Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e

The Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art is a discreet traditionally-designed building tucked away round the corner from the flashy, glossy Omotesando avenue in the heart of Tokyo, and yesterday I was there to view a current exhibition entitled “Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e”. Readers of this blog will know that my YA urban fantasy trilogy features the weird and uncanny creatures known in Japanese legend as the Yokai – and they were a favorite subject of Edo period ukiyo-e, as artists sought to chill the blood of their audience with painstakingly depicted scenes of the macabre and the supernatural.

Therefore, to find further inspiration and beat the August Tokyo heat, I ventured into the hushed ambience of the museum to experience the awe and mystery of these otherworldy paintings.
Many of the old Edo tales were made into Kabuki plays, and the ukiyo-e show the Kabuki depictions as well as the original sources. The most notorious tales, such as “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” and “Sarayashiki”, are well represented here, but there are many lesser known stories. Entering the museum, the viewer first encounters five prints by Hokusai Katsushika; the ghosts of Oiwa-san, Okiku-san, Kohada Koheiji, a laughing Hannya demon, and a snake-spirit of obsession. Entering the lower levels, there are more detailed scenes from these stories painted by different artists, including one remarkable woodcut from Utagawa Toyokuni III. Showing a scene from a Kabuki play based on the life of the Buddhist saint Nichiren, it shows the virtuous hero in combat with two fearsome apparitions – the ghost of Koheiki Koheiji floating through the air, and Oiwa-san emerging from a nearby river.
Upstairs on the second floor, there are several dramatic prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Yoshitora, relating to scenes from the Genpei War in the late Heian period. They show the warrior ghosts of the Taira clan rising from the sea and attacking the ship carrying the heroes Yoshitsune and Benkei … Pirates of the Caribbean, eat your sea-soaked zombie heart out!
One thing I was particularly happy to see was a wall display showing the step-by-step creation of ukiyo-e, from the first sketch, the carving, and the adding of pigment. The example chosen was Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa”, which made me even happier.

There are many other intriguing and educational ukiyo-e upstairs, depicting events and characters both well known and obscure, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I’ll just mention Utagawa Kuniteru’s work on the “The Seven Mysteries of Honjo” (the Honjo Nanafushigi). These refer to a collection of mysterious events that occurred during the Edo period in the area of Honjo, known today as part of Sumida ward – the old ‘shitamachi’ region of Tokyo, where memories go back a long way and mysteries never die. I hope to cover this in full in a later blog entry, where I go on a walking tour of Honjo … so I’ll leave this subject for the moment!
Finally, taking the exhibition as a whole, the elegant translations of the titles come across as (perhaps) unintentional masterpieces of dry humor – especially those by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The dryly translated “People surprised at figure of revived dead person”, for example, does not prepare the viewer for the scene of absolute carnage and panic that they see through the glass. Perhaps this show should be retitled “Specters, Ghosts, Sorcerers and Understatements”!
The third installment of this exhibition, “Sorcerers”, will take place in September, and I hope to cover it in a future blog post.
In the meantime, readers of this blog will also know that Book Two of the trilogy, Voice of the Mirror, has just been published and the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika is a major character (Reiko and her friends travel back in time and meet him), and his artwork is central to the plot. If you want to know more about the Sword, Mirror, Jewel trilogy, go here …

Sword, Mirror, Jewel

If you want to know more about the world of the Japanese supernatural, try this …

The Unofficial Guide to Japanese Mythology

Also, if you want to know more about Yokai and Yurei specifically, try these excellent books by Japan-based writer Matt Alt!

Yokai Attack

Yurei Attack

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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