What time is it? It’s Halloween time! Creepy ghost stories, skeletons lurking over your heads, a whisper in the corner of your house – all
of that is right around the corner! And we’re not the only ones who love a good horror story. Yes my friends, when it comes to a story that would make you jump up or look out for shadows when you go to bed, Japanese ukiyo-e do a good job of bringing about such imagery. Whether it be Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print series with 100 ghost stories, or the Witch and the Skelton Specter, you might have to run for your life after seeing a few of these! So get ready folks, because this article is about to spook you a whole bunch! While most of these ghost-related themes aren’t exactly from the Edo period, but date back to the myths of the late Heian Period (794-1185), the Edo period woodblock artists definitely got quite creative with what they had . And not just them. 19th-century artists also did a good job of scaring people with the supernatural kind of ukiyo-e, making it a popular subject at the time. So without further ado, let’s dive into some of these spooky, supernatural, ghost-themed prints.
First comes the legend Katsushika Hokusai – the artist who’s best known for bringing The Great Wave Off Kanagawa to this world. But did you know, that right around the time when this piece was published, Hokusai had started to conjure up a bunch of super frightening and mind-boggling stories from Japanese folklore. Yes, that’s right. The story of Oiwa, a possessed lantern who would haunt her husband
in the darkness of the night. Or Kohada Koheji, a corpse full of vengeance and revenge who would watch you in your sleep. You’re probably thinking, what the hell? Where did these strange stories come from? Or was Hokusai just slowly going insane? Well, no he wasn’t. All these stories come from the ghoulish supernatural art form of Japan. An art form that was very well liked might I add – so you could say a guilty pleasure of sorts, just one that gives you a fearful rush. And with age, Hokusai also developed a liking for this form of art. So much so, that he started making prints about ghosts in Heian folklore, known as Yokai in Japan. There might not be one English word that could describe Yokai accurately. But collectively you could say these were mysterious creatures that are strange, and scary but somehow so utterly beautiful. And that’s what Hokusai tried to show in Hyaku Monogatari or One Hundred Ghosts Stories. But maybe ran a few people off while trying to do so. Yikes! And each piece has a whole backstory to it.
Let’s talk about Oiwa, one of the stories in Hokusai’s series. Oiwa’s husband had been having an affair with the neighbor and was no
longer in love with her. So when Oiwa fell sick one day, he gave her a potion, telling her that it would in fact cure her. But like any other tragic relationship story, the potion was poison and made Oiwa even more sick. And in an accident of sorts, she fell on her husband’s sword. Classic. Now here comes the scary part. Oiwa’s spirit passed onto a night lantern in their house. And now that she was free from her wife’s role, she haunted him day and night to the point that he became mad and frantic. And believe it or not, all of that is in one single Hokusai art piece. There’s Oiwa’s name in Japanese and on her forehead is the name of the Buddhist god of death and evil Yama, so a foreshadowing of sorts .
And believe it or not, several other ghost stories are also equally as disturbing. In fact, the way Hokusai shows them in his woodblock prints makes them even more harrowing and horrifying. Tale of a corpse that was once a kabuki actor, or a lady servant whose spirit emerges at night to find an expensive plate she lost etc., etc. the list doesn’t end .
Some Hokusai-inspired ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi had a more contemporary approach to the supernatural world of Japanese art and Yokai. Instead of taking from real people who became spirits or were driven to it, his stories and depictions were more fictional; Such as Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter. This piece also has a strange story to it, the story of a Princess Takiyasha whose kingdom had lost all their soldiers to the battle of Kojima where the King fought his own brother and was killed brutally. Helpless, the princess turned to witchcraft to take revenge on the King’s brother – her uncle. The princess eventually learns how to summon a large skeleton – Gashadokuro, in times of turmoil. But one wrong move, and he would kill you all . So what we see in Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter is a princess on the left, summoning a large skeleton from the bones of the dead and feeding off of the enemy. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the creativity put into this Yokai woodblock triptych. The artist did a good job of making it seem possible, didn’t he?
Were you spooked enough by these two? Or are you craving more? Well, it’s Halloween season all around. So the next time you head out and see a place that sells and buys Japanese woodblock art, do look out for more in this supernatural genre to quench that thirst!
 Haruhara, Yoko. “When It Came to Horror, Ukiyo-e Artists Kept Their Wits about Them.” The Japan Times, 13 Aug. 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/07/10/arts/came-horror-ukiyo-e-artists-kept-wits/.
 Kuniyoshi, Utagawa. “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter.” Obelisk Art History, 1 Jan. 1970, https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/utagawa-kuniyoshi/takiyasha-the-witch-and-the-skeleton-spectre/.
 Papyrus, Diana @ Thoughts on. “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts.” Thoughts on Papyrus, 1 Aug. 2022, https://thoughtsonpapyrus.com/2019/10/11/katsushika-hokusai-ukiyo-e-woodblock-prints-of-ghosts/.