Summer has officially arrived. Record-breaking temperatures hit the news with increasing frequency in recent years, as the terrible sweltering weather tortures us. Other than the conventional use of air-conditioner and synthetic cooling fabrics, we are going to introduce five woodblock prints which can help combat the intense summer heat; they fall under two categories – being creepy and cool.
In Japan, ghost stories (Kaidan) were commonly told during summer as the spine-chilling sensations alleviate the smoggy heat. Cooling plays (Suzumi Shibai) of traditional Japanese performances (Kabuki), featuring scary vengeful stories like Yotsuya Kaidan, are great hits in summer for this reason.
On a totally different note, soothing colours like blue, green and violet evoke cool feelings too. Association of colours with the temperature is commonly used in designs; in Japan, one can witness plenty of new summer products, with cool colour tones, lined up in department stores (Depato).
It is pretty ironic that creepy image increases the heartbeat rate while soothing colours like blue does the opposite, and yet they both produce the cooling sensation that we desire so much during summer. Whatever the means, the end justifies it and we are going to introduce you five woodblock prints that will be perfect for this summer.
The ghostly figure of Hatsuhana, coupled with the cooling waterfall, makes this a perfect piece for summer. However, there lies a sweet story behind it which soothes one’s heart.
As part of the Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives (Kenjyo Reppu Den), Hatsuhana married Iinuma Katsugorou to take revenge on her brother’s nemesis, Takiguchi Kouzuke. In the midst of her vengeful journey, she grew to love Iinuma Katsugorou, who unfortunately fell to a disease and lost his ability to walk.
When she met Takiguchi Kouzuke later, the latter lusted for her and threatened to kill her husband and father if she failed to obey him. Unable to oppose him, she had no choice but to abide, even so she was killed brutally in the end.
Even after becoming a ghost, Hatsuhana’s devotion for Iinuma Katsugorou never ended; hoping that her sick husband will recover his ability to walk, she prayed to the god of mountain (Hakone Gongen) and did penance under the bitter-cold waterfall for hundred days. Hatsuhana’s wish was eventually granted and she disappeared thereafter.
In this intense piece by Kuniyoshi, the water dynamics are skilfully captured as we can see a stream of cold water splashing towards four different directions from the crown of Mongaku Shonin. His determination to repent comes through with his gritted teeth and bulging muscles.
The dark story behind this work has been passed down from the Jyouan Era. Mongaku, also known as Endou Moritoo, was a samurai who fell in love with Kesa Gozen, a well-known beauty and the wife of his friend, Watanabe Wataru. His feelings for her grew intense over time, and he eventually confessed to her. Kesa Gozen was however devoted to her husband and refused.
Mongaku thought that Watanabe Wataru was the interfering factor standing in their way, while Kesa Gozen felt guilty about the situation. One day, Mongaku came to visit as usual, and Kesa Gozen told him that her husband has always slept in a particular room. Having gained this piece of information, Mongaku slipped in the middle of the night to kill Watanabe Wataru. The next morning, it was revealed that he has killed Kesa Gozen instead; she has sacrificed her own life to resolve this dilemma.
Realizing his sins and the futility of worldly affairs, Mongaku entered into Buddhism for salvation. Kimkara (Kongara Douji) and Cetaka (Seitaka Douji), the two messengers of Acalanatha (Fudou Myouou), can be seen overlooking him as he repents under the freezing-cold waterfall.
The eerie floating head in this work sends a chill up our spine with its equally frightening story of the Hundred Tales (Hyaku Monogatari). A popular folk ghost story set in the Edo Period, there were many variations of The Mansion of the Plates (Sarayashiki), but it all revolved around a girl, Okiku, who was brutally murdered by her master for breaking one of the ten heirloom plates. It was said that her spirit often appear from the well where her corpse ended up in. Night after night, her apparition appears, and with a scary voice counts “one plate… two plates…” This continues up to the ninth plate where shrieks of agony “it’s missing a plate!” could be heard. After the death of Okiku, strange supernatural occurrences seemed to befall the family, all attributed to her vengeful curses.
Another famous ghost story from the Hundred Tales (Hyaku Monogatari), Kohada Koheiji was a young man who strove to become an actor, in spite of his poor acting skills and eerie look. His master pitied him and managed to get him his first side role by pulling some strings – a role of the ghost. Kohada Koheiji did many researches to the extent of examining corpses. His efforts paid off and he became well-known for his roles as ghosts. His private life was unfortunately not going well as his wife, Otsuka, cheated on him with a drum-master Adachi Sakurou. Adachi Sakurou invited Kohada Koheiji to the Asaka marsh for fishing; little did the latter realize that it was all a deliberate plan to kill him. Having gotten rid of Kohada Koheiji, Adachi Sakurou returned to Edo and visited Otsuka. However, the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji has also returned with him. Hokusai portrayed the scene where he peeked through the mosquito net above the bed. The persistent haunting drove Adachi Sakurou to insanity, and eventually led to his demise.
With the scary stories, it is perhaps comforting to see this peaceful piece of Two Carp in Waterfall by Hokusai. The waterfall flowing through the streamlined bodies of the fishes, and tiny details like splashes being captured realistically, evokes a cool feeling that is perfect for summer. In a time where everyone is staying home due to the Covid-19 situation, this is a much-needed piece which allows us to connect to the nature, something that we all yearn for especially in this summer.
This beautiful article written by Yeong!