The yōkai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, arrive in Rome

An exhibition dedicated to yōkai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, arrives in Rome: it is the first outside Japan on this theme.

Make way, let through THE PARADE OF THE YÅŒKAI: Supernatural Creatures from Japan: this is the title of the exhibition created by The Japan Foundation traveling the world, and now making a stop at the Institute of Japanese Culture in Rome. The exhibition, curated by Yumoto Kōichi, in collaboration with Yumoto Koichi Memorial JAPAN YOKAI MUSEUM(Miyoshi Mononoke Museum), presents Japanese yōkai culture coming to the present day through scroll paintings and prints-brocade nishiki-e in the first place, and then translating into different media, such as toys or films. Japanese yōkai also appear in countless tales, ad hoc characters to express supernatural forces, to provoke surprise or instill fear. With the passage of centuries and the development of modern society, yōkai seem to have lost their initial horrific allure in favor of a more reassuring image. Japan still possesses strong interest, however, in kaidan, tales of ghosts and stories of the supernatural, especially in the summer, when yōkai rage on TV and in theaters throughout the country. THE YÅŒKAI PARADE places emphasis on popularizing the universe of monsters-spooks&co, inviting international audiences to venture out and explore the depths of Japan’s all-time horror imagery. The title is inspired by the classic theme of the same name in yōkai iconography, the oldest example of which has come down to us is the Muromachi-era (1336-1573) scroll painting attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu.

The exhibition features 4 sections/chapters, as well as in-depth columns and side stories.

Chapter 1. THE SPECTACULAR UNIVERSE OF YŌKAI PAINTING ON R OLLS Yōkai-themed painted scrolls on washi paper-sometimes more than ten meters long-are a clear example of how much the world of supernatural creatures has fascinated, and continues to fascinate, the Japanese public and others. One of the best known is the Hyakki Yagyō emaki, the painting on scroll THE NIGHT PARADE OF A HUNDRED DEMONS. As the title suggests, a multitude of monsters are depicted in their vital and flamboyant world, which offers itself to a thousand digressions and categorizations. In addition to products of earlier important eras such as the Hyakki Yagyō emaki, different new yōkai-themed scroll paintings appear during theEdo period. There are many works: from humorous ones depicting the creatures with human likenesses and habits-marriage, birth, and more-to picture-book-like products with pages devoted to each individual monster. There are also examples of scrolls inspired by local legends, some signed by established artists, others of not considerable value. The variety and quantity of works produced is evidence of the vast proliferation of yōkai scrolls during the Edo period.

Chapter 2: THE ULTRACOLORED WORLD OF YŌKAI The development of publishing culture induced by advances in Edo-era woodcut techniques brought benefits to daily life in areas such as education and entertainment. In the same years,Europe experiences the beginning of a new era at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, while the Qing dynasty creaks from internecine wars and the Asian advance of European powers. The development of printing techniques greatly influenced yōkai culture, which moved out of the confines of hand-painting and experienced the diffusive vastness of endless reproduction of copies. Printing: cheap, simple, affordable. Consequences: demand grows and the culture of the supernatural becomes very familiar to the Japanese. In particular, colorful prints-brocade nishiki-e capture the hearts of people who make increasing demand for yōkai nishikie, the production of which only expands demand. Prints of comical, satirical creatures and spectres circulate, all colorful, all responsible for promoting yōkai to the next level in the Japanese imagination of the mysterious.

Chapter 3: YŌKAI AND GAMES The yōkai, originally considered a source of fear and disquiet certainly do not evoke an immediate association with games and playful activities. Although not exactly connectable therefore, yōkai and games are closely related during the Edo period, so much so that a new progeny of monsters emerged. Large metropolises such as Edo and Osaka take shape, and their development is accompanied by boundless demand for print products. Especially in vogue at the time are romance novels and works of fiction illustrated in woodcut print. Mass phenomena then, not difficult to decline into yōkai, ever closer to the lives of the people who avidly enjoy them via print. The direct consequence is that the Japanese are no longer so frightened by the monstrous creatures of the night, but begin to regard them as familiar presences, even objects of affection, which inevitably leads to a new, friendly and reassuring image. Hence, winking monsters appear on sugoroku, a Japanese chess game, on karuta cards and ukiyoe game prints called omochae, and other games that gradually garner more and more favor among younger children. Sugoroku is played with dice, and yōkai are depicted on the surface on which their throwing occurs, an unthinkable gesture if these were considered anxiety-provoking elements. In the case of the menko, however, the monsters appear on circular or rectangular cards thrown on the ground, proving that the image-and imagery-of yōkai had undergone drastic changes.

Chapter 4: TODAY’S YÅŒKAI During theMeiji era, when Western culture penetrated Japan overbearingly, yōkai became the object of academic study. Buddhist philosopher Inoue Enryō provides a scientific explanation for the belief in yōkai, framing them within the discipline of yōkaigaku, to elevate the subject from the mere superstitious realm. In addition to him, folklore scholar Yanagita Kunio proposes an approach to the subject through inquiry and research into the thinking of the Japanese and the underlying cultural substratum of the yōkai’s emergence. Yanagita’s approach is still valid in the present day; after all, the spread of the image of non-scary monsters in the Edo period had paid off, and the amount of gadgets and items of yōkai scope liked by children come to include super-cheap toys and sweets of all made. During World War II yōkai were abandoned as unnecessary, but soon afterward they knew new notoriety. They appear in manga, anime, electronic games, and all the media that technology has offered mankind in recent decades. Not only for children, but for everyone, and even abroad: the yōkai parade proceeds unstoppably, conquering generations and countries.

For all information, you can visit the official website of theJapanese Cultural Institute.

Pictured: Amabie from the sea of Higo province, 1846, replica 2020. Ph. credit: Main Library, Kyoto University

The yōkai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, arrive in Rome
The yōkai, the supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, arrive in Rome

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