates the distinct character of Japanese mimesis and its dynamic impact on global culture, showing through several twentieth-century masterpieces the generative and regenerative power of Japanese creativity. Choosing a representative work from each of four modern genrespainting, film, photography, and animationLucken portrays the range of strategies that Japanese artists use to re-present contemporary influences. He examines Kishida Ryusei’s portraits of Reiko (19141929), Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru (1952), Araki Nobuyoshi’s photographic novel Sentimental JourneyWinter (1991), and Miyazaki Hayao’s popular anime film Spirited Away (2001), revealing the sophisticated patterns of mimesis that are unique but not exclusive to modern Japanese art. In doing so, Lucken identifies the tensions that drive the Japanese imagination, which are much richer than a simple opposition between progress and tradition, and their reflection of human culture’s universal encounter with change. This global perspective explains why, despite its non-Western origins, Japanese art has earned such a vast following.
Feb 2, 2016

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Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts - Michael Lucken

Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts

Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture

A series of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Carol Gluck, Editor

Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II, by Yoshimi Yoshiaki, trans. Suzanne O’Brien

The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society, by Pierre François Souyri, trans. Kathe Roth

Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan, by Donald Keene

Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: The Story of a Woman, Sex, and Moral Values in Modern Japan, by William Johnston

Lhasa: Streets with Memories, by Robert Barnett

Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793–1841, by Donald Keene

The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan, ed. and trans. Rebecca L. Copeland and Melek Ortabasi

So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers, by Donald Keene

Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, by Michael K. Bourdaghs

The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki, by Donald Keene

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy

Who Commanded Her Own Army, by Phyllis Birnbaum

Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts

From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao

Michael Lucken

Translated by Francesca Simkin

Columbia University Press

New York

Columbia University Press wishes to express its appreciation for assistance given by the Suntory Foundation toward the cost of publishing this book.

Columbia University Press

Publishers Since 1893

New York    Chichester, West Sussex


Copyright © 2016 Columbia University Press

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lucken, Michael, author.

Imitation and creativity in Japanese arts from Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao / Michael Lucken ; Translated by Francesca Simkin.

pages cm.—(Asia perspectives : history, society, and culture)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-231-17292-9 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-231-54054-4 (e-book)

1. Creation (Literary, artistic, etc.)   2. Imitation in art.   3. Kishida, Ryusei, 1891–1929—Criticism and interpretation.   4. Kurosawa, Akira, 1910–1998—Criticismand interpretation.   5. Araki, Nobuyoshi, 1940– —Criticism and interpretation.   6. Miyazaki, Hayao, 1941– —Criticism and interpretation.   I. Title.

NX160.L83  2016



A Columbia University Press E-book.

CUP would be pleased to hear about your reading experience with this e-book at cup-ebook@columbia.edu.

COVER IMAGE: Sadamasa Motonaga, Untitled, 1959. Oil on panel, 35-7/8 × 28-3/4 inches (91 × 73 cm). (© The Estate of Sadamasa Motonaga; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey, New York/St. Barth)

COVER DESIGN: Milenda Nan Ok Lee

References to websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author nor Columbia University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.



Part I. A Historical Construction

1. Copycat Japan

2. The West and the Invention of Creation

3. The Denial, Rejection, and Sublimation of Imitation

4. No Poaching

5. Seen from Japan

6. The Logic of Reflection in Nakai Masakazu

Part II. A New Place for Imitation

7. Kishida Ryūsei’s Portraits of Reiko, or, How Can Ghosts Be at Work?

8. Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru, or, the Impossibility of Metaphor

9. Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey—Winter, or, Eternal Bones

10. Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away, or, the Adventure of the Obliques



Select Bibliography



In Kitano Takeshi’s film Achilles and the Tortoise, a Japanese painter successively attempts to reproduce a number of twentieth-century art styles, from Cubism via Abstract Expressionism to body art.¹ Although he starts off with an undeniable gift for drawing, his talent gets progressively lost as he immerses himself in imitating Western art movements that he only superficially understands; his life then gets mired in a yo-yo of burlesque failures and family crises.

