Japanese Ghosts and Demons

I love Japanese ghost stories and that’s why I’m crazy about Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi was born in Japan in 1797. Originally his name was Yoshisaburō, but he changed it when he went to work in Utagawa Toyokuni’s studio as a printmaker. Like all great artists he was dogged by a lack of appreciation and a lack of funds. Thankfully he didn’t let poverty and the absence of patronage prevent him from pursuing his art. Nobody ever really appreciates the truly brilliant artists. It’s the commonplace kind that are generally wined and dined and over-celebrated. At one point our creative hero was actually reduced to selling tatami mats to keep rice on the table.

He didn’t get a major commission until 1827 when he produced the One hundred and eight heroes of the popular Suikoden all told (Tūszoku Suikoden gōketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori) series. He covered the heroes in his prints with tattoos. Well, that did the trick. Not only did it seriously influence the fashion of his day, it gained him access into the wildly popular ukiyō-e world, which was the pop and paparazzi scene back in old Edo. Later he added supernatural stuff to his thrilling mix. The public loved it. Understandably. The grim and ghastly really upped the ante for his heroes.

Why am I writing about him? Because he majorly influenced our manga and anime, because of the cool tattoo connection, because his work is so totally creepy and because they are having an exhibition of his prints (Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters) from Friday, March 12 to Sunday, June 13 at the Japan Society Gallery in New York. If you can’t go, check out some of his work online. Let me know if you like it too.

—Erin Orison, DEAD LOVE/The Daily Slice


Image: Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton Spectre, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1845


  • boldlow

    Hi Erin – what a wonder you've introduced! Utagawa's collection is something not to rush through! His mastery is breathtakingly beautiful. Of 150 images, these 5 caught my eye – probably be visited with visions of demons and samarai after this:
    - the arrow-wounded tiger
    - King of the devils who roil earth
    - Mitsukuni Defies a Skeleton Specter
    - Octopus, Bear and Dragonfly'
    - Hatsuhane Doing penance under Tonosawa waterfull

    Even the titles are mesmerizing…so this is the origins of Manga and Anime…can hardly wait for the hard cover!

  • deadlovebook

    And creepy. Same faves for me.

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