Kyōsai Hyakki Gadan, 1889

Artist: Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎 (1831-1889)
Title: Kyōsai hyakki gadan 暁斎百鬼画談 (1889) Kyōsai’s Pictures of One Hundred Demons
Publisher: Kaishinrō
Medium: Woodblock printed book (gajōsō / orihon, accordion-style binding), ink and color on paper.
image source: The Met and The Arthur Tress Collection at Kislak Center, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Kyōsai’s Hyakki gadan features many, or “one hundred,” ghosts (yōkai 妖怪) and monsters (bakemono 化け物). The yōkai are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. In addition to the folklore in Kyōsai’s Hyakki Gadan the history of the narrative is also an important element to Kyōsai’s work. This popular topic has many precedents, including the many illustrated books by Toriyama Sekien from the eightteenth century, with one of the earliest extant examples the painting by Tosa Mitsunobu from the 1500s.

The topic of these spectral figures was also part of the tradition of telling ghost stories, particularly enjoyed during the summer months. On some occasions, people would gather at dusk and tell ghost stories to each other, extinguishing a candle after each story would be completed. As each candle was blown out, it was thought that a yōkai would appear in the room. This is illustrated in Hyakki Gadan in the image where a man dressed in black is telling a scary tale to a group of people . Soon after the book shows a parade of yōkai and bakemono entering, shown moving across the page from the right to the left. At the end, the monsters run from the rising sun back to the underworld. For Kyōsai, the story is clearly about these monsters and the relationship they have with people. There is little to no background in the images. Thus, it pulls the reader into the “floating world.” This is a dream space, a place for stories, and a lack of background is disorienting yet places the reader into the appropriate space for the story to take place. This place is somewhere in the world of dreams, and the light at the end seems to wake the reader out of this world. (source of text: University of Pennsylvania Libraries)

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