Japan is often described as a nation of imitators and has—albeit with a measure of irony—assimilated this externally imposed image. And yet Japan’s is perhaps the only culture without Western roots that can boast a global reach; so often criticized for its proclivity for imitation, it has, paradoxically, become a model itself, and its artists are famous well beyond the archipelago’s borders. The history of this reversal reveals a great deal about modernity’s values, the way culture works, and the creative process.

In contrast to the common perception, the relationship between copy and original, or among copies themselves, is rather complex. Mimesis, imitation, and the copy are fundamental components of human culture that, along with the notions of creation, invention, and originality, form a set that is in practice hard to divide. Anthropologists are familiar with this logic, as are specialists in classical art. Man, maker of tools, cannot begin from nothing, said Marcel Jousse. We cannot apply to ourselves the Judeo-Christian concept of creation ex nihilo. We are, in reality, mere reenactors.² But in the modern world, imitation and creation have nonetheless been prized apart; the former has gained a largely negative connotation while the latter is put forward as humanity’s highest ideal: artistic creation, value creation, job creation, and so on. This is particularly apparent in the evolution of intellectual property laws, whose increasing need for frequent alteration raises important questions.

For historical and cultural reasons that will be discussed later, modern and contemporary Japanese art is less likely to hide its debt to imitation than its Western counterpart. In order to show the reluctance of twentieth-century Japanese art to polarize imitation and creation—in other words, to show its plasticity—I explore in this book two separate avenues. In the first, I use a selection of essays, novels, and travelogues dating from the seventeenth century to the present to examine the history of the stereotype of the Japanese as habitual imitators—and the consequences that this kind of representation has had on the way they positioned themselves vis-à-vis the West and the world. For it is important to note that Japan has not only tried to oppose the European discourse on imitation in a number of ways—including by explicit rejection, revival of traditional know-how, and the invocation of national spirit—but also assimilated and recycled this discourse, notably in relation to China.

We cannot, however, simply make note of Japan’s assimilation of modern Western logic as if the value of creation were self-evident. Such a starting point could lead only to the conclusion—consistently reached in the early twentieth century—that the Japanese acculturation process was based on mere imitation, or to the parallel idea that behind this mimetic endeavor actually lies a much more creative dynamic, as maintained for example by D. Eleanor Westney, Sheridan Tatsuno, and Alain Peyrefitte in the 1980s and 1990s.³ At best, as for instance in Bert Winther-Tamaki’s Maximum Embodiment, the assimilation process can be explained on this basis: Japanese artists embodied in their art, sometimes painfully, a search for novelty and self-assertion.⁴ But even if this approach represents the expression of a new and welcome empathy toward them, it leaves untouched the conceptual background of the relations between East and West. The Japanese reaction has to be looked at from the perspective of a critical analysis of both the aesthetic and the political stakes of the rejection of imitation in Europe and the United States at a time that corresponds precisely to the rise and development of modern colonialism. In other words, the purpose here is neither to analyze the Japanese as scientific objects nor to discover among them such-and-such a creative skill—since that goal implies a notion of science and innovation that a priori forbids an in-depth examination of the subject—but to relativize and compare, through a historical approach, the dominant values of the modern era in Japan and the West.

