From Ukiyo-e to The Hobbit: Some Thoughts on Terashima’s Riddle-game.

Did a Japanese illustrator bring the motif of the shōji to the pages of Tolkien’s novel?

Of the seventy-seven black and white illustrations by Ryûichi Terashima contained within the two volume 1997 edition of Teiji Seta’s 1965 Japanese translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (ホビットの冒険 ‘Hobitto no Bōken’), fifty-eight appear to follow a relatively straightforward approach to narrative depiction.¹

Katsushika Hokusai, ‘Upside Down’ (detail), 1834–5, woodblock print, from ‘100 Views of Mt Fuji Vol 3’. The play of light and shade upon a shōji screen was a recurrent motif in the Japanese art of ukiyo-e. In this image, the shadow of Mt Fuji is projected upside down on the screen, much to the delight of the onlookers.

They portray clearly identifiable scenes and characters from the story, with many of the illustrations containing elements visually borrowed from earlier works. For example, there is image 45 of 77, in which Terashima presents four wet and bedraggled dwarves emerging from their barrels beside a carefully drawn Lake-town that is obviously inspired by Tolkien’s 1937 illustration of the same name.² Or image 14, which shows Gandalf, Thorin and company negotiating a storm-wracked mountain pass that mirrors (literally) Pauline Baynes’ cover illustration for the 1961 Puffin paperback edition of The Hobbit

Aside from these ‘standard’ images, there are a further eighteen illustrations which address the narrative from a different perspective. In these images, Terashima has chosen to depict single objects or elements from the story rather than scenes or characters. So, we might be presented with a bunch of keys, a trumpet or a collection of bannered spears. Compositionally, these smaller illustrations allow for variations in page design, and the ambiguity of their subject matter also complicates their reading. As a result, meaning becomes less fixed and the illustrations open to multiple interpretations.

Take image 22, for example, which depicts a simple pine cone. If we are in the habit of reviewing all possible meanings, then on a basic semiotic level this may be perceived as an iconic sign, i.e. it is a picture of a pine cone which represents the notion of a pine cone. Additionally, this pine cone may also be indexical of the manifestation somewhere (presumably within the mind of Terashima in 1965, and, now, the mind of the viewer) of an image of a pine tree.⁴ Of course, such interpretations are rarely dwelt upon, and for a reader of Tolkien’s story, or Seta’s translation, it is far more likely that this pine cone denotes the coniferous woodland covering the mountain slopes beneath the goblin’s lower gate where Gandalf, Thorin and company encounter a pack of hungry Wargs. Or else a potential wolf-killing missile, ready to be ignited by Gandalf and hurled down from his treetop hiding place.⁵

In image 27, Terashima gives us a beautifully observed picture of a honeybee suspended in mid-flight, its legs heavily laden with pollen — equally convincing as either a naturalistic depiction of a primary world insect, or a ‘fiery gold’ banded drone traversing one of Beorn’s ‘bee-pastures’.⁵ Then there is the bow featured in image 59. Could this be the very weapon (complete with Black Arrow) that will be used to kill Smaug, or is it, in fact, a visual signifier for Bard the Bowman? Both interpretations are valid, and the placement of the illustration within the passage of the text describing Smaug’s attack on Esgaroth — where Bard’s introduction and the dragon’s death follow in close succession— neatly reinforces this ambiguity.

There is one further illustration which differs from all others in the corpus. Image 19 is unusual in so much as it depicts not a concrete character or object existing within the secondary world of The Hobbit, but rather an abstract concept from that secondary world encapsulated in an illustration of a primary world object. The object depicted is rectangular in shape, composed of a narrow frame enclosing eight square panels (arranged two across and four down) each of which contains a small illustration. At first glance the design appears to resemble an elaborate window or picture frame. Closer inspection, however, reveals a closer correlation to a Japanese shōji screen, with the frame having been drawn to look like carved wood and the eight squares resembling washi paper panels with images painted or silhouetted upon them.

Utagawa Yoshifuji, ‘Pasting Paper on Shoji Screens’, from Moral Teaching for Little Girls Mirrored in the Poems by the Thirty Six Immortals by Onakami Yorimoto Ason, circa 1835–1839, woodblock print, Kumon Insitute of Education.

