Forget today's computer-generated demons - this is the real deal: "The Warrior Sakata Kintoki and Spectres" by Torii School painters. Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Ukiyo-e Series #2: Ghostly Worlds

Following our previous entry on Ukiyo-e, we embark once again on a trip to the enchanting worlds of Japanese woodblock prints (also currently on exhibit at two museums in Tokyo). Only this time, we’ll take a walk on the darker side: all about grotesque spectres and Yokai with twisting necks and one hundred eyes! With only faint moonlight to illuminate, nights in the Edo period must have been hooded in utter gloominess. A perfect setting for villagers to imagine all sorts of demons around them and inspiration to Ukiyo-e painters for their bizarre ghostly worlds!

Written by Ryoko
Translated by Natsumi

Today, we watch horror films for thrills. In old times, the Edo folks enjoyed giving each other sensations of fear by telling stories. The popular parlour game then was Hyakumonogatari – literally meaning “One Hundred Tales” – in which people took turns telling ghost stories. Only, the end of the final 100th tale was said to summon a supernatural phenomenon, so the game was always ended after the 99th tale. Consequently, Hyakumonogatari must have influenced Ukiyo-e artists that used to depict the lifestyle of that period.

Watch out for the Grim Reaper and his buddies! Utagawa Kuniyoshi, famous for his Samurai prints, also demonstrated his carving skills with yokai motifs, such as the “Soma no Furudairi” depicted above. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

”One Hundred Tales” by Katsushika Hokusai

It was none other than Ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai himself, previously featured here, who depicted the specters on the theme of “One Hundred Tales:” They were drawn from Hokusai’s unique imagination after people’s horror tales. Unfortunately, his ghost series never became that popular among Edo townsmen. And as digital distribution didn’t exist yet to generate a far-flung fan community of collectors, only a few prints of his ghost series remain in Japan today.

”The Ghost of Oiwa:” The avenging female ghost Oiwa appears as a lantern! Courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

”The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji:” Is that a smirk on his face? This one is a bit more comical than terrifying. Courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

Betrayal, murder and revenge!
Oiwa from the famous Yotsuya Kaidan tale was a woman murdered by her husband and his helpers. But they didn’t bank on her returning as a ghost of vengeance. In theatre plays such as Kyogen, Oiwa usually appears as a woman’s ghost, but Hokusai decided to represent her as lantern shape.

“Kohada Koheiji” is a tragic story about a man who was tortured and killed by his wife and her lover. Hokusai portrays his figure in great detail, depicting goggling eyes and exposed muscles almost like an anatomical drawing.

“The Laughing Hannya” (pictured below) is said to be the demon spirit of a woman mad with jealousy, and the sight of her smirking with a freshly severed head of a child in one hand is simply ghastly. Depicted next to it, the ancestral tablet in Hokusai’s “Obsession” painting is considered to be the artist’s own. The snake coiled around it is the epitome of its title theme.

Argh! ”The Laughing Hannya,” holding a freshly severed head of a child and an eerie smile fills her face. Courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

”Obsession” as a snake: Hokusai’s picture was authentically reproduced by contemporary woodblock printers. Courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

Dead innocence!
The Ghost Story of Okiku (pictured below) is another sad story about a servant girl at a Samurai household, who was murdered by her master after he accused her of breaking one of his ten heirloom plates, which she might not have done. She was thrown to her death at the bottom of a well – but Okiku’s ghost returned to torment the master every night, counting plates up to nine, and then letting out a terrible shriek in place of the tenth plate.

Simply haunting!
The spectre “Dodomeki” by artists of the Katsushika School depicts the ghost of a pickpocket or a thief. Its appearance with myriad eyes all over its body is both weird and frightening.

”The Ghost of Okiku:” A poor girl that was murdered because she supposedly broke a plate! That’s why her neck is made of them. Courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

He has his eyes on you – All of them! ”Dodomeki” by Katsushika School artists. Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Exhibition I:
The photos in this section are all courtesy of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints in Mejiro, Tokyo, where Hokusai’s “One Hundred Tales” is on exhibit right now. Surprisingly, all of the works on display are reprints by the few remaining woodblock printers in Japan! The craftsmen of the Adachi Institute also organise woodblock printing training and do collaborations with contemporary artists, in order to keep this unique art alive.