Thinking of Japanese culture as an entity divided between tradition and modernity, between a propensity to reproduce old models and a capacity to open new paths, however much a commonplace, is not yet completely outdated. There is a conceptual issue here that needs to be addressed. I contend that although contemporary Japanese artists have largely rejected explicitly mimetic devices and instead adopted the idea that they must do what has never been done before,⁵ they have never espoused a purely subjective attitude to creativity. This manifests itself through a taste for anything in physical matter that cannot be sublimated—that is, for its residual component. This observation, which I made a number of years ago in L’art du Japon au vingtième siècle (2001), brings me to consider now that modern Japanese art depends on a heuristic that fits into neither the classical scheme of imitation → individuation → creation, where creation is the result of the self’s maturation process through a prolonged contact with its models, nor into the modern agenda of rejecting imitation → creation → individuation, where it is only after breaking from his models that the artist can expect to find his way. In order to highlight the characteristics of the modern Japanese approach, I have focused on a selection of seminally important works: the series of portraits of Reiko (1914–1929) by painter Kishida Ryūsei; the film Ikiru (1952) by Kurosawa Akira; the photographic novel Sentimental JourneyWinter (1991) by Araki Nobuyoshi; and, finally, the renowned anime Spirited Away (2001) by Miyazaki Hayao.

The use of masterpieces in a critique of creative genius may seem paradoxical, but it is not. A work’s distinctiveness and prominence do not necessarily reflect an idealization of its author’s uniqueness; they are first of all the result of a basic cognitive process,⁶ which is why in all cultures there are works that are considered more significant, valuable, and effective than others. But most of all, the very notion of the masterpiece allows the value judgment to be applied to the object, thus following the logic of the thing rather than of the subject.

Kishida Ryūsei is a major modern Japanese painter who pioneered Fauvism in his country and later shifted his attention to European Renaissance painting. The series of portraits of his daughter Reiko, which depicts the complete development of a child from the age of three to fifteen, constitutes a remarkable attempt to explore the possibilities offered by realism at a time marked by the rapid turnover of avant-garde movements. In Kishida Ryūsei’s works, it appears that the move to the real took the shape of the ghostly, which is a recurrent phenomenon in twentieth-century Japanese art that he arguably initiated.

Ikiru (literally, live) is one of Kurosawa’s most striking creations. This film, which follows the last months of a man who has no hope of surviving his recently diagnosed cancer, brings to the foreground the question of traces, at both the thematic level (what is left from a human life?) and the aesthetic level (is an image anything other than a shadow?). Although Kurosawa possesses a consistent talent for dramatic display, the importance he gives to traces in this particular film seems like a reaction to the idea that man can overcome his fate through his own effort (labor, art . . .). The exploration of traces and shadows is another characteristic trend of Japanese modern aesthetics.

Araki Nobuyoshi is famous abroad for the part of his oeuvre dealing with the gaze, sex, and desire. But Sentimental JourneyWinter does not belong to this category. This picture album, which follows the deterioration and death of his wife, Yōko, is stretched between two poles: on the one hand, the chronological movement of the huge artistic project he launched in 1971 with the first version of Sentimental Journey, in which Winter fits perfectly; on the other, a statement that says there is always something in reality that resists historical or fictional projection. That Araki chose to challenge the conceptual framework of his art project with a sentimental attachment to residuum—here, the bones, a primordial materiality—constitutes the third pattern that Japanese modern art developed in order to reduce the Romantic polarization between imitation and creation.

Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away is structured around the opposition of two planes: the vertical realm of the Bathhouse, which refers to an artificial, violent, and anxious modernity, and the horizontal realm of the train scene, reflecting a period of calm and serenity. It is only after this two-step sequence that there is a possibility of restoring true relations between beings who, as a result, will manage to get free from their shackles. The discovery of the social link value (or en, in Japanese) is the fourth signature dimension of twentieth-century Japanese art.

These four works of art, which collectively constitute a kind of system, were the starting point for this book. They set a thought process in motion, kindled a desire to describe them, and prompted critical comparisons. They generated a momentum that I have sought to maintain and not quell. This is why I will not at present delve further into the theoretical relationship between them—the theoretical level must emerge as the works are discovered and not be defined until the end of the process. As Homi Bhabha astutely points out,

Montesquieu’s Turkish Despot, Barthes’s Japan, Kristeva’s China, Derrida’s Nambikwara Indians, Lyotard’s Cashinahua pagans are part of this strategy of containment where the Other text is forever the exegetical horizon of difference, never the active agent of articulation. The Other is cited, quoted, framed, illuminated, encased in the shot / reverse-shot strategy of a serial enlightenment. Narrative and the cultural politics of difference become the closed circle of interpretation. The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse.

