Photo Essays

Goblins, Ghosts, and Ghouls in Japanese Prints

If you want to hear a terrifying ghost story this Halloween, look to Japan.

Kawanabe Kyosai. May: Shoki the Demon Queller Riding on a Tiger, Subjugating Goblins, from the series Of the Twelve Months: the Fifth (Junikagetsu no uchi: gogatsu), 1887. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Kawanabe Kyosai’s 1887 print “May: Shoki the Demon Queller Riding on a Tiger, Subjugating Goblins,” from the series ‘Of the Twelve Months: The Fifth’ (Junikagetsu no uchi: gogatsu) (all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection)

If you want to hear a terrifying ghost story this Halloween, look to Japan. The country has an uncanny tradition of hair-raising tales known as kaidan, which samurai often told to show off their courage. According to tradition, the Edo period warriors would gather at night in a room lit by 100 candles. Each would blow one out after sharing his own ghoulish encounter, until a single flame was left burning. It was up to the last brave soul to snuff it out — if he could.

Unsurprisingly, these ghost stories piqued the artistic imagination, and many printmakers in 18th- and 19th-century Japan translated them into colorful woodblock prints. Some are now on view in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints, an exhibition not meant for the easily spooked.

Among images of the demon queller Shoki fighting off goblins, the show includes several eerie prints from Katsushika Hokusai’s series One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku Monogatari). One from 1831 depicts the murdered actor Kohada Koheiji pulling down the mosquito netting around the bed of his treacherous wife and her lover. Another shows the gruesome demoness Warai Hannya, who represents the soul of a jealous lover, holding the decapitated head of a child. You can see why even burly samurai warriors might have gotten a little freaked out.

Read on for more creepy tales.

Katsukawa Shunsho, “The Actors Ichikawa Danjuro V as a Skeleton, Spirit of the Renegade Monk Seigen (left), and Iwai Hanshiro IV as Princess Sakura (right), in the Joruri ‘Sono Omokage Matsu ni Sakura (Vestiges of Pine and Cherry),’ from Part Two of the Play Edo no Hana Mimasu Soga (Flower of Edo: An Ichikawa Soga), Performed at the Nakamura Theater from the First Day of the Second Month, 1783”

Katsukawa Shunsho’s 1783 print depicts the Buddhist monk Seigen who fell in love with Princess Sakura and later haunted her.

Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Stories (Hyaku monogatari), c. 1831. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Katsushika Hokusai, “Kohada Koheiji” (c. 1831), from the series ‘One Hundred Ghost Tales’ (Hyaku monogatari)

This print by Hokusai depicts a traveling actor murdered by his wife and her lover. He haunts the couple while they are in bed, pulling back the mosquito netting to get a closer look.

Katsushika Hokusai. The Laughing Demoness (Warai Hannya), from the series One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari), 1831/32. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Katsushika Hokusai, “The Laughing Demoness (Warai Hannya)” (1831/32)

Also by Hokusai, this one shows a “yamauba,” a woman whose romantic jealousy turns her into a demon that feeds on infants.

Katsushika Hokusai. Oiwa (oiwa-san), from the series One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari), 1831/32. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Katsushika Hokusai, “Oiwa (oiwa-san),” from the series ‘One Hundred Ghost Tales’

“Oiwa (oiwa-san)” became facially deformed after her husband poisoned her. She died of insanity and then returned to haunt him, often in the form of a paper lantern.

Katsukawa Shunsho. The Actor Segawa Yujiro I as Matsukaze, Sister of Togashi no Saemon, in the Play Gohiiki Kanjincho (Your Favorite Play Kanjincho [The Subscription List]), Performed at the Nakamura Theater from the First Day of the Eleventh Month, 1773, c. 1773. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Katsukawa Shunsho, “The Actor Segawa Yujiro I as Matsukaze, Sister of Togashi no Saemon, in the Play Gohiiki Kanjincho (Your Favorite Play Kanjincho [The Subscription List]), Performed at the Nakamura Theater from the First Day of the Eleventh Month, 1773.”
Katsukawa Shunsho’s 1773 print depicts Matsukaze, one of two sisters who tragically fall for the same man, who jilts them both. The heartbroken Matsukaze later sees her lover’s face in a pine tree.

Okumura Masanobu. Shoki the Demon Queller Sharpening His Sword, c. 1725. The Art Institute of Chicago. Clarence Buckingham Collection.
Okumura Masanobu, “Shoki the Demon Queller Sharpening His Sword” (1725)

Shoki was a physician who wanted to serve in the Chinese imperial palace, but he could not do so because of his ugliness. After he commited suicide, the Emperor Xuanzong took pity on him and awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.” From then on, Shoki’s spirit protected the emperor from demons. He readies for battle in Okumura Masanobu’s 1725 print.

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