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Reviewed by:
  • Japan Supernatural: Ghosts, Goblins and Monsters, 1700 to Now ed. by Melanie Eastburn
  • Adam L. Kern
Japan Supernatural: Ghosts, Goblins and Monsters, 1700 to Now. Edited by Melanie Eastburn. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales (NSW), 2020. 312 pages. Softcover, $45.00.

Once upon a time, back during my graduate research days in Kyoto, I found myself in the nearby town of Maibara at Tokugen’in within Seiryūji Temple (if memory serves), strolling through a labyrinthine stretch of corridor. Turning the bend to an especially dark nook, out of the corner of my eye I caught a fleeting glimpse of a ghost.

Or so I thought. It turns out that the ghost was mere effect, a mischievous trompe l’oeil—or damashi-e, as the Japanese refer to “images that deceive” the eye—in the form of a life-size hanging scroll. The scroll, attributed to Shimizu Setsudō (1876–1951), deployed the artistic technique of kakibyōsō, in which a realistically depicted frame within an image is deliberately flouted, resulting in a lifelike if momentary three-dimensional illusion. In this case, the “ghost” had been painted in front of the depicted frame, while the actual edge blended in seamlessly with its physical surroundings, giving the figure the appearance of materializing from out of the scroll itself.

Much of the shock of the experience had to do with the particular circumstances of the encounter: the corridor was open to direct sunlight on an unusually bright day, so when I came upon the cannily situated scroll, my eyes took just enough time to adjust to the contrast in light that the effect seemed genuinely uncanny. In hindsight, I not only admire the sense of humor behind the staging of the scroll but also chuckle about my reflexive reaction to it. For a split second, my supposedly unshakable belief [End Page 180] in science over the supernatural had been shaken to the core. There are things, after all, that science cannot explain.

This visceral reaction was triggered only by seeing Setsudō’s scroll for myself in its physical location, not as a reprint in some book. Accordingly, writing about the catalogue to an exhibition without having visited the exhibition itself (held in Sydney, Australia, from November 2019 to March 2020), let alone observed even a fraction of the artworks in the original architectural space for which they were designed, presents a double challenge. Be that as it may, Japan Supernatural is a rare gem. Edited by the organizer of the exhibition, Melanie Eastburn (senior curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), the catalogue brilliantly presents nearly two hundred images of the supernatural in Japanese art.

These images consist primarily of ukiyo-e prints, though other forms are also represented, and cover from the early modern or Edo period to the present day. Their overall presentation is, to my delighted surprise, amazing. Some works are generously afforded double-page spreads. The color reproductions are so vivid one can make out dark ink against darker backgrounds, or lighter ink on light backgrounds—as with the apparitional skeletons in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s The Enlightenment of Hell Courtesan (1890)1—techniques that are especially prominent in rendering supernatural beings (yōkai) but that typically do not come across well in printed matter.

The sheer range of materials also impresses. The images are arranged into four overarching categories: (1) objects, including installation art (some of it large-scale), carved masks by Kitazawa Hideta, clothing, statues by Murakami Takashi, and ne tsuke (mostly dating to the Meiji period, but some to late Edo); (2) photographs and moving images, including video installations by Aoshima Chiho and by the mononymous artist Tabaimo, projections by Matsui Fuyuko, and gelatin silver prints by Yanagi Miwa; (3) paintings, including acrylics by Murakami, watercolors by Aoshima (nearly two dozen), and hanging scrolls and handscrolls by Matsui, Kawanabe Kyōsai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Itaya Hiroharu, Toriyama Sekien, and so on; and, most abundantly, (4) books and prints (a partially overlapping category, since some prints were originally bound in albums) from the Edo period to the present day. This last category encompasses works by Sekien, Kyōsai, Yoshitoshi, Utagawa...


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pp. 180-185
Launched on MUSE
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