The best way to escape this phenomenon is probably not to implement an alternative theory in the sense in which postcolonialism is often understood. Any attempt to theorize in advance only reinforces the logic of domination, whether this be social at the national level or cultural at the international level. The unveiling of the Other’s meaning can be perfected only using a performative method. It implies working in situ and is embodied in the new works that result from it.

The point here is obviously not to return to the naive idea that works of art speak for themselves, expressing a univocal and constant message; the meaning of works emanates from complex and fluid fields of force. The idea is to allow the otherness embodied by these works to avoid being instantly looked down on or subjected to the logic of appropriation, and instead to provide a space where, in a mediated form, they continue to affect and pollinate what lies around them—in other words, continue to live. Theoretical ambition must give way to humble description, to a relationship based on contact.

The four works in some sense cover the twentieth century. Each has its unique traits and its own forces, but there are still links between them. The first link is the historical sequence they represent, which in turn allows this book to be read as an aesthetic history of modern Japan. But there are also internal and hidden links that were at first difficult to pinpoint and articulate but that ultimately made me realize that, despite the diversity of genres and contexts, I was dealing with a coherent group, woven through with similar sensitivities and issues.

Part I

A Historical Construction


Copycat Japan

There is a substantial body of work in English, French, and German that depicts Japanese culture as one based on copying. Such portrayals can be found in everything from eighteenth-century texts to contemporary newspapers and magazines, in works about Asia in particular or in articles on ethnology in general. Japan’s strength is its proclivity for compilation, or as others would have it, its ‘spirit of imitation,’ observed André Leroi-Gourhan.¹ Using the word Japan or Japanese in a passage stigmatizing a lack of imagination when it comes to action, or a lack of initiative when it comes to behavior, has virtually taken on the status of metaphor. In Les lois de l’imitation (The laws of imitation), Gabriel Tarde describes sociable people as having the Chinese or Japanese capacity to mold themselves very quickly to their surroundings.² Japanese, then, just as one might say copycat or chameleon. And yet it is not so much Japanese culture that seems wedded to imitation and repetition as Western discourse about Japan. Michaël Ferrier bewails French writing on Japan, noting that it often consists of nothing more than old stereotypes compounded by new ones—ignorance and platitudes—and a relentless recycling of outdated theories and ideas, endlessly rehashed and repeated.³

Going back in history, one notes that neither the letters of Francis Xavier’s companions, which are some of the first European eyewitness accounts of Japan, nor the descriptions provided by François Caron, who lived in Hirado and then Nagasaki from 1619 to 1641, report any such tendency.⁴ Nor do Jean Crasset’s Histoire de l’église du Japon (History of the Japanese church, 1689)⁵ or Engelbert Kaempfer’s seminal study Histoire naturelle, civile et ecclésiastique de l’empire du Japon (Natural, civil, and ecclesiastical history of the Japanese empire, 1727). The latter work certainly mentions the importance of Japan’s debts to China on more than one occasion, but always in a purely factual light. Kaempfer thus posits that it is [to the Chinese] that the Japanese owe their polish and civilization⁶ and explains that Buddhism and Confucianism came to Japan from the Chinese mainland.⁷ His only comment guilty of generalizing on this topic regards the city of Kyoto, about which he notes that there is nothing that a foreigner can bring, that some artist or other inhabitant of this city will not undertake to imitate.⁸ But in its context the comment has no negative connotations—the learned German is only attempting to showcase the vigor of industry and richness of trade in the capital of the empire. He paints a laudatory portrait of the diversity of Japanese arts, underlining their imagination and unusual character.⁹ More generally, he confidently credits China and Japan with having invented early on the most useful of arts and sciences.¹⁰ It therefore seems clear that, before 1700, the cliché of the Japanese as slavish imitators had not yet taken root.

