In 1180 a war broke out between the two most powerful warrior clans, the Taira and the Minamoto; five years later the Minamoto emerged victorious and established a de facto seat of government at the seaside village of Kamakura, where it remained until 1333. With the shift of power from the nobility to the warrior class, the arts had to satisfy a new audience: men devoted to the skills of warfare, priests committed to making Buddhism available to illiterate commoners, and conservatives, the nobility and some members of the priesthood who regretted the declining power of the court. Thus, realism, a popularizing trend, and a classical revival characterize the art of the Kamakura period. In the Kamakura period, Kyoto and Nara remained the centers of artistic production and high culture.
Sculpture: The Kei school of sculptors, particularly Unkei, created a new, more realistic style of sculpture. The two Niō guardian images (1203) in the Great South Gate of the Tōdai-ji in Nara illustrate Unkei's dynamic supra-realistic style. The images, about 8 m (about 26 ft) tall, were carved of multiple blocks in a period of about three months, a feat indicative of a developed studio system of artisans working under the direction of a master sculptor. Unkei's polychromed wood sculptures (1208, Kōfuku-ji, Nara) of two Indian sages, Muchaku and Seshin, the legendary founders of the Hossō sect, are among the most accomplished realistic works of the period; as rendered by Unkei, they are remarkably individualized and believable images. One of the most famous works of this period is an Amitabha Triad (completed in 1195), in Jōdo-ji in Ono, created by Kaikei, Unkei's successor.
Calligraphy and painting: The Kegon Engi Emaki, the illustrated history of the founding of the Kegon sect, is an excellent example of the popularizing trend in Kamakura painting. The Kegon sect, one of the most important in the Nara period, fell on hard times during the ascendancy of the Pure Land sects. After the Genpei War (1180–1185), Priest Myōe of Kōzan-ji sought to revive the sect and also to provide a refuge for women widowed by the war. The wives of samurai had been discouraged from learning more than a syllabary system for transcribing sounds and ideas (see kana), and most were incapable of reading texts that employed Chinese ideographs (kanji). Thus, the Kegon Engi Emaki combines passages of text, written with a maximum of easily readable syllables, and illustrations that have the dialogue between characters written next to the speakers, a technique comparable to contemporary comic strips. The plot of the e-maki, the lives of the two Korean priests who founded the Kegon sect, is swiftly paced and filled with fantastic feats such as a journey to the palace of the Ocean King, and a poignant love story.
A work in a more conservative vein is the illustrated version of Murasaki Shikibu's diary. E-maki versions of her novel continued to be produced, but the nobility, attuned to the new interest in realism yet nostalgic for past days of wealth and power, revived and illustrated the diary in order to recapture the splendor of the author's times. One of the most beautiful passages illustrates the episode in which Murasaki Shikibu is playfully held prisoner in her room by two young courtiers, while, just outside, moonlight gleams on the mossy banks of a rivulet in the imperial garden.