The scrolls, made of paper or silk, were attached to a wooden dowel at the left end to be rolled up for storage. Rolled up, the scrolls were secured with a braided silk cord, then backed by silk. Secured, the scrolls could be carried, placed on shelves, or stored in elaborate lacquerware. The scrolls ranged in size, averaging 30 centimeters (1 ft.) in width and 9 to 12 meters (30 to 40 ft.) in length. A normal story would take one to three scrolls in total.
Emakimono are read by exposing an arms-length of the scroll at a time, from right to left, as Japanese is written. It was common for there to be a written account of the story being illustrated either at the start of the scroll, or interspersed between the pictures. It is expected that the person viewing the scroll will re-roll the scroll back in its original form, much as one is supposed to rewind video tape after viewing it.
Emakimono also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men's pictures) and onna-e (Women's pictures) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles. The Siege of the Sanjō Palace (1160), depicted in the painting "Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace" is a famous example of this style.
The Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals) by Toba Sōjō is unusual in its own medium, as it does not contain any text, only pictures. It depicts scenes of animals in amusing scenes, analogizing Japanese society in the 12th century.