Sunday, February 23, 2020

Ghost Stories: Yokai

The Museum of International Folk Art is a popular attraction for visitors to Santa Fe, but it has not been my favorite museum in town.  However, they have an exhibition up now that is well done and really fun. It is called, Yōkai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan and was organized by Felicia Katz-Harris curator of Asian Folk Art. 

The exhibition was a happy surprise even though I was never one who enjoyed ghost stories, probably conditioned by scary stories at camp.  Why people enjoy being scared, I never understood, but they do.  I avoid horror movies at all costs!

In the introductory label Katz-Harris explains “In many Japanese folktales, Yōkai appear at borders on bridges at dusk and between villages.  In popular culture they live on the boundary between belief and amusement, fear and fun.”  Just as you might laugh in a horror movie and sometimes not even know why. So, just like in the Western world, in Japan the Yōkai can be scary and also sometimes amusing.

The show has all kinds of Yōkai.  From what I have learned it would be impossible to amass a list of all the different ones in a similar manner that it would not be possible to list all the different kinds of  monsters in Western cultures   The first one in the exhibition is by Kōno Junya who is referred to as a Yōkai artist.  He sees himself acting as an ambassador and he wants Americans to see “how much fun Yōkai are in Japan”. His huge paper maché sculpture is called Oa Bōzu or Blue Monk. The second illustration here shows the artist with his sculpture.

A really truly macabre piece in the show is a an exquisitely painted 17th century scroll lent by the Mineapolis Museum of Art . It illustrates Shuten Dōji whose  most gruesome characteristic is their appetite for human flesh. These  demonic creatures charm, kidnap, enslave and eat men, women and children.

The Tanuki ceramic figure which is dated 1975 but the artist is not known certainly qualifies as the humorous side of the Yōkai.  If he were soft, I could see a child taking it to bed instead of their teddy bear!

Ningyō Jōruri is a regional style of puppet theater which takes place in the open air.  Three puppeteers are needed to operate this life-size puppet; one each for the head, hands and feet. The artist, Amari Yōichirō, is well known for making these puppets and enjoys working on the figures.  The puppet has a serene expression on her face but then the teeth come out as you will see in the very short video it reminds me of Northwest Coast Native American transformation masks.  This Kiyohime, scorned woman, was made in 2019 but performances of the legend date back to the Edo period (1603-1867).

You will have no trouble recognizing this figure from the Kabuki  theater, not too different from our Casper, the friendly ghost. This character, called Oiwa, is far from friendly.  She is a wife driven to suicide after her husband disfigures her so he can marry another woman. Oiwa comes back to haunt him for the rest of his life.

White Hannya is another figure of a woman transformed by jealousy and rage. This female demon comes from the formal masked dance dramas of Noh theater.

Clearly the subject of Yōkai can be studied in a great deal of depth.  There are so many different ones that have significance in different parts of Japan.  This show, which even includes a mini amusement-park-style house of horrors aka a fun house, peopled with life-sized Yōikai who respond to your passing by, provides a perfect introduction to the subject.

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