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I Ain't Afraid of Noh Ghost!

Active from 1790 until his death in 1849, Katsushika Hokusai was a renowned Japanese painter and printmaker in his day, perhaps most famous in the West for The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Lesser known is Hokusai’s series of prints One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari), based on a popular game of the Edo period thought to have been created by samurai as a test of courage. The game begins at nightfall, with participants lighting 100 candles in a dark room. They then take turns telling ghost stories (kaidan), many of which are traditional tales with a moral lesson. A candle is blown out after each story, making the room grow darker and darker. It is thought that spirits are conjured once the final candle is blown out and the room is pitch black. It is no wonder then that some players would leave the final candle untouched! Below are a few gruesome kaidan for your Halloween pleasure, as depicted by the master Housai.

The Home of Dishes (Sara Yashiki) tells the story of a young maid who accidentally broke some of her master's precious kitchenware. The unforgiving nobleman murdered the young woman and threw her body in the well. Her ghost returned nightly thereafter to plague him.

According to the legend, Kohada Koheiji, depicted here, was a traveling actor murdered by his wife and her secret lover. Here, Koheiji pulls down a mosquito net bed canopy to torment his killers while they lie in bed together.

Hannya was originally the deity of smallpox in the Indian kingdom of Gandhara. In the Noh theatre tradition, she represents the lost soul of a jealous or tormented lover and her mask is often fitted with horns. Here, the demoness holds the decapitated head of a child in her upraised hand; blood oozes from the wounds she inflicts with her long fingernails.

This symbolic print features mementos of the dead in accordance with the usual customs: a bowl of water with a green leaf in it, a spirit table, and a tablet bearing the inscription of the Buddhist name of the deceased. The snake, not surprisingly, symbolizes malevolence but can also symbolize the spirit world. One assumes the snake is lingering around this shrine to the dead for less-than-benevolent reasons.

Happy Halloween!

Katsushika Hokusai. The Home of Dishes (Sara Yashiki), from the series "One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari)", c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji, from the series "One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatari)", c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. The Laughing Ogress (Warai Hannya), from the series "One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatarti)", c. 1831-32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. Haunted Revenge (Shunen), from the series "One Hundred Stories (Hyaku Monogatarti)", c. 1831–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.