Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889), aka “The Demon of Painting”, composed this book of woodblock illustrations toward the end of a life that had begun during the Edo period, when Japan was still a feudal country, and ended in the midst of the Meiji period, when the country was transforming into a modern state.
Kyōsai was by all accounts the bad boy artist of his era. Considered both Japan’s first political caricaturist and one of the first authors of a manga magazine (Eshunbun Nipponchi), Kyōsai was arrested by the shogunate three times for his commitment to free expression. Also, he made no secret of his love for sake.
Kyōsai’s version was, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which houses the book, one of the artist’s most popular volumes, offering “a spectacular visual encyclopedia of supernatural creatures of premodern Japanese folklore”. (To see more examples of such supernatural creatures, also see our post on this Edo-era scroll.)
One can see why it was so popular. Narratively, it paves the way for the fantastic parade with two woodblocks: the first depicts a group of adults and children gathered around a coal fire to hear ghosts stories, the second a man (probably Kyōsai) setting down his calligraphy brush and extinguishing the lamp in preparation for the night in which the demons will appear.
Each double-page of the book is arranged in such a way as to join up with the next, as though a continuous scroll is divided over the pages of a book. Though be aware that, of course, the book is bound on the right and so runs counter to the usual left-to-right of English-language books, and so also counter to how our gallery below is set up to display!
June 16, 2020