by Robyn Ferrell
Japan Supernatural, AGNSW, 2 November, 2019 – 8 March, 2020
The Japan Supernatural show, on at the AGNSW over summer, was spooky in more ways than one.
It was a curiously off-beat product in amongst the recent Rembrandt and Van Gogh blockbusters, but one that made immediate sense as a marketing play, if nothing else. ‘Cool Japan’ meets Japonisme esoterica.
It was a fun-spooky encounter in which popular culture, even subculture, showed its debt to fine art printmaking and cultural history, through the figures of Japanese folklore collectively described as yōkai (strange apparitions or weird things). A very beautiful catalogue accompanied the exhibition, which provided a valuable extension of it for those who desired to look into this strangeness further.
More spooky were the elements not mentioned directly in the show, but emerging forcefully out of its heteroglossia. These included the place of a national cultural imaginary like that of Japan in the twenty-first century globalised culture industry; the crossover of graphic techniques between high art and cartooning in Japanese art that brings to the fore its unique tradition of line; and the revenants of an ancient animism that curiously morphs into ‘animation’ of contemporary fears and pleasures in a post-religious world culture.
A leading piece in the exhibition, Takashi Murakami’s ‘In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow’, put all this together. Covering one whole wall of the gallery, the work is testament to the screen painting tradition of Japanese art while deploying manga styles along with yōkai imagery to represent the tsunami and subsequent Fukuyama nuclear accident of 2011.
It is a depiction of the event that Murakami says changed him from a sceptic to a believer in the value of religious traditions to meet the challenges of change. Interviewed for the catalogue, the artist tells Justin Paton: ‘When the tsunami happened, I immediately felt why we are a religious culture. Because the tsunami killed more than 20,000 people … There were children who survived and the TV newscaster asked: ‘Where are your parents?’ This is a stupid question because the subtitles say the parents are dead. But this child said, ‘My parents have gone to the star.’ I realised, ‘Oh! This is a primitive thing. This is why Japanese people believe in this stuff.’ (catalogue, p.96)
The world alive with spirits
Shinto is said to have eight million deities. Like much animism, Shinto expresses the supernatural as an unseen overlay on the physical world, creating souls for all material things. In the Japanese heritage, the dead and the inanimate act alongside the living human and nonhuman in a world of moral pan-dependence.
Some yōkai depicted on Itaya Hiroharu’s hand-scroll, ‘Night procession of the hundred demons’ (circa 1820), are everyday tools and implements, depicted humorously. Pots and quills, musical instruments and umbrellas take on lives of their own, in revenge for being neglected or replaced when they become worn out. Household items that survive to be a hundred years old are said to come to life.
Animals – cats, dogs and foxes – are straightforward candidates, too, for spirits in the worldview of ‘old Japan’, and the exhibition works abounded with drawings of tanuki (raccoon-dogs), cat-demons, kappa (froglike humanoids) and kitsune (magic foxes).
The mythical figure of ‘one hundred’ is significant but not literal in the life of the supernatural – the ‘hundred ghosts’ or the ‘parade of one hundred demons’ or the texts promising ‘a hundred ghost stories’ measure a loose but very large number. They animate the art forms that make the transition from old to new Japan possible – woodblock prints, books and handscrolls that were early commodities of a flourishing art market. The striking drawings renewed figures of a lost religiosity for an increasingly secular audience. By the nineteenth century, many Japanese had moved to the city, leaving behind the rural life. The parlour game of hyaku monogatari (one hundred stories), in which ghost stories are told to the extinguishing of lamps, evoked the power of storytelling to keep alive traditions when social moorings had shifted.
So the transition from the traditional past to the technological behemoth of modern Japan is figured in the art of the supernatural. The trend for nostalgia in the twentieth century for the rural life of old Japan might be explained as a plea for a different memory of the past, one that avoids failed imperial and militaristic adventures. It leads to the surprising success of Japanese figures in global popular culture.
The ghosts themselves emerge as global phenomena in videogames like Pokémon and card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! It isn’t commonly appreciated how the techniques of manga and anime develop out of the popular print industry in 18th century and 19th century Japan. This exhibition made that link for viewers unfamiliar with the tradition called ukiyo-e. The prints in the exhibition were by many of the leading exponents of the woodblock and coloured line drawing that characterised Japanese art of that era – and which today remains emblematic of it in famous pieces like Hokusai’s ‘Wave’.
Some yōkai figures are pathos-laden. Human ghosts are more commonly women, appearing in stories that make sense of the haunting quality of the supernatural.
The eighteenth century handscroll by Toriyama Sekien, ‘Night Procession of the Hundred Demons’ (c. 1772-81), depicts traditional figures like the woman with a long neck, a serene figure in a beautiful robe with a red lining, head floating away as if on a string. She is a rokurokubi. The head separating from the body is clearly an uncanny trope. There is an earlier version of rukurokubi, a nukekubi whose head comes right off and flies around without the body. This is often explained in stories as meaning that the soul has left its body, and it often happens at night. Occasionally, the head returns by morning and the nukekubi becomes like a normal human being again albeit with a tell-tale line around the neck.
But more often the story does not end well. The elongated neck is sometimes imagined as a transformation related to the karma of another’s action, usually of her husband or father. In one story, that of a geisha whose neck stretched in her sleep, it was described as her ‘heart becoming loose’.
