The Ghosts and Monsters of Hokusai: See the Famed Woodblock Artist’s Fearsome & Amusing Visions of Strange Apparitions

When Hal­loween comes around this year, con­sid­er play­ing a round of hyaku­mono­gatari. You’ll need to assem­ble a hun­dred can­dles before­hand, but that’s the easy part; you and your friends will also need to know just as many ghost sto­ries. In ear­ly nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan, “par­tic­i­pants would sit in a can­dlelit room and take turns telling fright­en­ing tales. After each one was shared, a can­dle would be extin­guished until there was no light left, in the room. It was then that the yōkai [“strange appari­tions”) would appear.” So says Youtu­ber Hochela­ga (who’s pre­vi­ous­ly cov­ered the Bib­li­cal apoc­a­lypse and long-ago pre­dic­tions of the future) in the video above, “The Ghosts of Hoku­sai.”

We all know the name of Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai, the most wide­ly renowned mas­ter of the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese wood­block-print art called ukiyo‑e. In a life­time span­ning the mid-eigh­teenth to the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Hochela­ga notes, Hoku­sai cre­at­ed around 30,000 unique pieces of art, includ­ing The Great Wave off Kana­gawa, part of Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.

But before exe­cut­ing that tri­umphant late series, Hoku­sai made his own Hyaku­mono­gatari (lit­er­al­ly, “hun­dred tales”) — or rather, he ren­dered in his dis­tinc­tive style five of those tra­di­tion­al ghost sto­ries’ trag­ic, grotesque, and often humor­ous pro­tag­o­nists.

These char­ac­ters are yōkai, those “weird and mys­te­ri­ous beings” that “inhab­it super­nat­ur­al Japan.” They “come in all shapes and sizes, from friend­ly house­hold spir­its to fierce demons,” includ­ing the Oya­jirome, who lit­er­al­ly has an eye in the back of his head, and the Ushi-oni, “one part bull, one part crab, and the rest night­mare fuel.”  Hoku­sai’s inter­est tend­ed toward yōkai who had once been nor­mal humans: the neglect­ed wife of a samu­rai whose spir­it became trapped in a lantern, the mur­dered kabu­ki actor whose skele­tal remains emerged from a swamp to hunt down his killers.

You can read more about these yōkai, and take a look at Hoku­sai’s depic­tions of them, at the Pub­lic Domain Review and Thoughts on Papyrus. Soon after Hoku­sai’s death Japan opened to the world, begin­ning its trans­for­ma­tion into a state of hyper­moder­ni­ty. But tales of yōkai still have a cer­tain influ­ence on the Japan­ese cul­tur­al imag­i­na­tion, as evi­denced by the Miyoshi Mononoke Muse­um in Hiroshi­ma. Japan has been more or less closed once again these past cou­ple of years, but once it re-opens, why not make a trip to col­lect a few scary mono­gatari for your­self?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Japan­ese Folk­lore Mon­sters Is Now Open

The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa by Hoku­sai: An Intro­duc­tion to the Icon­ic Japan­ese Wood­block Print in 17 Min­utes

Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Mas­ter­piece, Includ­ing The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa

The Evo­lu­tion of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: See Four Ver­sions That Hoku­sai Paint­ed Over Near­ly 40 Years

View 103 Dis­cov­ered Draw­ings by Famed Japan­ese Wood­cut Artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai

Down­load 215,000 Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters Span­ning the Tradition’s 350-Year His­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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