IN TOUCH Arts Commission: Yoru no Torii

Allan Xia's motion comic Yoru no Torii recounts his visit to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine) in Kyoto, Japan, where a chance encounter with an old man revealed to him another side of the sacred site and tourist attraction. Yoru no Torii is the tenth and final of the Foundation's 2020 IN TOUCH Arts Commissions.

Yoru no Torii 《夜の鳥居》by Allan Xia is a motion-comic lianhuanhua exploring his memories visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

Can you describe the work you created - what's it about and what inspired it?

Yoru no Torii 《夜の鳥居》is a piece of visual storytelling recounting my personal experience visiting the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. Painted using traditional Shuǐmò/ Sumi-e ink wash techniques in the form of a 'lianhuanhua' comic, I hoped to explore my own artistic and cultural roots while experimenting with classic and modern aesthetics.

The inspiration for Yoru no Torii stemmed from my first visit to Japan in 2019. When I arrived in the renowned cultural capital Kyoto, like many others before me I made it my mission to visit as many temples and shrines as possible.

On the day, having already visited Tenryu-ji and Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji Temples, I arrived regretfully late at dusk to Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine), home of the famous vermilion Senbon Torii (thousand shrine gates). The sun soon set as I ascended the steps up the mountain, while other visitors were leaving in the opposite direction.

After reaching the inner shrines surrounded by many small altars and tsuka (mounds) for private worship, I had a chance encounter with an elderly Japanese man sweeping the shrines alone. When I greeted him, he pointed me towards an altar filled with small torii gates, flanked by fox guardian statues on each side. In the middle of the shrine silhouetted against the gates - sat a single black cat. As I stared in awe, the cat turned towards me and its gaze illuminated in the darkness, met my own. 

A still images of a man feeding cats from Allan's work Yoru no Torii

Allan: "Soon, more cats began to emerge from the darkness, approaching the old man as he kneeled and placed down plates of food."

Soon, more cats began to emerge from the darkness, approaching the old man as he kneeled and placed down plates of food. He must have often repeated the same pilgrimage up the mountain, to sweep the shrines, worship and feed the many stray cats who have made Fushimi Inari-taisha their home. 

Not wishing to disturb any further, I bid the old man farewell and made my way down the mountain, this time taking notice of many other cats hidden in the shadows, blending in perfectly with the silhouettes of fox guardian statues. 

Before I left Fushimi Inari Shrine, I purchased a Gashapon (capsule toy) from one of the machines on-site. It had become a habit for me to collect a piece of Gashapon as memorabilia of places visited during my trip. The beautiful experience came full circle as I opened up the capsule to discover a small figurine depicting a cat holding its hands in prayer. 

Ever since, I had hoped re-capture and express this emotional visit through a creative project and brewed the idea like a fine pot of matcha for the past two years. Eventually the story took form as Yoru no Torii. The title《夜の鳥居》,translates literally to 'Shrine Gate at Night'. It seemed fitting to name the work after the thousands of vermilion gates that guided me through the surreal and spiritual journey in Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Can you explain the lianhuanhua form of story telling and why you settled upon this medium to tell your story?

Lianhuanhua is a traditional form of sequential picture book storytelling in China pre-dating modern manhua (Chinese comics). I was actually introduced to sequential storytelling through lianhuanhua in my childhood, reading through many literary classics such as Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms in this format.

Lianhuanhua is traditionally presented as small pocket-sized picture books featuring sequential art of the same size illustrated in ink, often aesthetically inspired by classic ink painting techniques such as baimiao/ gongbi (fine line drawing) or Shuimo (ink wash).

It had been many years since I'd painted with traditional ink and I was excited to revisit the medium as a more mature artist while exploring lianhuanhua as a storytelling format and building upon my research into risograph print techniques. The process of creating Yoru no Torii combines both aspects of my Chinese cultural identity as well as the connection to Japanese culture.

To finalise the project I plan to publish Yoru no Torii as a risograph (lianhuanhua) zine in the near future.

Can you describe the motion-comic/ audio design process?

Aside from the visual memory, the soundscape of Fushimi Inari Shrine still resonates with me to this day. As I painted each image of Yoru no Torii, I could recall the ambient sounds of each moment vividly - flowing streams, leaves swaying in the evening summer breeze, croaking frogs and crying cicadas in the dark, and of course, meowing and purring from the cats I encountered.

An image of a frog painted in ink from Allan Xia's work Yoru no Torii

Allan: "As I painted each image of Yoru no Torii, I could recall the ambient sounds of each moment vividly "

Despite Yoru no Torii being mostly silent, I highlighted some onomatopoeia commonly featured in Japanese Manga and literary works such as "Kero Kero ケロケロ" (frog croaking) and "Mi-n Mi-n ミーンミーン" (cicada cry) to match the audible sound recordings.

Is this multi-disciplinary approach something you have been exploring for a while? Do you plan to keep making works in this style? 

Throughout my arts practice I have always taken a multidisciplinary approach to visual storytelling. As I paint and illustrate mostly digitally in recent years, it is very artistically stimulating to return to working traditionally. In particular Shuimo ink-wash style leaves very little room for error and I often find that I have to challenge myself to embrace the 'happy accidents'.

Allan's brushes and ink bowl

Allan's brushes, inkstone and inkstick

For Yoru no Torii, I dug out the old ink stick and brushes I used during childhood for calligraphy practice - it was very therapeutic to go through the ritual of grinding my own ink before painting each page. 

Creating Yoru no Torii  taught me a lot about adapting to the permanent nature of Shuimo ink art and balancing the composition for digital painting as part of the process rather than for efficiency or touch-ups.

Working in a Shuimo style was definitely challenging, but it also helped me paint more organically, working with implied detail - something that can easily be overlooked when working digitally in high resolutions with all the tools available to me to fix, undo and manipulate each aspect of the painting process.

I hope to create more zine projects in the future, whether in a lianhuanhua inspired format or comics with panel compositions, especially for risograph reproduction. I find the creative process of working analogue to digital and eventually back to  analogue physical media again very interesting and of course, I will also continue to explore adapting my illustrations and paintings into animation and interactive media.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the work?

During my visit to Japan, I felt surrounded by a sense of growing optimism - it was the first year of the new Reiwa Era and the then-upcoming Olympics games was just on the horizon.

I was creatively and culturally stimulated by the journey and looked forward to revisiting again in 2020. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic this was not to be, but Japan has remained on my mind and I wished to create a piece of storytelling that paid tribute and best wishes to Japan and it's people.

An image from Allan Xia's work Your no Torii of cats painted in ink

Allan: " It is not an epic tale, but it is my own authentic experience and genuine heartfelt tribute to Japan."

As I am primarily a visual storyteller, sharing the most vivid memory of my Japan journey through art made perfect sense. By distilling key moments into visual artworks, I hope viewers of Yoru no Torii will be find the experience engaging and resonating. 

Fushimi Inari Taisha is an iconic tourist destination, and there's no shortage of beautiful photography and video documentation out on the web. However, it is most commonly depicted during the day, with Yoru no Torii I tried to present a unique side to the shrine, people and animals who dwell on this beautiful mountain. It is not an epic tale, but it is my own authentic experience and genuine heartfelt tribute to Japan.


For more insights from Allan on this work and his connections to Asia, listen to his podcast episode in the Asia Media Centre's podcast series, 'Asia Insight':

About the Foundation's IN TOUCH Arts Commissions

Yoru no Torii is one of ten digital art works to be produced through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions. The commissions were offered to New Zealand arts practitioners who had previously participated in Foundation programmes to develop new works suitable for digital channels and which draw on the artist’s ongoing connections to Asia.