When I was a child I was plagued by night terrors. Grotesque Lilliputian devils would visit me in the dark hours. Ghosts and ghouls, it often seemed, were never that far behind. So it was with some hesitation that I recently joined Melanie Eastburn and Justin Paton, senior curator Asian Art and head of International art, respectively, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), for a glimpse into the world of Japan Supernatural, the gallery’s blockbuster exhibition, which opens 2 November.

Over 180 Woodblock Prints in the Exhibition

By way of 180 woodblock prints the exhibition revels in a world of capricious, fiendish, monstrous and malevolent shape-shifters and all manner of supernatural beings that have stalked the Japanese psyche across centuries, although this exhibition concentrates on the Edo period 1603-1868, through to the present day. In beautifully rendered woodblock prints the malicious spirit world takes shape through the fertile imagination of myriad artists; spectral ghosts float, fox headed spirits stretch their vast malleable scrotums, hags cling to dismembered limbs, and blood spurts, and all manner of spectral apparitions, and Japanese Japanese ghosts and demons, lurk in the shadows.

Japan Supernatural, with 40 works from the AGNSW’s own extensive collection of Asian art, augmented by sizable loans from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the British Museum, and the occasional private collections, is a lush and dazzling show, yet for the gallery it is a risky one, too. The annual summer (in Australia) blockbuster is part of its ongoing International Art Series (IAS) designed to pack the gallery with paying visitors. It draws sponsorship from the state government and they expect tourist dollars in return for their cultural largesse. In previous years the IAS has included the sumptuous Masters of modern art from the Hermitage and the dark sombre chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and Dutch masters. Both were decidedly safe exhibitions, but crowd pleasers none-the-less. With Japan Supernatural the AGNSW hopes that visitors will recalibrate their cultural understanding, and cast their gaze east, towards Japan.

When we spoke the urbane Paton stressed it was important to offer visitors a sense of discovery, a journey, if you like, into the unknown. It is a philosophy promulgated by the gallery director, Michael Brand, who, since he took up the stewardship of the gallery in 2012, has carefully steered the exhibition calendar preferring exhibitions that remained scholarly, educational and entertaining, rather than ones that offer predominantly bling.

Utagawa Kunkyoshi and Japan Supernatural

One suspects that for the majority of visitors much in Japan Supernatural will be unknown. They may recognise Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s print (Mitsukuni defies the skeleton spectre conjured up by Princess Takiyasha 1845-46) of a giant skeleton towering over a diminutive samurai in the process of decapitating the instigator of a failed coup d’état, loaned by London’s British Museum. They most certainly will know the name of Hokusai, the 19th-century master painter and printmaker, through various editions of his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829). But in Japan Supernatural, Hokusai is represented by several chilling ghostly images from his One Hundred Ghost Tales, circa 1821-32. One tells a grisly tale of the murder of an actor Kohada Koheiji, whose only skill on stage was in portraying ghosts. His unfaithful wife encouraged her lover to rid her of the hapless actor. Hokusai’s print shows Koheiji’s ghost lifting a mosquito net under which the lovers pursued their tryst, unaware that the ghost of the murdered husband, with skin and hair slurping from his skull, is about to slip beneath the sheets to join them in a ménage à trois that does not bear thinking about. This gruesome scene sets the tone for Japan Supernatural where many, if not all of the images, take on a dramatic and additional dimension when one learns their associated back stories.

Japan’s Ghost Stories

The exhibition catalogue tells us that the Japanese are particularly good at telling ghost stories and that elements of the supernatural permeate the country’s popular culture, in a way that it does not in the West. The Koheiji story, which is partly true, would most likely have been one of those stories told when groups gathered at night to spook each other with tales of the undead. Each storyteller would burn a candle that would be extinguished once their story was told. Eventually with the final story told and the room plunged into darkness, the ghosts and ghouls lurking in the inky blackness would spring out to wreak terror and, one imagines, scare the bejesus out of the group. In a 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows, Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), wrote of ‘the darkness seen by candlelight (that) pressed in like a fog. This was the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active’. Precisely.

Night Procession of the Hundred Demons

Stories of night demons have been told for centuries in Japan and one of the oldest works in the show is Toriyama Sekien’s (1712-88) five- metre-long scroll, Night Procession of the Hundred Demons, circa 1772-81, on loan from Boston. ‘He only ever did one hand painted scroll,’ Eastburn explained. It shows a terrifying emaciated monk, a magical cat with a handkerchief on its head and an elegant woman with a serpentine neck, several metres long. The scroll possesses a comic book accessibility and it is not surprising to learn that Sekien also made several illustrated books of the same name, Night Procession of the Hundred Demons, 1776, where yokai – a catch-all name for the ghouls, goblins, spectres and shape-shifters of Japanese folklore – predominate. So precious are Sekien’s works that they were couriered to Sydney by the curator of the Boston collection.

The Japanese fascination with the supernatural took a dive post WW11 as the country struggled to modernise and logic held sway. But the fantastical and whimsical genre received a boost when it was taken up in the pages of manga comics and in television and video game via animé, and other animations.

