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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Part II | Convenor: Professor Laura Moretti

Course Description 2023-24

This seminar-style paper explores facets of classical, medieval and/or early modern literature and culture.

Japanese premodern literature often confronts us with texts that discomfort, challenging our expectations vis-à-vis the literary and asking us to rethink how we read. Literary histories have often silenced the voices that such texts unlock, deemed too alien for us, twenty-first century readers, to make sense of them. Yet, engagement with such early modern texts allow us to question the modern assumptions of what literature should be and prompt through-provoking question on how we view literature. 

The topics and the genres covered in this seminar-style paper may vary from year to year, but the focus will be on early modern prose with a view to develop analytical skills that prove adequate in probing this corpus. Attention will be given to issues that include the epistemic function of literature, intertextuality, multimodality, humour, playfulness, and storyworlds among others. We will also reflect upon how the literary canon is constructed and what is at stake in the process. While gaining solid knowledge about the historical development of specific genres of early modern prose and reading a wide variety of primary sources in English translation, this paper trains students to question claims made by secondary literature and fosters reflection on important methodological issues that apply to the study of written texts regardless of culture and epoch.  

The topic for 2023-24 revolves around early modern graphic narratives (kusazōshi or “grass books”). Early modern Japan (1600-1867) was home to a phenomenal publishing industry that engaged a wide gamut of readers by packaging products geared toward diverse literacy skills. Graphic narratives—a term adapted here from Hillary Chute (2008) and defined as commercially published, book-length works where text and image inhabit the same space and share in the production of meaning—featured heavily in this rich and diverse landscape of commercial publishing. Known as kusazōshi (lit. “grass books”), thousands of titles were issued over the course of three centuries, from the 1680s to the beginning of the twentieth century. A staple product of booksellers and circulating libraries, they were cherished by readers of all ages, across genders, transcending the allegedly rigid social system of the time.   

Graphic narratives have never been as relevant as today. Galvanized by the so-called visual or pictorial turn as defined by influential art historian W.J.T. Mitchell (1995), where pictures emerge “as a central topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language did,” the past twenty years have seen a surge in studies that problematize any divide between the visual and the verbal. Inquiries into the “visual language” marshalled by Neil Cohn have combined with an increasing interest in multimodality—here defined as the combination of the visual and the verbal modes, asking us to fully engage with texts that are delivered in a combination of different modes of communication, text and image being a case in point. Research on picture books, comic books and graphic novels have been fuelled by this theoretical interest in intersemiotic texts. Japan is an important part of this vibrant academic work, with a vast number of volumes and articles devoted to the study of manga within and outside Japan. While acknowledging the need to avoid the trap of “teleological readings as well as exaggerated accounts of cultural origins” (Millier in Tabachnick 2017), the times are ripe to investigate the imposing body of graphic narratives produced in early modern Japan and explore how they expand our understanding of how graphic narratives work.   

This is precisely what we will be exploring in our journey together. We will be reading a wide selection of early modern graphic narratives translated into English. The aims are multiple:  

  • Understand how graphic narratives (kusazōshi) developed from the 1680s to the end of the nineteenth century.  
  • Explore how early modern writers depicted the historical development of this textual typology and fostered a form of genre consciousness.    
  • Gain knowledge about key publishers, authors, and illustrators invested in the creation of kusazōshi.  
  • Appreciate how the idea of authorship is problematized by works produced by a team of professionals.  
  • Learn how to discuss these multimodal texts on their own term as well as by making effective use of theoretical discourse developed within and without Japan, including scholarship on graphic narratives and postmodern literature.  
  • Reflect on how kusazōshi differ from contemporary forms of graphic narratives, including manga.   

Ultimately this paper presents a unique opportunity to read a fascinating selection of early modern sources that will broaden your understanding of the literary and train you to ask relevant questions to make sense of Japanese texts that challenge our views of the literary. 


This paper is a discussion-based seminar that meets in 2-hour sessions for 16 weeks across two terms (Michaelmas and Lent). Students are expected to come to class having read the assigned readings, both primary and secondary sources, and ready to discuss them. All primary sources will be available in English translation. Occasionally students may be asked to give presentations. In Michaelmas Term students will produce a short essay (ca. 1500-2000 words) on a specific text assigned by the instructor. This essay does not count toward the final mark. During the winter break and in Lent Term on top of preparations for the classes, students will be asked to start working on their research essay and there will be supervisions geared toward this. The course will finish with individual, unmarked presentations on the essay topics.  


Form and Conduct

The coursework that constitutes this paper’s assessment will consist of one research essay of between 6,000 and 7,500 words, including footnotes and excluding bibliography. Each student will develop the topic of the essay in consultation with the instructor. An outline plus a bibliography will be due at the beginning of Lent Term. Two hard copies and one electronic copy (pdf) of the research essay shall be submitted to the Programmes Administrator in the Faculty Office so as to arrive not later than the division of Full Easter Term. 


This description is subject to change, for the latest information, students should consult the Undergraduate Handbook available on the Faculty Intranet.

Terms taught
Michaelmas, Lent
Michaelmas, Lent