Illustrations of the Yūrei, The Beguiling Spirits of Japanese Folklore
A house in Nerima, Tokyo is said to have harbored years of cursed vengeance against all those who step foot in it. The victims included a social worker, a detective, and a group of schoolgirls, who all reportedly died through the work of supernatural forces.
Decades before the lives of these victims, a man had murdered his wife, his child, and the house cat. On that fateful day, the spirits of the family (and the cat) were eternally entrapped in the house, plaguing and killing all those who visited it. The house has never known peace since.
So goes the plot of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), a Japanese horror film about a family seeking vengeance for eternity. These ghosts are categorized as Onryō — spirits who have been so deeply wronged in their lives that they cannot move on from the world. They are malevolent, wrathful, and often downright murderous.
The concept of Onryō is hardly a modern one, however — Japan has a long, rich history of tall tales and folklore. All of these stories trace their roots back to indigenous beliefs, such as the spirit-induced Shintoism, which is still widely practiced today.
Not all spirits are evil, though. Some are noble, and some have had far more tragic fates, like the Ubume (dead mothers who longed for their children). For the Japanese, all these spirits — the good, the bad, and the nuances in between — are as integral in the world as much as living beings are. The whole umbrella of spirits is called yūrei, which translates to “faint soul.”
While they are portrayed in varying spectrums — spooky, horrifying, just, benevolent, worthy of praise — the yūrei has inspired a myriad of spoken and written stories (Kaidan) and artworks (yūrei-zu).
Yūrei-zu: A Genre of Ghosts and Spirits
History would come to recognize a whole genre of Japanese art called yūrei-zu, which deals with all kinds of supernatural themes. All artworks — mostly paintings and woodblock prints — that feature ghosts, spirits, and even demons fall under this unique category.
The beginnings of yūrei-zu date back to the Japanese medieval period, where works of art consisted of paintings in scrolls. Centuries later, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), more and more artworks with elements of the supernatural started to become commonplace.
For some artists, such as Sawaki Suushi, these supernatural folktales became a rich vault of inspiration to pattern artworks on. Suushi would become famous for his picture scroll, the Hyakkai Zukan, or “The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons.” Within the scroll would be illustrations of folk demons and monsters — including his very own rendition of a yūrei.
Like Suushi’s, many paintings of the yūrei-zu were merely expressions of the supernatural, created out of the desire to depict ancient fear or pay reverence to them.
But some had more compelling stories behind them, surprisingly of less archaic origins. Katsushika Hokusai — the great master behind the renowned The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) — would create a portrait based on the life and demise of the famous theater ghost Kohada Koheiji.
As the story goes, Koheiji was a kabuki actor who, after portraying a yūrei, became a ghost himself. While his life is generally recognized as a true story, the details behind it had become muddled with lore, turning it into an urban legend of its time. Koheiji had been murdered by his wife and his lover by drowning him in a swamp. But he would rise again as a ghost, seek revenge, and kill them.
The rise of macabre paintings during the Tokugawa period was said to have been a result of extreme socio-political turmoil, as well as numerous natural catastrophes. Shaken with fear and apprehension, more people would turn towards lore to express the reasons behind these turbulent conditions.
However, state efforts would be made to censor the arts — including the yūrei-zu — in an attempt to restore Japan into a feudal agricultural society. The Tempō Reforms, reinstated by the regime, warned against the production and regulation of “morally dubious” works.
But artists would not be quelled — they would continue to create yūrei-zu (and other kinds of art) as a covert form of protest. Not only was the genre definitive of the country’s ancient beliefs; it was also a demonstration against a failing government. Eventually, the Tempō Reforms would prove futile, and the arts continued to flourish.
Other genres of art that would emerge around the end of the Edo period are chimidoro-e and muzan-e (“bloody” and “cruel paintings,” respectively). These would be of the same vein with the yūrei-zu, although they veered away from the supernatural and ventured towards more realistic themes, such as brutality and gore.
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, the “last great master” of woodblock painting, produced artworks of all these horrific genres.
Spirits in Modern Art and Culture
The illustrious history of ghosts and supernatural stories in Japan contributed to its incredible pantheon of modern horror tales. Today, Japan is a powerhouse of internationally acclaimed horror films, such as Ringu (1998), Ju-On (2002), and Dark Water (2002). Ghosts and superstitions would also become an interesting prospect for many modern artists outside Japan. Spirit photography would turn into a genre, too — one that is still growing today.
These seemingly obsolete concepts continue to fascinate the world long after it has moved towards secularity. Our curiosity and inclination towards spiritual stories invite us to inquire what lies in the beyond — and the imaginative vault of yūrei-zu is a testament to this inquiry.