Japan supernatural

2 Nov 2019 - 8 Mar 2020

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'The old woman retrieves her arm' from the series 'New forms of thirty-six ghosts', 1889 (detail)

Welcome to 'Japan supernatural'.

Here you will encounter an astonishing parade of shapeshifting animals, fiendish imps, legendary monsters and ethereal spirits. Tales of these creatures have been told for centuries in Japan, with artists helping to make otherwise unseen worlds tangible.

Kawanabe Kyōsai, 'Demon with a Buddhist prayer (Oni no nenbutsu)', 1864, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Asian Collection Benefactors Fund 2000.

Kawanabe Kyōsai, 'Demon with a Buddhist prayer (Oni no nenbutsu)’, 1864

Ogres, or oni, alongside animals and ghosts, were some of Kyōsai’s favourite subjects. They are generally thought of as fierce demons who can be menacing yet humorous in their actions. This oni is collecting donations for a temple and carries with him a list of donors (hōkachō). With a drum around his neck and a small hammer in his hand, he chants the nembetsu appealing to the Amida Buddha for the redemption of souls. The absurdity lies in the contrast of a demon masquerading as a Buddhist priest.

About the Japan supernatural exhibition

This exhibition introduces representations of the stories, events and beings of the invisible realm over almost 300 years, from the Edo period (1603–1868) to the present. Known by many names over time, supernatural beings are most often described as yōkai, while ghosts are called yūrei. Some yōkai are monstrous, others take human or animal form, and many are objects that have come to life. Such mystical creatures add richness and wonder to daily life and help to explain unusual events and experiences.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'The old woman retrieves her arm (Rōba kiwan o mochisaru zu)' from the series 'New forms of thirty-six ghosts (Shingata sanjūrokkaisen)', 1889, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2018.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'The old woman retrieves her arm (Rōba kiwan o mochisaru zu)’, 1889

Watanabe no Tsuna was instructed to rid the countryside of bandits and thieves. One of these outlaws was a demon named Ibaraki who preyed on travellers at Rajōmon, a gate between the earthly and spirit realms. One night, Watanabe nodded off to sleep at the gate when suddenly he felt someone touch his helmet. Stunned, he used his sword to slash above his head, cutting off the arm of the attacker who instantly fled. A priest advised Watanabe to place the hairy arm in a box and not let anyone see it. When Watanabe’s elderly aunt Mashiba arrived and asked to see inside the box, Watanabe agreed, only to discover that she was Ibaraki in disguise. This image shows her escaping with her arm.

Utagawa Yoshimori, 'The tongue-cut sparrow (Shitakiri suzume)', 1864, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2019.

Utagawa Yoshimori, 'The tongue-cut sparrow (Shitakiri suzume)’, 1864

Utagawa Yoshimori depicts the tale of a man who befriends a sparrow. His wife is cruel to the bird, cutting out its tongue when it eats her rice paste. The injured sparrow flees but is found and cared for by the man. The bird’s grateful family offer the man a gift, either a small, light basket or a large, heavy one. The man chooses the smaller basket and finds it full of silks and treasure. When he returns, his wife derides him for choosing the smaller gift and demands the heavy basket. She can be seen on the ground beside the open basket as monstrous yōkai escape from it – punishment for her nastiness and greed.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Snow: Onoe Baikō V as Iwakura Sōgen (Yuki Onoe Baikō Iwakura Sōgen)' from the series 'Snow, moon and flowers (Setsugekka no uchi)', 1890 woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery New South Wales. Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2018.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Snow: Onoe Baikō V as Iwakura Sōgen (Yuki Onoe Baikō Iwakura Sōgen)’, 1890

The kabuki actor Onoe Baikō V, also known as Onoe Kikugorō V (1844–1903), appears as the priest Iwakura Sōgen in the play Falling cherry blossoms (Hanafubuki). The priest fell in love with a woman called Orikotohime, broke his vow of celibacy and was dismissed from the temple. When his lover died, Sōgen retreated to the forest to starve himself to death and was haunted by her ghost. Emaciated and barely clothed in the icy landscape, his fingernails have grown long with neglect. In some versions, Orikotohime is reincarnated as a young priest. Their love impossible, the men decide to die together.


