Oiwa’s husband wanted to remarry his rich neighbor, but his wife was still very much alive. He first tried poisoning Oiwa, but it disfigured her horribly rather than killing her. Then, he threw her into a river to drown, which was indeed successful. But later, when he returned to that river, Oiwa’s ghost rose from the water to haunt him no matter where he fled.

Foreboding depictions of this Japanese ghost story and others like it populate the “Staging the Supernatural: Ghosts and the Theater in Japanese Prints” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

Going back centuries, ghost stories carry great resonance in Japan. The over 50 works on display, created from the 1700s to the 1900s by Japanese artists, show the lingering power of woodblock print art and the stories that the art represents, which continue to flourish in Japan today. Coming out of the theater traditions of kabuki and noh, the prints proved equally as popular as the performances.

The story of Oiwa, the faithful wife who returned as a ghost to haunt her murderous husband, was told in the 1825 kabuki theater production of Ghost Story of Yotsuya on the Tokaido by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. Though the supernatural had long been part of Japanese culture, the Edo period (1603-1868) and this specific production gave permanent prominence to the genre, says Kit Brooks, co-curator of the exhibition. The production toured more extensively than earlier variations and featured the potent special effects of flames and actors spurting blood and flying via wires.

Artists reproduced images from this ghost play and others of the era for clamoring patrons who wanted a souvenir of the production and its specific actors, often identified in the prints, and to recall the stories.

Tsuchigumo, From Prints of One Hundred Noh Plays, Tsukioka Kogyo, woodblock print, 1922-1925
Tsuchigumo, from Prints of One Hundred Noh Plays (Nogaku hyakuban), Tsukioka Kogyo, woodblock print, 1922-1925 National Museum of Asian Art
Oiwake: Oiwa and Takuetsu, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, woodblock print, 1852
Oiwake: Oiwa and Takuetsu, no. 21, from the series Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, woodblock print, 1852 National Museum of Asian Art

Kabuki, which originated in the Edo period, was known for its stylized performances and intricate special effects that made it a popular entertainment for broad audiences.

“Whether it was tricks on the stage in terms of trap doors, lots of props, synthetic blood, contraptions that would have characters on wires, flying through the theater—these things were obviously conveying the presence of ghosts,” Brooks says.

Productions featured “spirit flames,” or fire that indicated the presence of ghosts. “Kabuki is very overtly entertaining in terms of bombast,” Brooks says.

Thousands of prints were created and made available at surprisingly populist prices. In the 1840s, Brooks notes, someone could buy a single-sheet multicolor woodblock print for the price of a noodle lunch.

Such colorful, vivid examples rarely survive after nearly two centuries, especially the prints that involved paper flaps that lift up, meant to reflect complicated stage effects.

One such elaborate woodblock print in the exhibition, made in 1861 by Utagawa Kunisada, shows the body of Oiwa pulled to the surface with a fishing hook and, by raising the flap, the body of a second corpse, a servant whose fingernails kept growing after his death.

This trick is even more effective onstage, since both corpses were portrayed by the same actor, doing a quick costume change.

By the 1860s, the stage trick had been used for nearly 40 years, and in that decade, real water tanks were used onstage. Brooks says prints were created to commemorate the trick. The prints are rare, especially those that survived fully intact.

Ghosts had also been prominent in noh theater going back centuries and aimed at a more elite, discerning audience.

Shakkyo, Tsukioka Kogyo, woodblock print, 1922-1927
Shakkyo, from the series One Hundred No Plays, Tsukioka Kogyo, woodblock print, 1922-1927 National Museum of Asian Art

Noh started in the 14th century “but dates back much earlier to harvest rituals and entertainments at shrines and temples,” says co-curator Frank Feltens. Those rituals involved dances, chants and characters using elaborate wooden masks. Donning a mask meant “you are basically assuming not just the essence of that role—you’re becoming it,” he says. “It’s a kind of spirit transmission that happens for them.”

Noh may have died out, Feltens says, had it not been revived as a cultural currency when Japan was reinventing itself in the mid-19th century as a more modern nation-state.

The 19th-century woodblock artist Tsukioka Kogyo tapped into the growing interest in noh by not only documenting its fearsome characters, but also clearly indicating the actors beneath the masks to the point of creating behind-the-scenes images of the theater for the first time.

“This peeking behind the scenes is almost sacrilegious in a way because it takes the mythology of noh away,” Feltens says.

Noh stories may not have been as bombastic in ghostly reproductions as kabuki, but the form was instead “capturing stories of the distant past, and those stories are often associated with specific sites, specific locales scattered throughout Japan,” he says.

Those stories are told through spirits associated with the sites, and the spirits are conduits for local memory, he adds.

So why have ghosts endured in Japanese cultural traditions, and why the big revival in the Edo period?

Collector Pearl Moskowitz, who, along with her husband Seymour Moskowitz, gifted hundreds of prints to the museum, posits in the exhibition catalog that it may have been a way to reflect society in a changing time. “My guess is these tales of ghostly hauntings acted as forms of justice in a feudal society in which the authority of the ruling class was absolute,” she writes in her essay.

In such an unjust class system, “it was kind of a catharsis in watching these kinds of plays where ghosts could take vengeance in ways they weren’t able to, and get justice achieved through these revenge plots in a way that might have been very satisfying,” Brooks says. “And samurai were often villains in these stories as well, so that lent some credence to that theory.”

It’s difficult to know how many prints were made at the time, Brooks says, adding that people still make them with traditional methods, and a practitioner could make 200 in a morning.

Viewers can likely connect these images of specters to modern Japanese horror in films like 1998’s Ringu, and its English-language remake, 2002’s The Ring.

“Japanese ghosts are things that people know from Japanese horror films,” Brooks says. “So even if they’re not specialists in the subject, you can still see things that you’d recognize and be interested in.”

Originally set to open around Halloween in October 2023, the exhibition was postponed for almost six months following the discovery of a leak in a nearby stairwell.

“Even though nothing was in danger, you obviously have to have an overabundance of caution, so we took everything out,” says Brooks. “It meant the second installation went very, very fast.”

“Staging the Supernatural” will run until early October at the National Museum of Asian Art—closer to the Halloween connection it was denied last fall.

But people are encouraged to also contemplate the supernatural in the summer. “In Japan, summer is the ghost time period,” Brooks says. “People tell ghost stories in the summer because it’s hot and sweaty and humid, and they make you shiver, which makes you cold.”

“Staging the Supernatural: Ghosts and the Theater in Japanese Prints” continues at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art through October 6, 2024.

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