The unnaturalness of the head coming loose seems intuitively similar to other ideas from other cultures in which women are feared for their ‘hysteria’ (wandering wombs) or for losing their heads to passion.
Some of the traditional female yōkai embody the predicament of women killed by lovers, dead in childbirth or left to die in old age. Such figures are found on the edges – in woods, near streams, on bridges; in liminal spaces where community is not secure. At night, in rain, in snow. They exhibit the classic ghost function of revisiting crimes and grievances, acting as reminders of collective bad conscience.
These yōkai are not pleas for justice – for things to be otherwise – so much as the fear of them as agents of retribution in a fatalist account of the universe. The subordination of women returns in the figure and her narrative as an individual mistreated or dispossessed.
For example, depicted on the scroll is the yamauba, or mountain hag, who takes the form of an elderly lady by day, sometimes offering travellers food and lodging. But by night she transforms into an ugly witch who eats her guests. The yamauba often appears to nurse children before eating them. The figure may arise from the treatment of old women in times of famine; it was the custom of families to lead their senile mothers deep into the woods and leave them to die.
Ubagabi, the fire hag or ‘old woman’s fire’, is a flaming head seen flying through the air on the Sekien scroll. She appears as a fireball in rain, near rivers or may briefly be seen as a chicken or other bird. The ubagabi story tells of a poor woman who stole oil offerings from a shrine, and who suicided in the pond behind it from shame. The ‘unclean death’ caused her to become a yōkai rather than dying and ‘passing over’. Her real crime was poverty – she was stealing the oil to make ends meet.
Ubume is a yōkai of a pregnant woman who dies, or a woman who dies in childbirth. She is depicted on the scroll with blood on the lower part of her body cradling her child. Ubume has been figured ‘since ancient times’, and can be seen as responding to the grief of miscarriage and death in childbirth.
The exhibition renders this privileged connection between women and haunting, featuring some remarkable work of contemporary Japanese women artists in the yōkai space. Miwa Yanagi revisits the uncanny in her reframing of old stories in large black and white photographs. In an artistic vision that owes something to Cindy Sherman as it does to a particular Japanese supernatural sensibility, grotesque moments in fairy tales of east and west are reversed. Moments of confrontation are staged between young and old women, Rapunzel and Cinderella, girl and hag.
Fuyuko Matsui’s Nyctalopia, painted in the Nihonga style of hanging scroll painting, portrays a female ghost, shown in white without feet as is customary. Her contemporary, Chiho Aoshima, shows the yokai in the garb of the manga style, the large-eyed sprites bringing out the kawai or cuteness that delights contemporary popular culture.
From old Japan to new media
The Pokémon, Jynx, is a reference to yamauba. For the generation raised on the internet, yōkai are not esoteric but part of the games and animations that they have grown up with. While the legacy of Shinto and Buddhist lore is obscured, the function of yōkai to express emotional realities remains active, and goes some way to explaining the popularity of manga and anime globally.
The question remains, as academic Michael Foster notes: How yōkai will be transformed as Japanese popular culture becomes more conspicuous in the global marketplace. ‘How will yokai negotiate the fractured, multiethnic, multilingual, internet-linked terrain of transnational culture?’, he asks. (p213) He describes how the spirit of classification evidenced in the Pokédex, yōkai-ology and other amateur researches produces for consumers an ‘otherworld’, in which the yōkai are just one source of ‘a dream of continued mystery and the hope of transcendence.’ (p215)
The reception of Japanese anime exports began after the first world war, when animations were exchanged between afficionados in France and Japan. In popular culture, it has gone from novelty in the 1970s to a ‘widely accepted and high-status art export from Japan’, as researchers Buljan & Cusak observe.
They detail in their study Anime, Religion and Spirituality how the uptake of anime and manga into Western culture has been led by a sincere fandom, which in its dedication has brought these forms from amateur and esoteric circulation through individual sub-cultures to the large-scale production and release of movies, comics and games through the culture industry.
Buljan & Cusack trace the phenomenon as a bridge between profane and sacred for a host of seekers in secular times. They argue the identifications with which modern fans take up their objects speaks to the need for mythologies to reinvent the link from material to meaning.
‘Japan Supernatural’ also demonstrates a very contemporary haunting – art as the contemporary channel through which we consumers are drawn to make this link. Whether it is in going to galleries to engage with art movements, or going on the internet to find anime, the exhibition reveals the diverse audience for this search.
Within the constraints of commodified products and packaged experience, the supernatural can still pervade our hypermodern lives. As Murakami has said: ‘Japan was not a safe place when yokai first emerged and yokai are not just cute. My big question for this painting is, what is yokai right now? What are our monsters today?’ (p97)
About the Author
Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy, Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan and Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context. Her most recent book is Philosophical Essays on Free Stuff.
Japan Supernatural: ghosts, goblins and monsters 1700s to now, catalogue, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney: 2019
Anime, Religion and Spirituality: profane and sacred worlds in contemporary Japan Katharine Buljan & Carole M. Cusack, Equinox, Sheffield: 2015
Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese monsters and the culture of yokai Michael Dylan Foster, University of California Press, Berkeley: 2009