Let's begin with Japan's Night Parade of 100 Demons—an ever-evolving concept most often depicted as a horizontal scroll painting with any number of additions and alterations made over the years. There is no one specific version or artist; rather, it ebbs and flows as time and storytelling take hold. With roots in ancient China and Japan's Heian Period (794-1185), the scroll's origins are mysterious, but the concept of parading demons became a living embodiment of Japanese ghost lore, of oni (demons) and yokai—like poltergeists, for lack of a better term, ghosts who can range from scary and spiteful to silly and mischievous. These are center stage at the Museum of International Folk Art's Yokai: Ghosts and Demons of Japan exhibit which opens Friday Dec. 6.
The Night Parade of 100 Demons plays a major role in our understanding of yokai. By the 14th century, its imagery and lore had grown immensely to include more storytelling possibilities. And though the legend states anyone foolish enough to be outside during the parade, or even try to look at it from their homes, would be killed or kidnapped by the yokai, its ultimate message became one of entertainment and humor. By the Edo Period (1603-1868), wood block printing techniques had been developed and the scroll became easily copied. Wealthy families began commissioning their own versions, taking the scroll out of the shrines and temples and furthering the divide between yokai and its early religious underpinnings.
"What is yokai? It's this catch-all word for things like monsters, demons, ghosts, shape-shifters, weird creatures, but also mysterious phenomena and things you can't explain," says Felicia Katz-Harris, senior curator of Asian folk art for the Museum of International Folk Art. "One famous example is that you're in a forest, and you hear the sound of bean-washing in the river—but there's no one around. Or you hear a tree fall, and you go to where you heard the sound, but there's no tree. It's a shared experience, and we don't know what it is, but we start naming that experience and then artists start visually depicting it."
Katz-Harris is the primary curator behind the Yokai show, and she says it's the first large-scale exhibit dedicated to the topic on American soil ever. In the exhibit, the museum pays homage to hundreds of years of lore, beginning with the 100 Demon Night Parade and wending its way through popular culture like comic books and Pokémon, theater elements like noh and kabuki, craftsmanship items like netsuke and even a dash of haunted house magic from a consulting haunted house engineer. The museum worked closely with experts in the field, including artist Kono Junya of Kyoto artist collective Hyakuyōbako (Box of 100 Yokai), whose papier-mache sculpture of Ao Bozu, a one-eyed monk yokai, greets visitors as they enter the exhibit, and UCLA's Kirk Kanesaka, a PhD and expert in premodern Japanese literature.
Kanesaka's main contribution comes in the form of an installation based on the story of Oiwa, a woman who, scorned by her conniving husband, becomes deformed, dies, and then seeks out revenge from the afterlife. Her imagery is rather famous—think Ringu or The Grudge—and Kanesaka tells SFR that its enduring legend has a lot to do with how women were regarded in Japan's Tokugawa or Edo Period.
"I think we have to remember that the status of these women during this time period was a little bit different, and a lot of women's voices were muted, so we see how being transformed into a ghost, their voices can be heard," Kanesaka says. "Throughout Japanese literature, we have these tales of demonic women. Beforehand, we have tales of spirit possessions caused by angry women."
The story is common in kabuki, and Kanesaka's section of the show features a kimono used in productions in Japan, as well as a lantern prop from the University of Waseda's theater department that has never before left Japan. Kanesaka believes the one on display is one of two in existence.
Deeper in the show, examples of yokai-influenced manga like GeGeGe no Kitarō are on display alongside other more modern examples like Pokémon. Elsewhere, famous demons like the mountain-based Tengu, Kitsune (fox) and Tanuki (raccoon) yokai mingle with video, statuary, wood block prints and other surprises. The show is staggeringly huge and an absolute don't-miss.
"This is the first time I've actually seen something of this scale," Kanesaka adds.