Asia Society Texas Center, located in the Museum District of Houston, Texas, is currently showcasing Yōkai: Scenes of the Supernatural in Japanese Woodblock Prints. This collection is a series of prints and illustrated books, also known as e-hon, originated from Scripps College in California as a way to educate about Japanese arts. These materials “provide valuable insight into the Japanese imagination—both bright and dark.”
Personally, I was mesmerized and surprised at how colorful the exhibit was. I was fully aware that the collection is based on Japanese supernatural beliefs and was expecting the gallery to be as foreboding and dark as the supernatural in western cultures.
Japanese woodblock prints date back to the 7th century in Buddhist temples. It wasn’t until during the Edo period (1603-1868) that these prints were mass produced to the public that “fostered a highly literate population.”
To produce these woodblock prints and books requires a team.. It starts with the publisher commissioning an artist to create a design. Once the design is complete, it gets handed down to a carver who places the design on a block of cherry wood. Once the design has been completely transferred to the wood, the carver can start chiseling all the empty spaces, leaving only the design on the block. Since full-color woodblock prints became popular during the late 18th century, carvers would carve separate additional blocks for each color, including registration marks. Registration marks on each block guides the placement of the paper to make sure the colors are aligned during the printing process. Once all blocks are carved and completed, it gets passed on to a printer who would apply different ink colors to each block. A sheet of paper is placed on the surface of the block with the aid of a rubbing pad called a baren. This process will continue until all blocks with different ink colors are transferred to the sheet. Even though woodblock printing requires a whole team, unfortunately, only the artist gets full credit for the work.
Upon entering the gallery, guests were greeted with a bright blue wall explaining the history surrounding Yōkai, known as “mysterious apparitions” in Japanese culture. The gallery was divided into four equal spaces, stretching from left to right, connected by the main hallway. On the far left of the gallery, closest to the entrance, is the first group of Yōkai: Kami of the natural world.
This section of the gallery focuses on the yōkai, who are associated with the natural landscapes such as mountains or rivers, or natural phenomena such as storms or earthquakes. One of the prints on display features Earthquake Catfish dressed as a Buddhist Priest and Raijin, the Thunder God. The artist for the full-color woodblock print is unknown. Earthquake Catfish, also known as Namazu, is a giant catfish that causes earthquakes whenever it moves. In this image, Namazu and Raijin are doing a street performance called chobokure that uses rhythm instruments and fast-paced songs.
Next to the kami section is the other form of yōkai: ghosts, also known as yūrei. Personally, this is one of my favorite sections in the gallery. One similarity that Japanese and Western culture have in common about ghosts is that they are depicted in white, as if translucent, and known to have “unfinished business among the living or simply seeking vengeance.” One of my personal favorites is a piece called Yugao No. 29 from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. The artist is Tsuikioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) and the print is a full-color woodblock. Yugao is one of Prince Genji’s lovers from Japan’s literary classic called The Tale of Genji. It was believed that Yugao was killed by an angry, jealous spirit of Genji’s former lover, Lady Rokujō. The print on display showed Lady Yugao as a “wistful ghost, delicate and pale yet lovely”.
Included in the ghost section of the gallery are the spooky objects known as tsukumogami. These objects are your everyday, normal items that become yōkai after a certain number of years and seek vengeance against their owners who misused and discarded them. These objects are often depicted as comical creatures with facial features, arms, and legs.
Followed by the ghosts and spooky objects are the demons, also known as oni. What is surprising about the depiction of these oni in Japanese folklore is that even though these creatures are known for having evil intentions, they are portrayed as humorous characters. One of the prints on display is called Demons Fleeing from Otafuku. The artist is Kawanabe Kyōsai, and it is also a full-color woodblock print. Japan’s New Year tradition includes tossing roasted beans out the front door, followed by the phrase “oni was soto, fuku wa uchi!”, which translates as “bad luck out and good luck in!” This tradition is believed to ward off evil spirits from homes. It reminds me of my own family superstition. As someone who grew up in a Filipino household, and moved quite a few times, I was always told that when moving into a new home to sprinkle salt in every room to remove any evil forces lurking around. Even though this is not a New Year tradition, nor uses roasted beans, it is still fascinating that sprinkling something small can defend your home against evil.
The last section of the gallery are prints depicting shape-shifting yōkai. These are magical creatures or monsters that have a potential to be good or evil. One of the most popular shape-shifting creatures in Asia, as well as in Western pop culture, is the nine-tailed fox who can transform into a beautiful woman named Tamamo no Mae. This creature is said to be a beautiful woman who would lure and bewitch emperors or high-profiled men. One of the prints that depicted her transformation is called Monster Fox and Ghost. The artist for this print is also Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and is in full-color woodblock print. The print is divided into two parts, upper and lower panel. On the bottom panel, you see a woman behind a curtain; while the upper panel illustrates a nine-tailed fox who has just slain and devoured a high-ranking officer.
Asia Society Texas Center will continue to feature Yōkai: Scenes of the Supernatural in Japanese Woodblock Prints until December 17, 2022.
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