My parents took me to see Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood when I was six years old. More accurately, they took me to sleep through it, saving no doubt on a babysitter, but I didn’t sleep. For months afterward, I would lie down at bedtime and vainly try not to think of the terrifying white-haired Forest Spirit in her ghostly hut, whispering prophecies at Kurosawa’s Macbeth, in guttural Japanese, from her rickety spinning-wheel of fate.
Japanese ghosts have returned this summer to haunt my dreams,
summoned by a striking Hokusai exhibition in Boston, and by other stray
events that stirred up spectral associations with the Japanese master’s
mesmerizing art. Not least was the arrival in western Massachusetts of a
producer from the Criterion Collection, to film an interview with me
about the writer and connoisseur of Japan Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904),
four of whose Japanese ghost stories are the source for Kwaidan
(1964), Masaki Kobayashi’s creepily stylized horror film. Of Greek and
Irish ancestry, the exoticist Hearn worked in New Orleans and Martinique
before settling in Japan in 1890, where he immediately began collecting
and adapting ghost stories—a genre in which Japanese folklore and
literature are particularly rich—for collections like Kwaidan (1904), published the year he died, a title that Hearn translated as “weird tales.”
Back in New Orleans, Hearn had tried his hand at Asian ghost stories
in his wildly overwritten volume—all red lacquer and gilding—Some Chinese Ghosts
(1887). In Japan, aspiring to be the Brothers Grimm of Japanese
folklore, Hearn wrote instead in a rigorously plain style (“I am
converted by my own mistakes,” he remarked), letting the narrative
incidents and the vivid images carry the tale forward.
Kobayashi selected four stark stories from Hearn that invited visual
and narrative completion. In one story, a samurai, taunted by an image
of a stranger’s face in a teacup, drinks the tea, but Hearn declines to
say what happened afterward. “I prefer to let the reader attempt to
decide for himself the probable consequence of swallowing a Soul.”
Kobayashi takes up Hearn’s imaginative challenge.
In another tale, a man abandons his wife in their destitute village
for a good job and rich wife in the capital city, only to repent and
return to his first wife, who greets him with joy. He wakes up after
“the reconciliation” (Hearn’s title for the tale) only to find, wrapped
in its grave sheet, “a corpse so wasted that little remained save the
bones, and the long black tangled hair.” For Kobayashi, Hearn’s closing
image of “the black hair” (the filmmaker’s own title for this segment)
morphs from an erotic fetish into an avenging ghost hounding the
faithless husband, amplified by Toru Takemitsu’s eerie, hammering score,
across the ruined landscape of the village.
I myself find it hard to believe that Kobayashi, in “The Black Hair,” wasn’t thinking of one of Hokusai’s most famous images, The Mansion of Plates
(circa 1831-1832), of a ghostly woman snaking up from a well trailing
her long, long black hair. I thought of that black hair when, one recent
afternoon, I wandered through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s
exhibition of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the Edo-period painter and
woodblock printer whose images are known across the world.
Objects in the show are drawn entirely from the MFA’s own astonishing
holdings, and some acknowledgment must be accorded to the inspired
collector who assembled so many of these treasures. William Sturgis
Bigelow, from a prominent Boston family, was trained as a doctor by
Pasteur in Paris, but had little relish for medicine. Inspired by
Boston-based Orientalists like Edward Morse and Ernest Fenollosa, he
traveled to Japan, where he was drawn to falconry and the tenets of
esoteric Buddhism. He also collected art on an unimaginable scale, and
with a ruthlessly keen eye; he seems to have favored the odd, the
astonishing, the bizarre, both in theme and execution.
The show itself is built around the theme of Hokusai’s ingenuity. I
was expecting to see small things sharply observed and beautifully, ingeniously executed—arresting views of Mount Fuji from Hokusai’s great series (begun when he was seventy), including Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (circa 1831-1833, known as The Great Wave); lifelike birds and flowers; whimsical manga,
a genre Hokusai pretty much invented—and I wasn’t disappointed. But I
also found a different Hokusai in Boston—weirder in imagination, grander
in scale, more audacious in technique.
Hokusai is widely admired as some kind of realist, and it’s true that
no detail seems to escape his notice. One thinks, in this regard, of
Hokusai’s youthful apprenticeship to a polisher of mirrors in the
Shogun’s employ. While Hokusai chose instead the riskier profession of
artist, his “lifelong fascination with reflections and optical effects
of many kinds may well be related,” as MFA curator Sarah E. Thompson
points out in the helpful exhibition catalog, “to his early experience
The woman admiring herself in the mirror in an early hanging scroll
seems to have her mouth slightly open, as though she’s about to speak.
