When it came to horror, ukiyo-e artists kept their wits about them

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

Arranged from its extensive collection of ukiyo-e prints, the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum’s special summer exhibition, is organized in three parts: part one, “Specters” (July 1-27) — stories of mythical spirits; part two, “Ghosts” (Aug. 1-26); and part three, “Sorcerers” (Aug. 30-Sept. 25) — depictions of humans with special powers and the supernatural creatures they call up from the underworld.

“Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e” showcases more than 250 Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1603-1868), depicting ghosts, goblins and other supernatural beings. The lurid subject matter, a graphic illustration of the shadowy spirit underworld, is as delightful as it is ghoulish. While ghost themes can be traced all the way back to the Hell Scrolls of the late Heian Period (794-1185), increased literacy and publishing innovations in the Edo Period introduced a new audience — the wider public — to printings of illustrated ghost stories. Edo’s evolving popular culture, which began to emerge in the late 1600s and extended through the late 1800s, meant a steady demand for the work of ukiyo-e artists and writers, including illustrated books known as kusazoshi, or “grass tales,” which were first introduced in the 1700s. Well-known ukiyo-e artists of the time were actively recruited by publishers to provide illustrations for new printed editions of familiar tales and folklore.

Examined from a cultural and social perspective, kusazoshi specializing in ghost themes were the printed equivalent of today’s scary comic books and horror films, designed to titillate and amuse. When skilled ukiyo-e artists of the day — including Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1894), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) — turned to the depiction of ghosts, their masterful renderings heightened the viewer’s imagination, providing bone-chilling experiences. Towering skeletons dwarfed humans, as in Kuniyoshi’s “Haunted Old Palace at Soma” (ca. 1845-46), exhibited in part three of the exhibition.

Another famous example is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1865 “Insatiable Old Woman” depicting the popular folk tale “The Sparrow with a Cut Tongue (Shita-kiri Suzume),” shown in part one of the exhibition. It depicts a greedy old woman who, having spitefully cut out the tongue of a sparrow that pecked at her starch, is punished for her avarice by devilish spirits and monsters that pop out of a large treasure chest that she opens. Yoshitoshi’s depiction of the climax of the story is particularly fanciful, showing the instant she opens the box. Encountering goblins, a three-eyed monster and other assorted ghouls, she is in such a state of fright that her body is bent over backward. The artist reveals his sense of humor in this depiction, in which the assorted creatures seem almost comical in their grotesqueness and sly glances. One of them apes a child’s grimace, ridiculously stretching its mouth open wide.

A number of the thematic and stylistic similarities in the art showcased in this exhibition reflect the “tools of the trade” of artists in this genre, including the employment of various techniques to enhance the fear factor, such as the use of black backgrounds, shadowy semi-transparent figures for ghosts, and apparitions that fly through the air.

The popular 1825 kabuki ghost story “Tokaido Yotsuyakaidan,” or “Ghost Story of the Post Road Town Yotsuya,” is also well represented in part two of the exhibition. It tells the story of Oiwa, a wife who, murdered by her husband, comes back as a ghost and seeks revenge. The ghoulish details of the story start when Iemon, the husband, poisons Oiwa in order to marry another woman. Iemon also kills his servant Kohei after falsely accusing him of stealing and having an affair with his wife. He ties the two dead bodies to opposite sides of a plank of wood, which he throws into the river. The story was so renowned that a number of leading woodblock print artists chose to depict it in their own inimitable styles, including Hokusai, Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), whose versions are each displayed in the exhibition.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of this tale is the triptych by Utagawa Kunisada. In the center panel of this work we see Iemon pulling a floating plank with Kohei bound to it out of the river. The print has a special hidden flap, known as shikake-e, literally translated as a “disguised picture.” When the viewer flips the flap over, the creepy bloodied image of Oiwa appears as a ghost, recalling the quick-change act that takes place in the famed kabuki version of the story.

Part of what makes this exhibition so delightful is that we can see how these works of art were sources of inspiration designed to frighten and amuse the viewer, taking us on a journey where the unexpected and the ghoulish merge in the imaginative worlds constructed by these renowned and inventive ukiyo-e artists.

“Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e” at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art runs till Sept. 25; open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon. www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/index-E.html We have five pairs of tickets to this exhibition to give away to readers; please see the details below Art Openings to apply.