A Short Film - Woodblock Carving & Printing Japanese Netsuke

Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robe

This recent short film (2m16s) shows the (speeded up) process of preparing, carving and printing a woodblock of the netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk’s Robe’.

Music by Red Deer Sleeping

'Falling Through the Sunlight' from original poem 'September 1918' by Amy Lowell

Thanks to Kate Newnham at Bristol Museum for the time and space to draw Japanese netsuke.

Netsuke - Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes

In November last year I made another trip to Bristol Museum to draw netsuke. Kate brought me down to the basement of the museum, unlocking a door to a small room. She opened a cupboard on one side and pulled out a drawer filled with netsuke. I picked a dog, a snail and a fox, headed back upstairs and made some sketches.

Three Views of Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk’s Robes

"Netsuke, ivory, Japanese fox or Tanuki kneeling up, wrapped in monk's robe - unsigned" - Bristol Museum


In the museum's collection this netsuke is described as Japanese fox or tanuki. There appear to be quite a few similarities between the fox and the tanuki in Japanese folklore. Mark Shumacher's wonderfully rich and informative online dictionary on Buddhism & Shintōism in Japan, reveals more in-depth writing on the folklore of these animals. Here's a snippet from his site.

In Japanese folklore, the kitsune (fox) and tanuki (racoon dog) are masters of transformation - Kitsune are renowned tricksters. In many Japanese folk tales, the kitsune appears in the form of a bewitching woman who seduces and tricks unworthy men or rewards and protects deserving people - Fox folk can also cast illusions, appear in dreams, and read thoughts.
Tanuki as a Monk (Bōzu Tanuki 坊主狸 or Tanuki Bōzu 狸坊主). A common theme in Tanuki lore and artwork, wherein Tanuki disguises himself as a fat well-nourished Buddhist monk (see discussion of iconography under Big Belly). The tanuki, mujina, and fox appear often as trickster priests in Edo-era Japanese tales.

Copyright Mark Shumacher

Fox or Tanuki in the Studio

Today I decide to make a carving of the netsuke using kento registration. I find my notes from Peter Brown’s Japanese woodblock printing course at Spike Print Studio and work out the measurements to fit my block. As I look at my sketch I feel it looks more like a tanuki than a fox with it's small rounded ears and darkness circling its eyes. When I first saw this netsuke in the drawer, I saw a fox. Now I see a tanuki and I can understand why the museum haven't been able to label it as one or the other. Maybe this netsuke holds deeply its magical folklore as it shape-shifts between fox and tanuki showing us that the need to define ourselves by labels only constricts and hinders our potential. What is more interesting is the spirit of transformation to realise our potential and deepen our understanding of our true nature.

Fox or Tanuki - Transformation from Paper to Paper

Pasting Image on Gampi paper to Woodblock

Pasting Image on Gampi paper to Woodblock

Kento Registration and Carving Fox on Magnolia Wood

Kento Registration and Carving Fox on Magnolia Wood

Printing Fox with Japanese Carbon Ink

Printing Fox with Japanese Carbon Ink

Original netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.

Original netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.

Netsuke - Tanuki

Japan - Earth's Enchanted Islands

In June, the BBC released a three part documentary focusing on the three islands of Japan: Honshu, The Southwest Islands and Hokkaido.

Part one follows the relationship between people and wildlife living in close proximity to each other. From the brief and magical blossoming cherry trees in Tokyo city to the wild mountains of Hida inhabited by black bears hunting insects under rocks. Macaque monkeys bath in volcanic springs and forage fruit from local farms. Japanese tree frogs lay their eggs in trees above the rice paddy fields. Fresh water carp suck up leftovers from Kabata kitchens. Fireflies light up the summer evenings. Cow demons live in the ancient forests enchanted with Kudama tree spirits. Sacred Sika deer head from the hills to a Buddhist temple in the town of Nara and bow to humans in return for deer biscuits. Earthquakes and volcanoes erupt. Luminescent fire fly squid are swept up on tsunami battered coastlines and streetwise tanuki (racoon dogs) adapt to the city living by the edge of a busy railway line. These cheeky charmers are seen to bring good luck and people accept their mischievous neighbours.


I had never heard of a tanuki before I explored the world of Japanese netsuke and still had no idea what a real one looked like while I drew the tanuki netsuke at the British Museum. To me this tanuki netsuke is a cross between a bear and a pig rather than a racoon dog.

Tanuki sketches


Tanuki Woodblock Carving

I'm going against my original plan to keep the netsuki prints small and have enlarged the tanuki sketch in Photoshop. The original ivory netuske was 3.9cm high, my original sketch is 5cm high and the final woodblock carving is 11.5 cm high.

Making the woodblock carving bigger does not stop me making mistakes. I really need to slow down. An important part of the process which I have yet to crack. I've accidentally cut into the outline of the tanuki's arm. I put the tiny outline of wood to the side and look for some glue. Distracted by a drawer full of chaos I forget about the search for glue and start clearing out the clutter. Feeling pleased with my now orderly drawer of zen, I proceed to sweep all the shavings off the table in to a bag forgetting about the little chunk of wood now lost in the woodpile shavings.



Another important part of the process - focus. Something which eluded me while transferring the image from photoshop to the block. The Tanuki is facing in the opposite direction to the original image. Which is fine if I had planned this but I didn't! So next time I need to slow down and focus.