Exhibition II:
In addition, the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Omotesando, Tokyo, is currently hosting the “AYAKASHI Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e” exhibition. There, the “One Hundred Ghost Stories of Japan and China” series by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, an Ukiyo-e artist from the Meiji Period, is featuring creepy spectres such as Kappa water creatures.

”Shirafuji Genta watches Kappa” from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “One Hundred Ghost Stories of Japan and China:” Vivid, bright colours and meticulous lines are characteristic of his work. Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Yoshitoshi’s “The Greedy Old Lady” from the same colourful series. Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Ghost manga!
“One Hundred Monsters from Old Ghost Stories Sugoroku Print” by Utagawa Yoshikazu (below), a student of Utagawa Kuniyoshi renowned for his Samurai prints, is a unique Sugoroku featuring yokai demons such as Kasa and Rokurokubi. Though ghost Sugoroku were popular from the late Edo to the early Meiji period, this later work is still of particularly high quality.

Manga! “One Hundred Monsters from Old Ghost Stories Sugoroku Print” by Utagawa Yoshikazu. Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Modern looks!
And finally, we have the sorcerer pictures of Utagawa Toyokuni III (below): They look so modern – but are all from the Edo period! In this period, sorcerers often appeared in Kabuki stories and therefore served as Ukiyo-e motifs as well.

”Comparison of Tricks Drawn by Toyokuni: The Monk Moun” by Utagawa Toyokuni III: Wow, how psychedelic! Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

”Comparison of Tricks Drawn by Toyokuni: The Monk Gantetsu” by Utagawa Toyokuni III features strong graphic elements. Amazing! Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

I hope you enjoyed the vivid imaginative worlds of Ukiyo-e! If you want to see some real ones on display, head to the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints or the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art:

“One Hundred Tales” by Katsushika Hokusai exhibition
Adachi Institution of Woodcut Prints in Mejiro, Tokyo
Until September 29th. The reprints are permanently available after the exhibition (and for sale).
Open weekdays from 10:00 – 18:00,
2nd and 4th Saturday open 10:00 – 17:00
Admission: Free

“AYAKADHI Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerers in Ukiyo-e” exhibition
Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Omotesando, Tokyo
Until August 26th.
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:30 – 17:30
Admission: adults 700 Yen, students 200 or 500 Yen
On weekends and Bank Holidays, free admission for Junior High and Middle School students, half price for University and High School students.
Note: They have a special summer holiday campaign for kids: Get a ghost postcard by answering the Ukiyo-e quiz sheet!

  • karan mudgal

    as much as some of these freak me out i must say theyre quite amazing!

  • Akai

    Wow! They’re really creepy! Specially “The Laughing Hannya”.
    You can feel something real about them!
    THAT’s how monsters are meant to be hahaha

  • LC

    Naruto World!

  • anne

    Ahh, I love Ukiyo-e! Sugoi!!!!

  • rey-o

    wonderful stuff, inspirational images.

  • Okinawa

    Wow I really love this kind of art.

  • maki

    Incredible work by Ukiyo-e. His artistic sense is a heady mix of both th old and modern. Just looking at them just makes me feel so alive and creeped out.


    Nice…. but, Its all about Japanese cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki… The King of ghost worlds!

  • 空山

    very good!

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  • gnoble

    man, Japanese people love ghosts. While working at an eikawa over there you have no idea how many stories I heard about people seeing floating red orbs. Would’ve been a heck of a lot cooler if they had seen something that looked like the Ukiyo-e above, but what are you gonna do about it?

  • HDR

    Love this stuff

  • Anonymous

    Crazy! That’s sugoi ne!!

  • jersh the horrible

    hokusai, like all the great japanese masters, has a penchant for the macabre. with eerie skill, he shows the creepy side of japanese mythology.

  • Chris

    Wow this is a subject of ukiyoe i’ve never seen! Really cool. Reminds me of those school yard ghost stories we used to hear.

    Hey “Maki”, Ukiyoe is a style of art, not a person.

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  • Jonathan O’Donnell

    Hi Ryoko and Natsumi

    I’ve just been working on a site where you can mash-up ukiyo-e components to make simple animated Stories From Old Japan.

    In the process we captured some of the traditional print-making techniques and recorded local musicians playing traditional instruments.

    Have a look and let us know what you think.

    Thanks for a great mag!


  • g

    the reason they look modern is because modern stuff is influenced by them

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