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Hell is empty and all the devils are here

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By | From the Collections

In the Library’s Art Collection is a wealth of Japanese iconographic works. Of fiendish interest to us this Halloween, is one fascinating print featuring the demons of Japanese folklore and mythology.

Pring of Japanese masks. Colour woodcut with pop-up flaps on strings, 1860/1920? By Kunisada Utagawa Wellcome Images reference no. V0046729.

Print of Japanese masks. Colour woodcut with pop-up flaps on strings, 1860/1920? by Kunisada Utagawa. Wellcome Images reference no. V0046729.

The woodcut print by Kunisada Utagawa above features six Japanese masks. Kunisada was the most prolific, well-known and commercially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan. His reputation far exceeded that of his famous contemporaries of the time, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.

Masks have had a special cultural significance in Japan from the Jōmon period around 10,000-300 BC, where they were most likely used for religious rituals. But because of the arrival of Buddhism in Japan via the Silk Road in the 6th century, new secular uses for masks emerged. One new form that arose was bugaku (舞楽), a type of popular dance derived from the dance forms of China, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia. Bugaku dancers typically wore masks with movable parts. This Kunisada print is particularly interesting as it features pop-up flaps on strings attached to the lower half of the six masks. Pulling on them reveals gaping mouths.  In this way these masks are reminiscent of traditional bugaku masks.

Japanese print

Detail of the Japanese Masks print with the mouths drawn open by strings.

Kunisada’s work features some of the most notoriously terrifying creatures of Japanese folklore. The third red mask from the left is identified as a type of oni-no-men (鬼ノ面) by the Japanese script on its right. In folkloric tradition, oni (鬼) are a type of yōkai (妖怪), which is the name given to supernatural creatures. The men in the term oni-men is translated to mean ‘mask’. Oni are generally thought to be hideous, horned, ogre-like creatures with large talons. Their skin is most typically red or blue. Oni were believed to cause disasters, disease and other forms of misfortune. They were also thought to devour humans.

People Bewitched by a Tengu (Japanese mountain demon) Colour woodcut attributed to Kyōsai Kawanabe c. 1870. Wellcome Library reference

People Bewitched by a Tengu (Japanese mountain demon) Colour woodcut attributed to Kyōsai Kawanabe c. 1870. Wellcome Library reference no. 565213i.

The red mask on the far right is a hanataka-men (鼻高面). It represents the hanataka-tengu (鼻高天狗). Tengu literally means “heavenly dog”, as the creatures take their name from a legendary Chinese demon dog. However in Japanese culture, tengu is a deceitful and malicious yōkai originally thought to take on the form of a bird of prey. Over the years, however, many different forms of tengu have arisen. The one featured in Kunisada’s print is a hanataka-tengu, which can be understood as “long-nose tengu”. The long-nose tengu is identified by its abnormally long nose and red face, resembling closely the Western goblin. It has been depicted bewitching people and put them into a trance.

On the left of the hanataka-men is the hannya-men (般若面). The hannya (般若) mask is commonly used in Noh theatre (a classical form of Japanese musical drama) and typically represents a jealous female demon. In Noh, hannya is a woman who has become possessed by her jealousy and obsession and she typically has two horns and a leering mouth. Nuances of human emotion are a characteristic feature of Noh theatre. The hannya displays this subtlety as it is meant to evoke both demonic and sorrowful qualities. When the actor wearing the mask looking straight ahead at the audience , the mask appears terrifying, but when he looks down, the masks paints a picture of torment, as the character appears to be crying.

Charles Baudelaire once said, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Suffice to say the devil is very much present this Halloween at the Wellcome Library. Apart from these ghoulish Japanese fiends, who knows what other witches, warlocks, spirits and spectres lurk in our underground stores?

Author: Gillian Daniel is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust.

Gillian Daniel

Gillian Daniel is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust and the creator of the popular fashion and art Instagram page @FashoftheTitans.

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