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The supernatural in Japanese art

From earliest times Japanese have held deep-rooted beliefs in worlds beyond or parallel to tangible reality peopled by spirits both good and evil. Such beliefs helped people to come to terms with inexplicable aspects of everyday life. Depiction of the grotesque and the supernatural did not necessarily suit the taste of the Heian period (AD 794-1185), however, and Zen Buddhism sought to suppress such images. Nevertheless, such beliefs still flourished and finally in the Edo period (16006-1868), supernatural subjects, often taking on extremely grotesque forms, became particularly popular in the forms of woodblock prints, printed books, paintings and carvings. Ghosts and demons also featured in Nō and Kabuki plays. The artistic representation of supernatural subjects helped to spread belief in such things, but, conversely, by imbuing them with a certain normality, often mingled with humour, also made them less mysterious and frightening.

Many leading woodblock print artists, notably Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92), produced woodblock prints depicting supernatural subjects. A favourite theme was the Hyaku monogatari ('One Hundred Supernatural Tales'). Hyakki yakgyō ('Night Parade of One Hundred Demons') also gave considerable scope for humorous interpretation, with the painter Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-89) even producing a huge Kabuki theatre curtain decorated with caricatures of leading actors of the day in demonic form. Kyōsai also continued the Edo fashion for ghost paintings. Everyday objects were transformed into grotesque , semi-human forms.

The carved Nō mask known as hannya represents a beautiful woman transformed by jealousy into an ugly demon. Another popular art-form, the netsuke toggle, often took inspiration from the supernatural worlds. Some of the most popular subjects are: minutely carved tengu (winged demons) and hannya masks, oni devils often linked with the figure of Shōki the Demon-Queller, and the figures of shrivelled Chinese immortals such as Gama with his attendant toad.

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