Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore. 

Okiku Ghost HokusaiI. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)

This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki [1741]. There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs. 

Oiwa Picture HokusaiII. The Ghost of Oiwa

Hokusai painted this haunting print to depict the main character in the ghost story of Oiwa, a famous Japanese tale of betrayal, murder and revenge. In the original story, Iemon, a ronin, is married to his devoted wife Oiwa. Iemon kills his father-in-law because the old man discovered the shady past of the ronin. Iemon then promises his wife to find the identity of the murderer. Later, Iemon agrees to partake in an evil deed  with his neighbour whereby he would marry his grand-daughter and become wealthy. Iemon then has to kill his wife, and gives her medicine that disfigures her, but does not kill her. However, upon seeing her disfigurement and realising her husband’s evil nature and betrayal, she dies from a broken heart. What follows is the torment endured by the evil husband from the spirit of his dead wife who seeks to avenge herself. She first appears to Iemon as his new bride, and he kills her only to realise that he, in fact, killed his real bride who would make him wealthy. The story continues with similar “unexplained” murders. Hokusai painted Oiwa arising from a Japanese lantern as she would be presented in the story – balding, with bloodshot, drooping eyes, all effects of her husband’s poison. 

Kohada KoheijiIII. The Phantom of Kohada Koheiji 

Hokusai depicts in this woodblock print the “skeletal” spirit of an actor Kohada Koheiji, the centre of urban legends in the seventeenth century Japan. In his life, Kohada did not have any special skill or acting talent, but still became famous for playing Kabuki ghosts or yūrei in Japanese. His wife Otsuka and her lover Adachi devised a scheme to get rid of Kohada. They invited him on a fishing trip, and, during it, Adachi pushed Kohada into the swampy water, holding him there until Kohada drowned. Kohada rose again as yūrei or a spirit though, returning to his previous role. He began to torment his murderous wife and her lover, eventually causing their unnatural deaths. In this spooky picture, as it was also customary at that time, Kohada is depicted as a skeletal creature with an enlarged head and bulging eyes, peeking over the net. 

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