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Goin’ Japanesque!

An Exhibition: Scary Pictures of Ukiyo-e at Ota Memorial Museum of Art

When we are in the midsummer after days of sweltering heat, Japanese people start to have an itch to gather and tell stories of ghosts and monsters to each other, or enjoy “kimodameshi” to test their courage at scary places.

These are typical customs that Japanese people enjoy in summer. Since the times when there were no air conditioners, Japanese people have traditionally told scary stories to make each other’s hair stand on end and test their courage at scary places to bring a chill to their bones, to drive away the summer heat.

Japanese people back in the Edo Period (17th – 19th century) especially favored ghost stories for the themes of kabuki plays and novels and many artists of Ukiyo-e also painted monster and ghost themed Ukiyo-e pictures.


Where to Enjoy Old Scary Ukiyo-e Pictures?

For the period from August 2nd (Tue) until 28th (Sun), 2016 (except 8th, 15th and 22nd when the museum will be closed), Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo is holding an exhibition themed on “Scary Pictures of Ukiyo-e,” which depict scary ghosts and monsters and used to be very popular among the general public in the Edo Period.

“Curiosity towards horror” has long been universal among humans since long time ago. Anyone, regardless of nationality, culture and superficial temperament, more or less has such a mental tendency deep in his or her mind. Many horror movies regularly becoming a big hit well showcases how scary things never cease to stir up our curiosity.

The Exhibition of “Scary Pictures of Ukiyo-e” will provide an interesting opportunity for us to know what kind of scary and horror images Japanese people used to be ambiguously attracted to. Information: Map


Japanese Ghosts

Kunisada Utagawa (歌川国貞) 「見立三十六歌撰之内 藤原敏行朝臣 累の亡魂」 (C)太田記念美術館蔵

Ghosts show up in front of someone who has become their object of curse in order to wreak their bitter resentment lingering even after their death. The ghost depicted in this Ukiyo-e is a woman named “Kasane” and the story of this female ghost is based on a true incident. The picture well conveys her resentment against men whose selfishness caused her death.


Japanese Monsters

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (月岡芳年) 「郵便報知新聞 第五百六十五号」 (C)太田記念美術館蔵

There are many Ukiyo-e pictures depicting monsters such as Oni (devil), Umibozu (sea giant), gigantic snake, Tsuchigumo spider, Kyubi No Kitsune (nine-tailed fox) and Bakeneko (ghost cat). Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, who is known by the name of “the last Ukiyo-e artist,” created many grotesque and appalling paintings along with many other famous works themed on samurai soldiers. The 663rd issue of “Nishikie Shimbun,” one of the tabloid papers back at the time, features a picture depicting “Kurobozu,” which appears every single night to seek for a woman to lick all over her body.


One of the Exhibition’s Points of Interest

Kuniyoshi Utagawa (歌川国芳) 「四代目市川小団次の於岩ぼうこん」 (C)太田記念美術館蔵

This piece depicts a scene from one of the series of plays themed on the famous ghost story called “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan.” The strange figure of the monster standing behind a woman almost in the same pose will leave you wondering about the meaning of this picture. This picture is actually the right part of a two-part work, so you will be able to grasp the whole picture of the story by looking at the other part of the left. Make sure to pay a visit and check.


There will also be a slide talk show by the exhibition curator, with which you can learn many more points of interest. Why not cool yourself with the chilling scary Ukiyo-e pictures and awaken your own curiosity towards horror at this exhibition?

Related: Yokai Articles

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About the author

Favorite genres are various aspects of Japanese otaku culture. Having been away from Japan for some time, there are many scenes where Azuki realizes the differences between international culture and Japanese culture. Through her own experience and knowledge, she hopes to deliver useful information to the international community who are interested in Japan.

View all articles by Azuki