So, what might be the significance of such a design? If we begin by identifying the subject matter of the illustration; even for those unacquainted with the Japanese language, the placement of the shōji screen immediately after a picture of Bilbo conversing with an amphibian-like Gollum, and right before a picture of him fleeing from Gollum in terror, indicates that it pertains to the passage of text describing the riddle-game. The washi panels confirm this, with each of the eight small illustrations symbolising a different riddle. In Seta’s translation, and Terashima’s illustration, the sequence and subject of the riddles correspond directly with Tolkien’s original. Therefore, reading the shōji from right to left, top to bottom in the traditional tategaki manner, the illustrations depict (with key ‘riddle’ words italicised) 1) a mountain looming over trees 2) an open mouth displaying teeth 3) a maple leaf blowing in the wind 4) the sun shining on a daisy 5) a completely dark panel 6) a cross-section of an egg 7) a fish in the sea 8) a fish on a table, a man sat at the table on a stool and a cat eating bones from the floor.

Of course, Bilbo and Gollum’s riddle-game features nine riddles in total (excluding the hobbit’s somewhat desperate, transgressive “What have I got in my pocket?”), with the final one being Gollum’s ‘hard and horrible’ riddle about time. Seta includes all nine in his translation, but Terashima omits the time riddle from his shōji. Why he might have done this is a matter for conjecture, although it is possible he may have deemed ‘time’ too abstract a concept to depict in a small washi panel illustration. From a purely aesthetic level, nine panels would also necessitate a change of format; to preserve the pleasing symmetry of his shoji, Terashima would have to switch from his present design of two panels across and four down, to two panels across and five down (which would include one redundant blank panel), or, even less satisfactory compositionally, three panels across and three down.

Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘Hawk’ kag-e (‘shadow picture’), circa 1842, woodblock print. A popular game during the Edo period, the kag-e consists of two images shown one after the other. First comes the shōji ‘shadow’ image, bearing the shape of a recognisable object. Second comes the ‘real’ image, revealing the often startling true identity of the shadow.

Traditionally, a Japanese shōji could have many functions; it could be a sliding screen, a room divider, or even a barrier to shield a sleeping child. Perhaps the riddle-game could also be said to possess a screening or shielding aspect? As Bilbo himself knows, the game is of an “immense antiquity”, with a “sacred” authority capable of binding even “wicked” players like Gollum into a pact of non-violence.⁷ Upon commencement of the riddles, and for the duration of their telling, an invisible barrier can be said to exist between the two players; a conceptual plane onto which — as a temporary substitute for real violence— the metaphysical combat of their riddles may be projected.⁸

Another notable feature of the Japanese shōji is its potential (depending on the design of the washi panels), to manipulate levels of light and shade within a room.⁹ As a motif, this light-altering property has considerable precedent in ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’), where the shōji would often be depicted as a surface upon which telling shadows can be projected. Utagawa Kinuyoshi’s 19th century woodblock print of the kitsune character Kuzunoha regarding her sleeping son Semei (below) is a good example of this practice. According to folklore, Kuzunoha had taken human form in order to marry and have a child, but in Kuzunoha’s image, the shape of her shadow upon the shōji reveals her true identity as the White Fox of Shinoda.¹⁰

Utagawa Kinuyoshi, Image of Kuzunoha and her son Semei, circa 1843–5, woodblock print.

A number of other great ukiyo-e artists, including Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Hiroshige embraced the mysterious properties of the shōji and the washi panel. Taking into account this rich tradition, Terashima’s incorporation of the motif into his work may be a deft way of translating the shielding and projecting aspects of Tolkien’s riddle-game into a visual form which has resonance for the Japanese viewer.


¹ Teiji Seta, trans., Hobitto no Bōken, (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1997).

² Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 189.

³ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (London: Puffin Books, 1961).

⁴ Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” The Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (1991): 189–191.

⁵ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (London: HarperCollins, 2008), 124–132.

⁶ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 149–150.

⁷ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 101.

⁸ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 93–103.

⁹ E. Beita and A. Fujii, “Harmonisation between Architecture and Nature through Traditional Japanese Screens,” International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics 8, no. 1 (2013), 29–40.

¹⁰ Kiyoshi Nozaki, Kitsune — Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour (Tokyo: The Hokuseidô Press, 1961), 110–111.