In the seaside town of Onomichi in the Hiroshima prefecture, Master Shozo Natarina cut a slit in the canvas and by mistake, another in her thumb. She continued to fold the edge before stapling it to the frame. Crimson drops dotted the canvas.
“And that’s how you stretch a frame. The mistakes aren’t necessary, but they help. Can someone fetch this old woman a band-aid?”
The students got to work. One boy even copied her mistake and swore loudly. His canvas, too, had dots of blood.
The boy, Keisuke, wore a traditional keikogi that was once white but over the years learning alongside the master, paint, clay, oils, and glaze stained his uniform. He’d outgrown several gi but every time, Master Natarina transferred the splattered belt, a mark of his seniority.
Keisuke cut a clean canvas.
“You don’t need that,” she said.
“Do I need you?”
He was at that age.
He unsheathed his brush at the master. “I’m issuing a dojo challenge!”
The class looked on. Everyone knew of the dojo challenge, the right to challenge the master for their title. They’d heard it in animations and rumors, but none expected to witness one in this day and age.
The master accepted.
By the ancient rules of Dojo Shozo, every student submitted a slip of paper with a genre, location, and item and the two artists would compete with the same prompt, and at the end, Goddess Benzaiten decided the winner.
A fruit stand
The artists had until the paint began to dry.
When they reconvened, Keisuke was shaky. He had chosen oil paints for pointillism, an exhausting but impressive technique. He established shadows with phthalo blue and burnt umber, working up to the highlights. Paint had been scratched away to add texture.
The master emerged yawning after a good night’s sleep.
Then, as the students waited for a sign of victory, the front door blew open and footsteps appeared on the hardwood entrance. Leafy twigs sprouted in their wake. Natarina bowed. The students stared but saw only steps approach the easels.
The Great Patron of the Arts lingered at Natarina’s.
When students heard rain, the youngest in glasses checked the window. A clear day. But a beautifully rainy painting that hearkened back to Gustave Caillebotte’s simple focus on lines and realism. The master’s painting had come alive: On the streets of Paris, a lady left a gentleman under the fruit vendor’s awning as she sheltered her donut with an umbrella. The scene dried.
The door to the dojo closed.
Keisuke had lost.
The next month: Horror, a hill, a map.
“Switch studios with me!” Keisuke demanded. “Your brushes are superior.”
Inside her office hung priceless masterpieces: The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Stag Night at Sharkey’s, macaroni art from students, and Natarina’s own works.
Loose hairs rolled up the dust and shook out their arms with a whistle to watch the master paint, but when the sprites and kodama stared at the canvas, they could not feel what it meant to be human. Their heads twisted with a rattle like bamboo wind chimes to see not the master but Keisuke. The dust sprites whistled as they squeezed through the crack in the paper shoji doors.
The Many-Armed Goddess of All That Flows, the goddess of time, knowledge, water, paint itself--the invisible Benzaiten animated the truths on the easels. Keisuke’s flames of Hell cresting the hill stayed still, lifeless--but his fleeing woman clutched a dog. A dog that let out a single bark before drying.
Too furious to notice, Keisuke yelled, “How can I win when spirits favor you?”
A kodama, clacking like wind chimes, appeared just then.
“This?” Natarina asked. “They merely watch, though I’d love to see what they’d create.”
Seeing her student’s frustration, Master Natarina proposed they paint their hearts’ desire. Keisuke laughed with confidence. His creativity was unshackled.
Paint hit the walls and floor and even colored the ceiling with ideas, but having faced infinity, his canvas was blank. His belt felt clean.
There was no need for a god. He’d lost.
Keisuke handed in his belt.
Master Natarina stopped him. “One last challenge for you.” She’d seen what would bring out his potential. “We’ll draw dogs. Draw any dog you love. Do you accept?”
Acrylic paint dried in 20 minutes, their final time limit.
The students stayed and watched the silhouettes through paper doors. They saw Keisuke check for mistakes, of which he saw hundreds, but there was no time and so he checked for virtues, of which he saw none.
When he saw his master’s painting, he mumbled, “Why can’t I win?”
The door once more blew open and leafy twigs sprouted from the steps of a woman draped in the shawl of a sea dragon. As before, Natarina bowed and the students stared, but finally Keisuke saw Lord Benzaiten remove her shoes and file them with the students’ before admiring each painting.
Both paintings barked and ran all about and Keisuke’s even smelled like wet dog.
“This is Sushi, my first dog,” Master Natarina said. “Named for Yi Sun-Shin, the Korean admiral that went undefeated against the Japanese invasion. The real Sushi died 40 years ago, before arthritis made it hard to paint on a rainy day. I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen many things. I’ve loved and lost many. And when you put that into your art, Lord Benzaiten smiles. Do you know how many times I’ve painted that dead fish Sushi’s rolling around in? And I still miss him. Art doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be felt when you put it on the canvas, or why bother?”
“So who wins?”
“Do you expect a god to quibble over a rubric? ‘His technique but her passion... His courage! Her humor!’” She placed a hand on his. “No, my little firefly, at a certain point, good is good,