During the course of the eighteenth century, however, the emphasis on manual dexterity and intellectual tenacity got suddenly transformed into a criticism—even though this was a period when, Japan being closed to virtually all foreigners, it was difficult for Europeans to learn anything new about it. In Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de la décadence du christianisme dans l’empire du Japon (History of the establishment, progress, and decadence of Christianity in the Japanese empire, 1715), we therefore read that the Japanese, who have always acknowledged themselves to be [China’s] disciples, have in virtually no area the power of invention, but everything they produce is polished.¹¹ The basic idea remains the same, but the angle has changed. Whereas Kaempfer was showcasing the intelligence of the Japanese and their capacity for reason, this author, Pierre de Charlevoix, reduces Japanese ingenuity to mere technical competence, an opinion that was to resurface in almost exactly the same terms in Histoire générale des voyages (General history of travel, 1752): Although the Japanese have invented almost nothing, when they put their hand to something, they make it perfect.¹² This sentence was to witness considerable success, since it is reproduced exactly not only in J.-F. La Harpe’s Abrégé de l’histoire générale des voyages (Concise general history of travel, 1786), which was a great publishing success, but also under the entry for Japanese in Abbé Migne’s Dictionnaire d’ethnographie moderne (Dictionary of modern ethnography, 1853).¹³

Charlevoix’s work thus seems at the root of the stereotype, but what we are dealing with here is a much broader phenomenon than the specific case of either Charlevoix or Japan. Of real importance is that, on the one hand, this comment got repeated and amplified throughout the course of the eighteenth century and, on the other, it can be found, expressed in virtually identical terms, in connection with most other peoples. The introduction to the General History of Travel thus tells us that the Arabs did not have minds geared toward invention. They added almost nothing to the knowledge they got from the Greeks,¹⁴ and in a slightly later work we are informed that the Russian people are natural imitators. They imitate well and seem inclined toward everything. I know of no nation that is comparable in that respect.¹⁵ Even the Americans were for a long time the target of acerbic comments on their inability to invent.¹⁶ Thus there is no evidence that Japan is being singled out. Discourse on the imitative nature of the Japanese is merely a reflection of Europe’s awareness of its own military and technological superiority, a fact that frequently found expression during the eighteenth century.¹⁷ It also suggests the relinquishment of the evangelical project, since imitation—primarily of Jesus—was something the missionaries sought to encourage; whereas in the sixteenth century, Francis Xavier’s companions rejoiced that the Japanese were soft and gentle and that their spirit was very ready to receive the Gospel,¹⁸ some of James Cook’s contemporaries felt only irritation and disdain, a feeling exacerbated by the related emergence of two typically orientalist themes: denial of a Japanese capacity to be individuals in their own right and a critique of the despotism of the Japanese princes, for whom to reign meant taunting, persecuting, and murdering millions of men, only to then meet the same fate themselves.¹⁹

The French Revolution and the success of Romanticism gradually quashed the advocates of classical imitation. So when Japan was brought to open its borders in 1854, no one apart from a few Christian missionaries was still suggesting that mimeticism was a good thing, and the stereotype of the Japanese as servile imitators had free rein to develop. All forms of borrowing were taken to be synonymous with degeneration and seen as inherently contemptible. Jules Michelet, writing in Le peuple (The people) in 1846, neatly captures the short shrift given to imitation and its practitioners: You poor imitators, do you really believe in imitation? You take from a neighboring people something that thrives there and appropriate it as best you can despite its reluctance to be adapted—but it is a foreign body that you are trying to render into flesh, it is something dead and inert; you are merely adopting death.²⁰ Given such a view, there was no chance of crediting the efforts of nations trying to use learning and study to narrow the scientific and technological gap separating them from Western countries. The reports of the first diplomatic missions thus mockingly portrayed Japan as sniffing out and hastily copying everything that related to foreign countries.²¹ In an issue of Le correspondant of 1864, an editor describes the wonderful aptitude of its people to imitate what it sees:

