Toriyama Sekien understood the value of things you can’t see. In 1772, the Japanese poet, scholar and ukiyo-e woodblock artist made it his mission to chronicle the yōkai, the band of otherworldly creatures that have always loomed large in the country’s imagination. He created the Night procession of the hundred demons, a silk handscroll that features intricate drawings of shapeshifting foxes; mischievous kappa, frog-like creatures that lurk in muddy waters; and nekomata, a two-tailed cat that can raise the dead by jumping over fresh corpses. Near the darkened entrance of Japan supernatural, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s audacious summer exhibition, you can touch a screen featuring virtual fireballs and – just like that – these shadowy fixtures of Japanese folklore spring to life.
Japan supernatural: ghosts, goblins and monsters 1700s to now is the largest presentation of Japanese art in the gallery’s history. The show is curated by the gallery’s senior curator of Asian art, Melanie Eastburn, and features more than 180 paintings, carvings, installations, video works and ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The works trace Japan’s obsession with the paranormal during the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji era (1868-1912). In the latter, the country opened up to the West after 200 years of isolation and – thanks to growing modernisation – became increasingly sceptical of homegrown superstitions.
The exhibition also shows us how Japan’s long-time fascination with ghosts and monsters bubbles up once again in postwar horror films and forms such as manga, anime, art and literature, symptoms of a country grappling with the terrors of economic uncertainty and environmental catastrophe.
But Japan supernatural refuses the neat chronology of its subtitle. It delights, instead, in playfulness over rational thinking, in slippages between past and present. It creates portals between the reality we think we understand and a world that can’t be explained by empirical knowledge.
The “summer blockbuster”, charged with the task of drawing the biggest crowds possible, can be guilty of patronising audiences or simply shoring up their aesthetic values. For the West, Japan has long been a source of cultural voyeurism. In the early 1870s, the French critic Philippe Burty conceived the term “Japonisme” to describe Europe’s craze for Japanese art and design. This phenomenon, which imagines Japan not as a real and complex place but as a foil for European vices and problems, manifests in modern-day Japanophilia – a fetish for all things Muji or Marie Kondo or Takashi Murakami.
Japanese culture and history can be singular and specific, yes. But this habit of treating Japan as culturally “other” is lopsided. As Jason Farago points out in a 2015 article for the BBC, ukiyo-e woodblock prints changed the ways in which artistic giants such as Monet and Degas understood scale, perspective and composition, setting the stage for Impressionism and making way for the art world as we know it.
Thankfully, Japan supernatural’s focus on detail and thoughtful presentation – the exhibition design ushers the viewer through a series of moodily lit spaces – encourages audiences to shed their preconceptions. Refreshingly, it positions Japanese artists as central to visual culture. This makes the show so much richer.
The term ukiyo-e, which means “floating world”, was used by the Japanese writer Asai Ryōi in 1666 to describe Edo-era Japan. It was a time and place defined by fleeting worldly pleasures and explosive leaps in visual expression: the rise of kabuki shadow plays, for example, or the creation of Katsushika Hokusai’s masterful print The great wave off Kanagawa.
But as Japanese society grew more urbane and cosmopolitan, the era’s artists became increasingly drawn to yōkai. Sometimes, these creatures give shape to fears or transgressive fantasies. Take Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s The revived fox spirit Dakki appears before a court lady in China (1849-50), a woodblock print that depicts a showdown between an otherworldly fox and a knife-wielding Chinese courtesan. Or his Weightlifting (1843-44), which sees a tanuki – a Japanese raccoon-dog prone to playing pranks on humans – lifting its own giant pair of testicles, typical of the era’s lewd humour.
Yōkai can also reflect the Japanese belief in anthropomorphism, an idea – and a tenet of Shinto philosophy – that everything in the world possesses a soul, regardless of whether it is human, natural or inanimate. Given we’re living through a time in which acknowledging the interconnectedness of all things feels like a matter of survival, works such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 19th-century series One hundred aspects of the moon – which features spirit energies moving freely between humans and nature, rendered in gorgeous colours – have never felt fresher, or more alive.
The same can’t be said of Takashi Murakami’s Japan Supernatural: Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters. The 10-metre-long painting of a giant cat that presides over a fight between yōkai and samurai was commissioned by AGNSW from the Japanese art star for a seven-figure sum. It’s the largest painting to enter the gallery’s international collection. Unfortunately, the painting’s sheer scale and technical artistry don’t make up for its lack of animating spirit. Murakami has long owed his art-world celebrity to the way he cleverly repackages the Japan of the Western imagination. But next to works such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Fifty-three stations of the Yōkaidō Road (2008), all sumptuous blues and delicate brushstrokes, this cartoonish rendering of a battle is full of empty tropes that wink at Murakami’s love of manga and anime without truly arriving at any visual destination. It left me cold.
In the catalogue interview with Justin Paton, AGNSW’s head curator of international art, Murakami attributes his interest in yōkai to the 2011 tsunami. Christopher Harding, in a 2018 essay in Aeon magazine, writes about the rise of encounters with yūrei – the Japanese term for ghost or “dim spirit” – in the wake of the disaster, which saw 20,000 people drown or go missing off the north-east coast of Honshū. In Japanese folklore, yūrei, spirits who hover in the space between life and death, are souls who have died quickly or violently. They wander the human realm seeking revenge or absolution. Japanese artists often represented yūrei as white-robed women with skeletal faces and long, tangled hair, as seen in hanging scrolls by Inagaki Ranpo, Shibata Gitō and Yoshitoshi.
These works, which hang around an artful circular display near the end of the exhibition, reflect the Japanese understanding of our embodied state as transient and ephemeral, vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters. Their drawn and wizened faces suggest that the horror of losing your body before you’re ready is a recipe for heartbreak. Across the room, Chiho Aoshima’s Little Miss Gravestone’s Absent Musing (2016) reimagines death as a site of innocence, a return to the freedom we experienced at childhood. The interactive triptych sees one of the Japanese pop artist’s childlike figures dancing and singing on a tombstone. We hear the plaintive twang of the samisen, a stringed instrument from the Edo era. Insects and yōkai swarm the lush green foliage around her. Aoshima, part of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki art collective, is best known for intricate line drawings that combine traditional Japanese landscapes with the kawaii – or cute – figures that rule Japanese pop culture. But here she imagines death as life force. I couldn’t look away.
Japan supernatural shows us how paranormal forces are expressions of anxieties and fantasies that exist in the culture. Sometimes, these border on misogynist, trafficking in toxic notions of femininity. I couldn’t stomach, for example, Yoshitoshi’s The lonely house on Adachigahara (1885), which features an onibaba or “demon hag” crouching next to a pregnant, gagged woman, bound by the ankles.
Yōkai and yūrei can assume different forms. But their true power may lie in their ability to give shape to the invisible ideas that circulate in society – before subverting them. Miwa Yanagi’s 2004-06 series Fairy tale recasts Yoshitoshi’s woman as the witch from a Brothers Grimm story, in chilling monochrome photographs that show the experience of womanhood as haunted by the ghosts of innocence and experience, a younger self you can never return to and an ageing doppelganger that dooms you to irrelevance.
And in Fuyuko Matsui’s video work Regeneration of a breached thought (2012), a sublime study in seething, unsettling surfaces, a woman’s shiny black ponytail – a symbol of youth and beauty – is a murder weapon, winding itself tighter around her neck at the pace of a seduction. One of the strongest works in Japan supernatural, it echoes the central refrain of the exhibition: that you shouldn’t always believe what you see.
That thing that seems real? It’s probably just an apparition.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Spirited away". Subscribe here.