Netsuke at The British Museum

I set my alarm for 6am and spend the night tossing and turning and worrying that I won't wake up to catch my bus to London. And so predictably I wake up fifteen minutes early and watch the count down to 5.50am then crawl out of bed into the shower, quick bowl of cereal and out the door. The last minute indecision about which sketchbook to bring is resolved by bringing them all including the heavy hardback one which I had dismissed the night before. So I start the journey with a slightly heavier bag stuffed with sketch books and snacks and all set for the British Museum. My appointment is at 11am. After two buses and a tube adding up to four and a half hours and the last half mile walk with Google maps whispering directions in my headphones I am finally here. I am late and running up the steps of the entrance into the museum.

Inside The British Museum I am overwhelmed by unexpected beauty. I haven't been here for years and I had forgotten how magnificent this place was. A modern Greek palace with its bright limestone walls and a curved glass roof curling with the core of the circular stairs. Contributors names engraved on the cylindrical wall of the staircase. This is The Great Court. It is light, spacious, majestic and I feel immediately tranquil for a moment until hoards of school children come herding through the main hall.

Sketching The Okimono of Turtles

To find the Asia study room I follow the curve of the stairs and round past the book and gift shop right to the back of the main hall and up a few flights of stairs. I take a left into a deserted room full of Chinese ceramics. Tranquility is unbroken here. I gently pull the enormous glass doors leading to the study room. I ring the bell. Lowri greets me at the door. I sign my name in a big name book and Lowri offers me a place to sit. She opens a cupboard and brings out a large plastic box, brings it over to the table and asks me what I would like to draw first. The Okimono of Turtles are popping their heads up through the tissue. Lowri wears gloves to handle the netsuke and places it on a sponge mat it in front of me. I had seen The Okimono of Turtles on the British Museum website but it is so much smaller in reality and much harder to see the detail. I have been so used to drawing from close up photographs where the netsuke have been enlarged at least double their original size. I take out my pencil and start sketching. I haven't warmed up or settled in properly yet and The Okimono of Turtles is a bit challenging for a first drawing. The turtles are piled on top of each other like pancakes. I have over complicated the drawing and can't see how this will work as a print. I can simplify it later so I take a break and move on to The Foxes.


Sketching The Foxes

This time I'm pleased with the drawing and enjoy the simpler form of this netsuke. I prefer the shape of the foxes huddled together wrapping their paws and tails around each other. Their long noses and curling bodies weaving in rhythmic form. I turn the sponge to get a different view of the Foxes and make two more little drawings. My drawings are small but not as small as the netsuke which are only 4.5cm high.


Sketching The Tanuki

The Tanuki (a type of Japanese racoon) is a lovely rounded character with its paws on its pot belly (described on the British Museum website as Tanuki beating belly.) The first sketch is plausible but the second looks more like a chicken or maybe a penguin if you rub out the pointy ears and the third is not far off a pig. Time seems to be racing so I move on to The Dog.


Sketching Sitting dog with paw raised

I can't believe my time is nearly up and I still have two netsuke to draw. The dog is tiny. Only 3cm high. I make four little sketches of the thin little ribbed dog from different angles. It's ears flop over its head turning away towards its circle curling tail.


It's almost one o'clock and no time to sketch the little palace. Lowri offers me an afternoon slot as the study room is quiet today but this afternoon I have made plans to visit Laura Boswell and Ian Philips woodblock print and lino print exhibition at the R K Burt Gallery. I thank Lowri and head through the room of Chinese ceramics on my way out pausing to look at the beautifully glazed Northern Song Ru stonewares. Then up the stairs to see the netsuke case in the Japanese gallery.

Japanese Gallery at The British Museum

The Goldfish, the Sleeping Rat and the Kirin are all there behind the glass. I try to take photographs but the light is too dim, again producing grainy, blurred photographs. I open the big wooden doors into the Japanese gallery and immediately in front of me is replica of a wooden tea house with tatami matting and paper sliding doors. Unfortunately you can't step inside the tea house for a rest or a cup of tea so I move on past the earthenware figurines, bronze bells, tarnished mirrors, spearheads, ceramic tombs, vessels, wooden statues of buddhist deities, hand scrolls of the sutras and landscapes, masks, shrines, jars, tea pots, tea bowls, Samurai armour, illustrated books, woodblock prints, paintings.

Two smaller glass cabinets hang on the wall above steps to modern Japan in the next part of the gallery. Both cabinets hold a small collection of netsuke. One with netsuke animals. A monkey clasping its leg, two horses entwined into the shape of a heart, an eagle gripping a tanuki in its claws, a curled up snake , an ox with calf, a deer holding up one hoof and a tiger baring its teeth with its tail whipped round to front of its chest. The second cabinet holds netsuke people. A Chinese official, Dutchman and cockerel, Ainu woman and child, Monkey trainer and monkey, Okame bathing and Naked Chinese woman.


I continue into modern Japan and find a woodblock carving on cherry wood of Stonehenge. 'Woodblock for Stonehenge by Night' carved and printed before 1916 by Urushibara Mokuchu who had come to London to teach woodblock printing techniques at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910.

I carry on back down the steps towards another staircase. Halfway down the stairs a huge silk scroll hangs on the wall with a couple resting beneath a trellis of moonflowers sharing a cup of sake. "Evening Cool beneath Moonflowers" by Yokoyama Kazan.


A reminder its time for a drink and a bite to eat. I head out into the main hall for a quick snack and then to the bookshop. I find a book about Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya and Japanese Netsuke by Julia Hutt with an introduction by Edmund De Waal. I buy the books and make my way to the R K Burt Gallery.