bunraku 文楽 (also ningyō jōruri 人形浄瑠璃) puppet theatre evolving principally in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; together with nō, kyogen and kabuki, one of Japan’s classical theatre traditions hyaku monogatari 百物語 ‘one hundred stories’ in which participants gathered at night to tell a kaidan and extinguish the wick of an oil lamp with each tale with play continued in the deepening darkness kabuki 歌舞伎 a flamboyant theatre form that evolved in the seventeenth century, with urban, historical and fantastical themes; different from nō, kabuki actors do not wear masks and have heavy make-up; together with bunraku, nō and kyōgen, one of Japan’s classical theatre traditions kaidan 怪談 variously translated as ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘ghost’ or ‘mysterious’ tales kami 神 deities, gods and phenomena (eg nature spirits) associated with Shinto kyōgen 狂言 ‘wild words’, short comic plays often appearing as interludes between the acts of nō plays; the plots are derived from folk tales or deal with daily life; together with bunraku, kabuki and nō, one of Japan’s classical theatre traditions monogatari 物語 prose narrative fiction, often of epic length; a genre of Japanese classical literature, prominent from around the ninth to fifteenth centuries nō (noh) 能 ‘talent’ or ‘skill’, traditional form of Japanese theatre originating in the fourteenth century under official patronage: male actors, who also play female characters, chant and sing to the accompaniment of an orchestra and a chorus. Stage props are limited; some actors wear masks and the robes are often sumptuous sōrei 騒霊 deities who are human ancestor spirits ukiyo-e 浮世絵 ‘pictures of the “floating world”’, a reference to the paintings, woodblock prints and illustrated books illustrating the ukiyo, or ‘floating world’, associated with popular culture in the Edo period

Kentaro Yoshida, 'Night procession of the hundred demons (Hyakki yagyō)', 2019. acrylic. Presented with support from Mandy Shaul 2019.
Kentaro Yoshida

Kentaro Yoshida is a Sydney-based artist, illustrator and designer. He grew up in a fishing village in Japan surrounded by stories of yōkai and other supernatural characters from Japanese legend. His four-part mural brings an array of yōkai to Sydney and right into the Gallery. In Kentaro’s wall paintings, the yōkai burst through the sandstone facade of the building and parade along its interior walls. Night procession of the hundred demons (Hyakki yagyō) is a centuries-old tale of magical animals and shapeshifting creatures engaged in wild festivities. Usually seen by lantern light, the spirited characters shown include a frog-like kappa, a female demon (hannya), a tanuki raccoon-dog riding an earth spider, a long-necked woman (rokurokubi) threading her way through the procession, and a lute (biwa) come to life. Kentaro’s painting is a brilliant celebration of the enduring enjoyment of the supernatural in Japanese art and culture.

These murals are on display in the Gallery’s entrance court and are presented in conjunction with Japan supernatural.

Kawanabe Kyōsai, 'Hell Courtesan (Jigoku-dayū)', early–mid 1880s hanging scroll; ink, metallic pigments and colour on silk. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Foundation purchase, with funds from the Jean Milner and Mary Tancred bequests.

Kawanabe Kyōsai, 'Hell Courtesan (Jigoku-dayū)’, early–mid 1880s

Jigoku-dayū was a famous entertainer whose name is translated as Hell Courtesan (Jigoku meaning ‘hell’ and dayū, a reference to a highranking courtesan). She wore a robe embellished with scenes of hell, perhaps to remind her of the sins of her existence over many lifetimes. Watching a group of courtesans dancing with the eccentric Zen monk Ikkyū (1394–1481), Jigoku-dayū became enlightened and saw the women as skeletons rather than elaborately dressed women. This epiphany about the impermanence of beauty and pleasure changed Jigoku-dayū, who removed her hell robe and hung it over a kimono stand. Here she wears robes decorated with lotus leaves and blossoms, symbols of purity.