The ghouls who played on the Japanese mind

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Japanese Ghosts and Eerie Creatures” at the Osaka Museum of History is mostly play, with little horror. This is because so much of the genre’s visual and thematic core was part of the spectacle of the stage in 17th-century kabuki theater, and among the wide variety of other prints and paintings you’ll find caricature, parody and comic invention. The truly macabre is only a side show, as in the splattered bloody gore of “A Ghost Holding a Woman’s Head” by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848). Playful fiction is never far from spilling over into reality, however, as in the anatomical sketches that were used as visual evidence of “monsters” that terrorized Motogi village (in present-day Fukuoka) between 1680-84.

The selection of works for this exhibition come from the collection of the nihonga (Japanese-style) painter Yoshikawa Kanpo (1894-1978), who set out to accumulate the variety of pictorial folk knowledge that was his research. His collection, of which this show is only a fraction, focuses on works from the mid-Edo Period, when the genre of yokai and yurei (monsters and spirits or ghosts) became particularly popular, through to the Showa Era (1926-1989). The span, coincidentally, is the one important to Japan’s modernization, and as this progressed, culture carried with it heightened fears and superstitions of the nation’s past.

The exhibition gets under way with skeletons who continue their daily routines as if alive, such as “A Skeleton Practicing Zazen on the Waves” attributed to Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795). They dance in a painting by Toshu Zenchu (1839-1925), and attack the living in “A Huge Skeleton Attacking Oya Taro Mitsukuni” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862).

While the above is wry fantasy, the transition from flesh to bone — a show of impermanence and decay — was of significant Buddhist doctrinal concern related to meditative practices, as is illustrated in “The Nine Stages of Change of the Deceased Remains” by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799). In the top right of the paired scrolls we see a beautiful woman in lavish kimono sniffing at a spray of flowers. Down below, however, she is covered with blankets and on her deathbed. In the accompanying scroll, the course of putrefaction runs from bottom to top. The corpse becomes hideously bloated, then gradually hollows out. Stray dogs and crows come to pick at the flesh and gore until only bones remain, after which a couple of foxes sniff at their dispersion. Painted mistily at top is a grave marker of sorts.

With the body now buried, the exhibition moves on to the genre of ghost painting, the beginnings of which is widely attributed to Okyo, though earlier precedents of such works do exist. Okyo did, however, popularize the genre, even if the painting “A Ghost,” for which he is particularly revered, may not in fact have been painted by him at all. “A Ghost” has all the major characteristics that defined such paintings from the late 18th-century. We get the white funereal kimono, lack of legs, long straggly hair and the suggestion of a former beauty (it is invariably a woman, the genre being a mildly perverse variation on bijinga — pictures of beautiful women). Her right hand slides into the fold of the kimono around the chest indicating a lingering pain in the heart, and there’s an absence of background scenery. Whatever the story is behind the creature, it is not being told. It is later paintings and prints that come to fill in the context — it is pretty clear in “The Ghost of the Former Deceased Wife Striking the Present Wife” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) that the motivation for his ghost is bitter jealousy.

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) adapted the ghost theme to the long-held tradition of painting flora, fauna and other motifs to represent seasons. In “Ghost in Four Seasons,” the spring ghost peaks out from behind a kimono being aired on a rack. In summer it cradles a baby behind a mosquito net; in autumn it plays a flute in a moonlit wilderness; and in winter it wears white funeral robes, disappearing into a bleak snowy landscape.

Subsequent sections of the exhibition are given over to the ghosts of kabuki, and then to demons and monsters of virtually every conceivable kind. Personal objects develop their own spirits in “Tsukumogami, Monsters of a Lacquered Washbasin and a Vanity Box” by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), and even the shogunate becomes a giant five-legged octopus in the same artist’s “A Monster Picture Caricaturing the Tokugawa Shogunate.” A huge monster, the shogunate’s tentacles are shown to reach far, even though it is a boneless creature, lacking structure, strength and stability.

The breadth and variety culled from such an enormous collection for this show should leave you exhausted in a satiated way — much like Maruyama Oshin’s (1790-1838) “An Exhausted Monster,” weary from a day well spent.

“Japanese Ghosts and Eerie Creatures” at the Osaka Museum of History runs till June 9; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Tue. yurei-yokai-osaka.com