Katsushika Hokusai’s wood block print of a gigantic wave frothing before Mount Fuji, which he made in his seventies, is so beloved and influential that the scholar Christine Guth has devoted a whole book to it. Less attention has been paid to the beguiling illustrations he crafted, also while in his seventies, for the series Hyaku Monogatari [One Hundred Ghost Stories] (ca. 1830). We aren’t sure why the project never reached its probable goal of a century of pictures but the five that were completed are a dark delight. In the prints Hokusai directs his attention away from the Japanese landscapes he was most famous for depicting, inwards towards a realm of vengeful ghosts and demonic cannibals.
The series is fruit of the tradition Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai [A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales], where Japanese friends would meet to share fantastically frightening tales from folklore and their own experience. Having lit a hundred candles, they would give their blood-curdling accounts, one by one, blowing out a candle after each, plunging themselves deeper into darkness. Upon the last candle going out, a spirit was said to appear.
After the maid Okiku had accidentally broken one of a set of elegant Korean plates, her infuriated master bound her and threw her down a well, where she died in body but not spirit. In 1795, wells around Japan became infested with a species of worm covered in thin threads, which people believed to be a reincarnation of Okiku; the threads being the remnants of the fabric used to bind her. They named it “Okiku mushi” [the Okiku bug].
The young Oume falls in love with the married samurai Tamiya Iemon, and her friends try to get his wife Oiwa out of the picture with a gift of poisonous face cream. When Iemon abandons his newly disfigured wife, it sends her mad with grief. In her hysteria she runs and trips onto a sword, cursing Iemon with her dying breath — and then adopting various forms to haunt him, including a paper lantern.
The snake here represents obsessive jealousy, an emotion thought to transcend death, and wraps itself around a Buddhist memorial tablet (traditionally placed on an altar at the home of the deceased). The bowl of water decorated with the swastika appears to be a good luck offering: though tainted by its association with National Socialism, the swastika has been an auspicious symbol for thousands of years in cultures from the Ukraine to the Aztec Empire.