According to travelers, who can illustrate it with countless instances, the faculty of imitation is carried to excess in the Japanese. Thus, for example, when foreign consuls arrived with their retinues, they bought horses and harnessed them in the European style. Just a few months later, all the natives in their service used only such harnesses instead of the ancient straw stirrups common to the country. Soon thereafter the saddler refused to take on work, saying all his time was occupied making English-style saddles for the Japanese aristocracy. These saddles were examined; they had been made exactly as they would have been by the best workers of Paris or London. And such it was with everything that was trusted to the ingenious minds and skilled hands of the Japanese.²²

The stories taken from tourist accounts are similar, as we can see in Pierre Loti, who, with his usual outrageousness, writes in L’exilée, All this servile imitation, admittedly amusing for passing foreigners, betrays in this people a fundamental absence of taste and even an absolute lack of national pride; no European race would accept to toss aside, from one day to the next, all its traditions, customs, and dress.²³ The image depicted by writers of the latter half of the nineteenth century constitutes a hyperbolic variation on that of the eighteenth. Japan is no longer just dependent on China—it imitates all and sundry. From this period onward, there is no longer just one stereotype but a whole host of stereotypes unfolding around this theme.

The mimetic disposition of the Japanese is not merely commented on but explicitly mocked, with mockery and ridicule basically dressing a feeling of superiority in humor. We mock what we dominate physically or symbolically and, by extension, flatter our own ego. Criticism of Japanese imitation thus belongs very clearly in a power struggle. Of course, not all Western writers gave way to caricature. Félicien Challaye, Sergei Eliseev, and Émile Hovelaque, in France, and William E. Griffis and Sidney Gulick, in the United States, all lent subtlety to, not to say refuted, the idea that Japanese culture revolved around imitation of external models. Hovelaque, for example, notes that Japanese art is never a simple representation of reality but rather the result of the forces that create it.²⁴ Most of the time, however, such statements are defensive, consisting of attempts by experts to counter the dominant vision prevailing most conspicuously in novels and the general press.

When it is not mocked, Japanese imitation is presented as a threat, especially in texts on military and economic topics. When, between 1895 and 1905, assertions of Japanese power and the rebellions in China called the colonial order into question, Europe got scared, worrying that the Asians would manage to turn the weapons it had given them against it. The yellow peril was an upset of international order, because the student had overtaken the master.²⁵ Meanwhile, manufacturers constantly complained that the Japanese were insuppressible counterfeiters, whether this was in the realm of textiles, photography, equipment, or automobiles.²⁶ This prodigious faculty of imitation constitutes, at least for the time being, a serious danger for some of our industries, wrote a French engineer in 1898, adding, The Japanese are instinctively counterfeiters, and their patent legislation, far from trying to suppress this tendency, does everything to promote it.²⁷ The Western attitude toward Japan was thus disdainful in principle, but downright piqued and offended when its interests were at stake.

The two moral weapons used alternately by imitation’s critics were contempt and a claim to exclusivity. There are even cases where the two ideas combined, as witnessed by the many American propaganda images during World War II in which the Japanese are represented as threatening gorillas or chimpanzees.²⁸ They are ridiculous, because they are only apes, but they are dangerous, because they are beasts. In truth, it is their dangerousness that, from the end of the nineteenth century onward, sets Japanese imitators apart in the Western imagination, while other nations, most of which were occupied or conquered, had been led to obedience by colonial powers. The annoyance caused by the Japanese capacity to appropriate Western models was proportional to their capacity to remain independent. In other words, it is paradoxically because they were autonomous that they were particularly reviled as imitators.

This last point serves as a reminder of the political and ideological nature of

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