From Kamakura, considered the second capital of the empire, the ruling princes, belonging to the Hōlō family, now dominate both the emperors and the shōguns of the Fujiwara family. Those warriors took nothing away from Kyoto of its splendor as a center of artistic production; but under their influence there was a detachment, at least partial, from the overly refined art of the court, and a return to the tradition of the continent. From now on, Chinese influences and national currents no longer alternate from one era to another, but distinctly coexist according to the different artistic genres: it is therefore more than complicated to define a line of artistic development. Predominant importance in art had the Zen sect, the most notable of all the Buddhist mystical schools,
Sculpture clearly depends on Chinese models, but has a richer, more grandiose repertoire. The famous dynasty of Kamakura-era sculptors begins with Kōkei and culminates in his pupil, and possibly his son, Unkei, of whom we have many works. His companions were Kwaikei and Jokei, perhaps from the same family. Also famous is Tankei, son of Unkei.
According to Barblejewelry, the characters of that school stand out above all in the representations of the patriarchs and the statues of Kōfukuji in Nara, of Unkei, of Rengyōin in Kyōto, probably of Tankei, are to be remembered. Sculpture of this era has now conquered all technical means: with convincing realism it represents details of the face and body, of the epidermis and limbs, various attitudes. Wood was his favorite material, because it was suitable for any plastic or pictorial effect. The number of his works is immense. In the representations of Buddha, a generic formula was followed, always the same, which in its technical perfection appears somewhat empty, as seen above all in the gigantic Buddha of Kamakura, one of the few bronze works of this era, but extremely characteristic for art Japanese.
In portrait sculpture, the process of liberation from any bond of a religious nature takes place, not only in the abandonment of the vestments of worship, in the use of raising statues outside the sacred enclosure, but also in the spirit that knows no other artistic ideal. that translating, with the greatest possible fidelity, living reality into a plastic form. The artists now do not shy away from any movement, however lively and fragmented, nor from any individual expression; also the numerous masks, used since the century. VIII onwards in the representations that were performed inside the temples, demonstrate this. Painting remained more tied to tradition.
The old schools of Kose and Takuma continue to exist, again welcoming Chinese elements, but retaining the rich polychromy and abundant gilding of the Fujiwara era for the Buddhist pantheon. As in sculpted portraits, so too in painted ones an attempt is made to render the individual characters as faithfully as possible. Many temples and many convents in Kyōto and its surroundings certainly have portraits of this period, but at the same time portraits of court characters of a profane nature were beginning to be used. The number of painted scrolls – the so-called makimonos – is innumerable- of this period that has come down to us: in them the deeds of the heroes, the vicissitudes of the patriarchs, the fables of the afterlife are narrated. On the famous Heiji Monogatari scrolls, with their wild fight scenes, violently moving groups dominate the scene. On the other hand, in Tosa’s paintings the landscape dominates, and often the figurative action is only a modest detail in the midst of the splendor of nature, animated by the play of colors.
The minor arts had a great variety of traditions and characters in the different genres. Between the lacquers, next to the large vessels of the temples, more minute works now appear. Important among these is the box for the scribes (suzuribako) with its constant compartments, the box for the brushes, the bowl for the water and the stone on which the colors are dissolved. Frequent in the lacquers is the black background with gold scales, as well as the golden background with mother-of-pearl inlays, extremely characteristic of this era. Along with the use of tea, which came from China, glazed terracotta also appears; of the most ancient production, connected with the name of Toshiro, nothing specific is known; it is certain, however, that it was built in the village of Seto. Apparently, these are brown double-glazed boxes, many of which have very thin walls, perhaps made of earth specially imported from China. Bronze objects were of great importance in temples: the seals for their interior and the furnishings for worship were worked with the utmost care. For the first time we are introduced to the art of the sword and cuirassier, but we will never fully know the masterfully crafted swords and all the bizarre armor. The beginnings of the decoration of the swords are connected with the name of the Myōchin family, restricted at first to the guard, in the form of a disc (thetsuba), and consisting of a park relief with scarce gold damascening.
Architecture received its main impetus from the Zen Buddhist sect. Following Chinese patterns, he returned to regular plants. New forms appear in the capitals and in the arrangement of the bricks. Alongside the persistence of the elegance of the national architecture of the previous era, a return to more severe forms is noted. And even the Shinto constructions return to the traditional type, free from any Buddhist influence.