But if you look closely—and you always have to look closely at Hokusai’s
work—you’ll see that she’s holding a tiny fruit (the hoozuki,
or ground cherry, a symbol of summer) in her mouth, and perhaps making a
sound with her tongue on its hollow skin, adding auditory detail to
visual. “Hokusai’s beauty may be whistling softly to herself as she
admires her red lipstick,” Thompson writes, “with a green shimmer on the
lower lip where it is applied most thickly, and teeth neatly blackened
for maximum contrast with her white-powdered face.”
But Hokusai was also an inspired painter of ghosts and other phantasms. My favorite is The Mansion of Plates, the image I think Kobayashi was thinking of in Kwaidan.
Hokusai’s print is based on a ghost story in which a servant named
Okiku accidentally breaks a precious porcelain plate and throws herself
in despair down a well, or, in alternative versions, is tossed into the
well by her angry master. In Hokusai’s inspired rendition, the ghost of
Okiku snakes up out of the well, her long black hair entwined with a
serpentine succession of porcelain plates, ghostly counterparts of the
broken plate. An exhalation slithers from her lips, as though she—and
perhaps the artist himself—is smoking something.
Another fugitive from the world of spirits is Hokusai’s sumptuous and phantasmagorical Phoenix,
which takes up eight panels of an eight-foot long (and only fourteen
inches tall) folding screen: an explosion of ink, colored pigments, gold
leaf, and sprinkled gold. This phoenix, its wings spread out impossibly
wide, seems more peacock than any other known bird; with its far-flung
tail feathers ending in eyes, it stares back at us like Rilke’s headless
Apollo—“for here there is no place that does not see you.”
I found myself thinking of the influence on later artists of both
sides of Hokusai’s temperament—the ways he mirrors every detail of the
visual world while also evoking, indelibly, the ghostly dream world—as I
read a new book by the scholar Christine Guth. Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon documents the remarkable diffusion of Hokusai’s best-known image, from Debussy’s La Mer to Mohamed Kanoo’s Great Wave of Dubai
(2012), in which the towering Burj Al Arab Hotel replaces Mount Fuji in
the distance. Two other exhibitions that I visited this summer, at the
Clark Art Institute across the state in Williamstown, further document
Hokusai’s wide influence.
“When I look at Hokusai,” Van Gogh (who avidly collected Japanese
prints and decorated his studio walls with them) wrote to his brother
Theo, “it feels like that wave is a claw and the boat is being seized by
that claw.” The Clark’s “Van Gogh and Nature” takes up the Dutch
artist’s apprenticeship to the bird-and-flower genre (sunflowers,
irises), which Hokusai had restored to a central place in Japanese art a
half-century earlier. Van Gogh also adopted from Hokusai, as in the
Japanese artist’s beautiful print of The Kintai Bridge in Suô Province (circa 1834), the practice of scoring landscape paintings with diagonal black lines to represent rain.
This technique is given a particularly wrenching treatment in one of
Van Gogh’s very last, heartbreaking paintings, of a wheat-field in the
rain. The final work in the Clark’s show, the painting depicts a field
divided, like the two sides of a river, and spanned by the extended
wings of a hovering black crow. Van Gogh’s rain, seemingly incised into
the canvas with black paint and a palette knife, is not the gentle
summer shower of Hokusai’s print but more like some ominous and
inescapable attack from above.
Another sojourner at the Clark this summer, James McNeill Whistler,
surrounded himself with Japanese things, as his mother noted when she
visited him in 1864; he specifically drew on Hokusai’s bridges for his
paintings of London’s Old Battersea Bridge. Irascible and litigious,
Whistler passionately collected Asian porcelain, and might have been
capable of throwing a clumsy servant down a well. Up the hill from the
main building of the Clark, in an exhibition space designed by the
Japanese architect Tadao Ando, resides, for a few precious weeks (until
September 27, when it returns to its home at the Museé d’Orsay), Whistler’s Mother, an image almost as familiar as The Great Wave.
There she sits, in ghostly profile, facing a curtain of indigo-dyed
Japanese fabric, perhaps a folded kimono, in a geometric array of frames
within frames borrowed from the Japanese prints Whistler so admired.
She appears, as admirers noted at the time her portrait was painted, in
1871, to inhabit some mysterious inner world—“on the wing,” as the
Symbolist writer Huysmans wrote, “towards a distant dreaminess.” Like
the serpentine spirit of Okiku, floating up from the well and trailing
her black hair, Whistler’s mother seems another summer visitor from the
Japanese world of ghosts.