But the snail had created such a beautiful design in the sand, like a kare-sansui, a Zen garden. Yet not created, Manjiro realized—traced. The snail had taken its long, arduous journey to trace—"My face!" Manjiro whispered. (1.2.86)
Here, Manjiro is meditating on the snail and the snail is "meditating" on Manjiro's face (or the shadow it casts over it). Together, they create art: the snail "traces" and Manjiro interprets it as beautiful. Pretty cool, huh?
In Japan there was an artist named Hiroshige who made beautiful pictures of everyday scenes. Manjiro had seen some of these prints: two men seeking shelter from rain that fell in cold, slanting streaks; three travelers lighting their pipes by a fire so real it seemed to glow; several geishas in such find kimonos, you could almost hear the silk rustling. Forever afterward, when Manjiro thought of what happened that day, he would remember it in sudden, vivid scenes like Hiroshige's prints. And yet unlike those pictures, because nowhere in any of them were there scenes as strange as these… (2.3.1-2)
Just for context, Manjiro goes on and lists all the things that are completely weird to him when he gets rescued. Things like: shoes made out of animal skin, eyes of different colors, big noses. Things clearly not Japanese. Question: Why does Manjiro bother to mention Hiroshige's art when what he really wants to do is to go on and tell us all about the difference between Hiroshige's art and what he experiences?
The captain picked up a funny-looking musical instrument. A violin, he called it, then played something on it that Manjiro realized must be music. It was a strange sound, a little sad.
As he listened, Manjiro's eyes drifted around the room, taking in the many unusual objects, finally resting on an open book on the captain's desk. Maybe the captain even knew how to read! (2.6.42-43)
Manjiro's reaction to the violin music is all a little funny: He is ignorant of what the violin even is, yet he also wonders if "the captain even knew how to read."
As if understanding his thought, Captain Whitfield picked up the book and began to read aloud.
Manjiro had a hard time following, but he was sure it was a poem. It had a "shipwrecked brother" in it who saw footprints and got up and started doing something. The gist of the poem, he thought, was that we should do the best we can with whatever fate the gods give us in our lives, and perhaps we can inspire others who come after us. (2.6.44-45)
The poem the captain reads is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Voices of the Night: A Psalm of Life." What's interesting is Manjiro's summary of what he hears. It's not that the summary is wrong; it's just that it's so bland and disconnected from Manjiro and the novel. The poem actually has quite a bit to do with Manjiro's situation, and though Manjiro may not totally get how the poem connects to his life, it sounds like the captain might have known which poem to pick to fit Manjiro's life at that moment.
Manjiro pushed up the sleeve of his kimono so it wouldn't drag in the ink. He sat on the floor in front of a low table, brush in hand. He was practicing the character for "garden," which, he thought, might as well be the same as the characters for "prison." (5.38.1)
This is about as Japanese as Manjiro can get. In fact, the whole image of Manjiro in a kimono, preparing to do calligraphy, is like a scene out of an old samurai movie. The catch, of course, is that he's in prison.
Since there was so often nothing else to do, he was using the time to learn to read and write his own language. (5.38.1)
It's kind of ironic that it takes prison-time in Japan for Manjiro to re-learn and practice the Japanese art of calligraphy.
In spring, the cherry blossoms had burst into bloom, covering the tree in mounds of pale blossoms. The blossoms fell, the leaves unfurled, and summer came. A humid silence had settled on the garden, broken only by the splash of a frog. It was a tranquil prison, but it was still a prison. (5.38.2-3)
Manjiro's in prison, only his prison is a garden. (The guys have some pretty nice digs for their first experience with a Japanese imprisonment. Note: their second experience with jail isn't this nice.) But it doesn't seem like Manjiro's all that appreciative of his surroundings. It's one of the few moments when Manjiro isn't his usual, positive self. Prison can do that to a person.
"It's wondrous what they do," Terry said breathlessly. "It's so exact, it's almost more real than looking in a mirror. And fast! Not like sitting for days or weeks to have your portrait painted—and who can afford that, anyway?" (4.34.8)
Terry's talking about the daguerreotype—you know, the photographic technology of the 19th century. The way Terry talks about the daguerreotype makes it seem as high tech as your newest version of the iPhone.
Manjiro did not think a daguerreotype would be the same thing at all, and he declined the offer. Still, he wished he had a likeness of his mother. He turned back to the portraits on display and tried to imagine seeing a portrait of her, tried to bring her face back to his memory, but it was shrouded in shadow, sadness, and longing. (4.34.25)
According to Terry and the daguerreotype guy, daguerreotypes are supposed to look exactly like the actual person. But you can't fool Manjiro: Art is art; reality is reality. And he wants his mom. Even if it's just a portrait. Okay, so here's a question: If we all know that a picture isn't actually the real thing, why do we need a picture to begin with?
"I wish they were precious stones, but they are only shells," he sighed, "shells that I collected in places where I traveled."
His mother held out her hands to show the shells—small and curved, frilled and ruffled, or smooth as teardrops. They were pink as cats' tongues, shiny brown and speckled, iridescent black, or creamy white.
"Kirei!" she said. So beautiful! (5.40.31-33)
Art can be found anywhere in nature, even in something as simple as a bunch of shells. That's one of the major messages of the novel.