For all sorts of reasons, summer is the season of ghosts in Japan. Accordingly, The University Art Museum in Tokyo is presenting an exhibition of work connected to Meiji Era (1867-1912) storyteller Sanyutei Encho (1839-1900). Encho practised the art of rakugo, a traditional and minimalist Japanese style of storytelling, in which a seated narrator typically uses only a fan and a hand towel as props.
Encho was famous for telling ghost stories, and also collected paintings and artworks featuring ghosts and supernatural creatures. He also commissioned works on these themes from artists of the day, including paintings by Shibata Zeshin and Iijima Koga. After his death, many of these pictures were left to Zenshoan, his family’s temple in Tokyo’s Yanaka neighbohood, and they are the main source of the works on display.
Like all exhibitions at The University Art Museum, “Urameshiya: Art of the Ghost Featuring Zenshoan’s Sanyutei Encho Collection of Ghost Paintings” is very well curated, displayed with clever staging and lighting, evoking a subtle, spooky atmosphere, while avoiding the tacky temptation to give it the full ghost house treatment.
The exhibition starts with items related to the career of Encho — portraits, playbills, and various personal items. His skill and popularity seemed to have helped stimulate something of a ghost boom in his day. Other factors were the use of ghost stories in kabuki theatre.
But why was there a surging interest in the supernatural just as Japan was modernizing?
In the same way that the Harry Potter phenomenon fed off millennial technophobia and concerns of the future at around the year 2000, so Meiji Japan’s rapid modernization may have fed into a similar reactionary love of quaint superstitions. But perhaps socio-cultural explanations are redundant, as many of the works on display also have a direct charm.
The scroll paintings that make up the second part of the show are softly painted in inks with subtle touches of color, making them rather ghostlike in style as well as subject matter. Many of these, such as “A Ghost in front of a Mosquito Net” (1906), have a beautiful ethereal quality and are pervaded by a mood of sadness, tragedy and even fatigue.
A key theme of Japanese ghost culture is the idea of urami (resentment). This is harbored by spirits unwilling or unable to leave this world because of some unavenged crime or injustice committed against them. The third and fourth sections focus on some of the more famous examples, such as Oiwa, with her tale of disfigurement through poisoned face cream, and Okiku, eternally counting nine plates then shrieking because she broke the 10th one.
The art in this part of the exhibition veers more toward schlock horror, with many artworks having an entertaining ghoulish element, ramping it up a gear in this enjoyable exhibition.
“Urameshiya: Art of the Ghost Featuring Zenshoan’s Sanyutei Encho Collection of Ghost Paintings” at The University Art Museum runs until Sept. 13; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Aug. 21 until 7 p.m.). ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.tokyo-np.co.jp/event/urameshiya