Hokusai

The Mansion of the Plates (1831)

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About the Art

The ghost of a beautiful servant, Okiku, rises from a well at the head of a chain of ornate plates. The scene is a depiction of the return of Okiku after her murder, from the folk tale "Mansion of the Plates".

Okiku served under the samurai Aoyama Tessan. He would often make amorous advances, but she would always rebuff them. Growing frustrated with her, Aoyama tricked her into believing that she had carelessly lost one of the family's precious Delft plates, for which the typical punishment would be death.

In a frenzied panic, she counted and recounted the nine plates, over and over. However, she could not find the tenth and went to Aoyama, tears of guilt streaming down her cheeks. The samurai offered to pardon her, if only she finally became his lover, but again she refused. Enraged, he threw her down a well to her death.

Okiku became a vengeful spirit (Onryō), who tormented her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek to represent the missing tenth plate – or perhaps she had tormented herself and was still trying to find the tenth plate but cried out in agony when she never could. 

Different versions of the tale abound, and it was told and retold throughout Japan, in novels as well as in Kabuki theatre.

This print is from the series entitled ‘100 Ghost Tales’ (Hyaku monogatari), made for a night-time storytelling game. After each story, another wick of the oil-lamp was blown-out, and the room became darker, until the room was pitch-black. At this point, the real ghouls would emerge.

Judging from the series title, the publisher and Hokusai foresaw a series of 100 designs. However, in the end, only five are known.