a weird or mysterious creature, a monster or fantastic being, a spirit or a sprite … creatures of the borderlands, living on the edge of town, or in the mountains between villages, or in the eddies of a river running between two rice fields. They often appear at twilight, that gray time when the familiar seems strange and faces become indistinguishable. They haunt bridges and tunnels, entranceways and thresholds. They lurk at crossroads.
The class of yokai characterised by an ability to shapeshift, and that featured in this scroll, is the bakemono (or obake), a word literally meaning “changing thing” or “thing that changes”. The founding father of minzokugaku (Japanese folklore studies), Yanagita Kuno (1875–1962), drew a distinction between yurei (ghosts) and bakemono: the former haunt people and are associated with the depth of night, whereas the latter haunt places and are seen by the dim light of dusk or dawn.
Amongst the bakemono monsters depicted in the scroll is the rokurokubi (ろくろくび), a long-necked woman whose name literally means “pulley neck”. Whether shown with a completely detachable head (more common in Chinese versions), or with head upon the end of a long threadlike neck as shown here, the head of the rokurokubi has the ability to fly about independently of the body. In his 1904 collection Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn provides the first extended discussion of this yokai in English, telling of a samurai-turned-travelling-priest who finds himself staying the night in a household of rokurokubi intent on eating their guest.
Yuki-onna (“snow woman” – 雪女) appears on snowy nights as a beautiful woman with long hair. Details vary from region to region — in some parts a sighting would mean your spirit being drawn from your body, in other parts she asks you to hold her baby. Explanations for her vary too, for some she is the spirit of the snow, for others the ghost of a woman who perished in the snow, or even as a moon princess expelled from the sky-world. Yuki-onna again appears in Hearn’s Kwaidan, where she visits two woodcutters caught in a snowstorm, killing the older by blowing in his face, and promising to kill the younger if he ever tells of what happened (which, many years later, he does).
Kami-kiri (“hair cutter” – 髪切) is a yokai known for sneaking up on people and cutting off their hair. The phenomenon of people’s hair being mysteriously chopped appeared in many urban legends, in the Edo period in particular. Sometimes the chop would be attributed to a “demon wind”, but often to a creature doing the cutting, such as the kamikiri-mushi (a “hair cutting- insect”, likely in reference to the praying mantis, with its scythelike front limbs, and named a very similar-sounding kamakiri in Japanese). In the Bakemono zukushi, it appears with a bird like face and huge pincer hand brandishing the severed crop.
Below we’ve featured our highlights from the scroll (see the whole thing complete here), the digitisation of which appears to have come from the International Research Center for Japanese Studies – Yokai Database. Many thanks to Pink Tentacle, from whom we’ve taken the image descriptions. If you want to learn more about yokai in general then do check out Michael Dylan Foster’s fascinating The Book of Yokai.