Seething masses of people crushed together in searing heat; empty-eyed wraiths, heads drooping in despair, shuffling to and fro — waiting for the time when they will be released their suffering. Tokyo can be hell in July and August. It isn’t all bad though; there’s an excellent exhibition on yōkai, the various devils, demons and spirits of Japanese folklore, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
As a subject of Japanese folkloric studies, yōkai have been defined in different ways, but could broadly be described as “supernatural creatures.” A fairly well-known example is the shapeshifting tanuki, the friendly racoon dog whose figure can often be seen outside restaurants and liquor stores in contemporary Japan. He appears in the exhibition smothering someone with his famously oversize scrotum in an 18th-century manga illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni. Admittedly, suffocation by a giant pair of hairy balls is not the best way to go, but the manga is purposefully comic and what is evident from the substantial number and great variety of exhibits is that the iconography of yōkai is extremely versatile.
In “Screens of Hells and Paradise,” attributed to the Pure Land Buddhist Genshin (942-1017), yōkai are used to remind the viewer of what awaits the profane people who lack faith in Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Fanged, wild-eyed demons can be seen beating and burning the impious in a didactic representation aimed at communicating the cosmology of the Tendai sect in an easily understandable format. Among the most gruesome images, is an anonymous 12th-century scroll painting for Buddhist novices of the “Hell of Dissections,” which shows the bodies of unbelievers being butchered and eaten by furious devils.
By contrast, there are several examples of relatively light-hearted taxonomies from the 18th and 19th century. Most likely influenced by the organizing principles of scientific classification introduced to Japan through rangaku (Dutch studies), these scrolls and handbooks of different types of monsters and goblins range from being crypto-medical manuals to ambiguous mixtures of schlock horror and comedic entertainment.
When bunmei kaika (enlightenment and civilization) became a key objective of the Meiji government, yōkai were a hugely popular form of visual culture but were also marked for extinction. In the effort to create a modern nation, belief in the supernatural was deemed retrograde and counter-productive. The academic, and ordained priest in Pure Land Buddhism, Inoue Enryo, attempted to reconcile his religious beliefs with the developing modernity of Japan by establishing yōkaigaku, sometimes translated as “mystery studies.” While studying psychology in the late 1880s, Inoue stated that he wanted “to bring about a rational explanation of mysteries in order to eradicate people’s superstitions, so that they are not the opposite of civilized people,” according to his own notes. You could call Inoue the original Japanese ghostbuster.
The exhibition shows a notable explosion of creativity, color and imagination that 19th-century woodblock prints brought to the depiction of yōkai around the time that Inoue was doing his best to explain them away. Marvel at Utagawa Kunisada’s depiction of the kabuki actor Bando Hikosaburo facing off against a monstrous rokurokubi, a half-human creature with a sinuous snake-like neck. Gasp in terror as warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu fights the giant Earth Spider. Shiver with fright as samurai Minamoto no Tametomo rides a huge “crocodile shark.”
Materially speaking, the pictorial drama and popularity of yōkai imagery during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was possible through the use of new imported chemical dyes, and the fact that ukiyo-e prints were a cheap reproducible media with a large market of avid consumers. Why the depiction of ancient superstitions and folklore should be most popular when the country was in the process of modernizing has been critically investigated by a number of academics, but the exhibition does not aim to make any major points in that discussion. An introductory text to the show tells us that its main purpose is to present an “art historical” view of yōkai, and the exhibits are grouped by genre not by period.
In fact, the exhibition ends by juxtaposing the two most chronologically distant yōkai. Prehistorical Jomon figures are displayed in the penultimate section, followed by brightly-colored figures and imagery from the Nintendo computer game and anime series “Yokai Watch.” The strange semi-human shapes of middle to late Jomon Period (10,000 to 200 B.C.) clay figures date from between 2,000 to 400 B.C. and their purpose and design evade definitive explanation. The exhibition organizers suggest that they may represent early human attempts to cope with fear and awe in the face of nature.
The cute, harmless bestiary of “Yokai Watch” date from 2013, and the exhibition successfully shows that there is a long and extraordinary history of mixing the unnatural, comic and grotesque in Japanese visual culture. It is a justifiably popular exhibition, the only negative being the fact that you have to be careful when you choose to go. It can get monstrously crowded.
“From Eery to Endearing: Yokai in the Arts of Japan” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum runs until Aug. 28; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Sat. until 7:30 p.m.). ¥1,350. Closed Mon. www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp. The exhibition then moves to the Abeno Harukas Art Museum in Osaka from Sept. 10 to Nov. 6.