Takashi Murakami and Japan Supernatural

Into this Japan Supernatural mix of comic book gore and horror, the gallery has cleverly inserted a trump card, a newly commissioned monumental work by the internationally celebrated contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Murakami is known for blurring the line in Japan, between art and commerce, high and low art and of coining the name, Superflat in 2001, to describe his art that riffed off centuries of Japanese flat art aesthetics and the anime and manga craze.

Murakami’s practice includes painting, sculpture, animations, and more recently, an animated movie and his signature motifs include recurring cartoonish flowers with smiley faces, iconic characters such as his alter-ego character ‘Mr Dobs’ – a cartoonish character, who is at times harmless and at times depicted with razor sharp teeth, anthropomorphised psychedelic mushrooms with blinking eyes, skulls, and Buddhist iconography – such as arhats – earth-dwelling stewards of Buddha’s teachings, who often manifest themselves as grotesque, yet benign entities, in his monumental paintings.

Murakami’s Exploration of Arhats

Murakami has explored arhats since 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami, killed 20,000 Japanese. Paton explained that the event was a deeply significant moment for Murakami. ‘Since 2011 (his) work has a lot more sustained meaning’. The AGNSW has borrowed from The Broad Art Foundation, in Michigan, Murakami’s 25-metre long painting In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014) that reflects on the earthquake, with several arhats awash if vividly coloured, churning water.

Originally inspired by 20th-century Japanese animé and manga comics, Murakami’s work is also influenced by Western aesthetics and it was in the west where his popularity first took hold, which, he claims, perhaps disingenuously, led him to not being popular in Japan. Among his heroes he names the American movie makers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (creators of the Star Wars, Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park films), as well as visual artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, the latter’s work possessing a comic book, tongue in cheek aesthetic that appeals to Murakami. Murakami is also fearsomely commercial and has collaborated with companies such as Louis Vuitton and Uniqlo as well as popular music singers Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, for whom he created music videos and CD covers.

Murakami Special Installation for Japan Supernatural

Murakami is an international super-star who will create what the AGNSW describe as a monumental installation for Japan Supernatural. Murakami told me by email from Tokyo that although he was ‘dizzyingly busy’, his mural would be an enormous, show-stopping 3 x 10 metres, and would be shown alongside two, 4.5-metre tall vividly colourful totemic oni sculptures (oni are ogres, or trolls, in Japanese folklore) with horns growing out of their heads. Their hideous grinning faces are not that far removed from the mythical lions that guard Japanese Buddhist temples. The mural, unveiled in October, is an exposition on the eternal fight between samurai warriors and yokai, in a world where longevity of life was not a given. It is the first time, he said, that he has portrayed samurai.

Murakami has often been criticised for his commercial acumen. He is also a master manipulator of art market taste. But he remains sanguine over such criticism. ‘I am currently right in the midst of commercial activities. But once I die, all that remains is my artwork. Whether my art survives or not is determined after my death. I intend to die leaving as many works as possible, commercialism or not, so that people will look back on my career and say, “Hey, he did the best he could with his life”,’ the artist explained.

Fans of Murakami will often queue around the block to gain entry to one of his shows and, Paton assures me, that in Sydney, tattoo artists are waiting to see what they can appropriate from Murakami’s Japan Supernatural imagery, before running off to ink their needles. Whoever at the AGNSW had the idea of including Murakami in Japan Supernatural, should go to the top of the class. His art has a hypnotic, trippy aesthetic and an underlying critical view of Japanese consumerism. Expect to see Murakami merchandise in the AGNSW shop.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

As Eastburn, Paton and I talked my mind drifted to stories of skeletal hags, witches, ghost-trains and zombies, plus all manner of grotesques that populate the western horror canon where one could just as easily meet one’s demise between the jaws of a wolf, of in the oven of a witch. Quite why we are so enthralled by such butchery and bloody mayhem is debatable and Eastburn laughed off my concerns and paraphrased an essay in the sumptuous, yet dense, exhibition catalogue she has edited. ‘One of the greatest inventions of humans, is monsters, because we need them. They help humans … explain things that are hard to explain, and understand,’ she said.

Quite so. Although most of the monsters in Japan Supernatural are benign by today’s standards, and certainly not at all scary for an audience brought up, as many have been, on a diet of fast moving and aggressively violent shooting warfare video games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, where the player is a violent criminal.

If art predicated on monsters and ghouls is not necessarily your thing do not be put off, because much of the work in Japan Supernatural is deliciously wrapped in traditional Japanese aesthetics; highly decorative, always mannered, artificially dramatic, bizarre and whimsical. While the exhibition has the additional benefit of allowing one to reappraised Murakami’s oeuvre within an historical context.

Japan Supernatural is a delightful exhibition and ultimately, not in the least bit scary, although there are a couple of ‘R’ rated images from the 1870s by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi that border on the misogynistic, of a pregnant woman being butchered. Not for the faint hearted, or children, for that matter.

The yokai in Japan Supernatural viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century appear whimsical and humorous and are thoroughly enjoyable. To borrow from another writer in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Yokai speak from the darkness, perhaps, but they have much to say.’ And they certainly speak to me at the witching hour when I ask myself, and anyone else listening,

What was that noise?


Japan Supernatural, from 2 November to 8 March 2020, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney