Ubume-zu – Portrait of an Ubume

Translated from Mikzuki Shigeru’s Yokai Zukan

Here we have yet another yurei portrait, but this one gives an impression of sadness instead of fear. The title of this piece is ubume (姑獲鳥), which makes a reference to a Chinese yokai that took the form of a bird. This yokai entered Japanese folklore as the spirit of a woman who had given birth, and stories are told of a ghostly woman who wanders through town carrying her child in her arms.

This image of the ubume (産女) is the one drawn by Sawaki Sushi in Hyakaizukan (百怪図巻; “The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons”) and by Sekien in Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (画図百鬼夜行; “The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”). Kyosai’s painting is of the same genus. In fact, Kyosai’s painting is so similar to that of another artist, Kano Tosen’s work “Umesachi,” that it could almost be considered a reproduction.

The ubume’s clothing and hair are swept back by the wind. She covers her face with her sleeve. The whole scene is one of plaintive sorrow.

Further Reading:

Check out other yurei art from hyakumonogatari.com:

Yūrei-zu – A Portrait of a Yūrei, a Japanese Ghost

Two Tales of Ubume

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

Translator’s Note

This is Mizuki Shigeru’s commentary on a famous painting by Meiji-era artist Kawanabe Kyosai (河鍋暁斎; 1831-1889). Known as the last great painter in the Japanese style, Kyosai was said to be the inheritor of Hokusai and the other great ukiyo-e masters, although he did not study under Hokusai.

This painting is of a traditional type of ghost known as ubume. Ubume can be written with two sets of kanji, either 姑獲鳥 or 産女. The more typical one is 産女, which translates as “birthing mother.” Ubume are said to be ghosts of women who died in childbirth, or died with their still living child in their womb who is then born from a dead mother. They wander the streets trying to buy sweets and to get care for their still living child. In still other legends their child is as dead as they are. The kanji Kyosai used to title his painting, 姑獲鳥 translates rather strangely as “bird-catching mother-in-law” and shows the Chinese origin of the name. As stated by Shigeru, the Chinese ubume can take on a bird shape.

Kyosai probably used this archaic kanji to give an allure of mystery to his work, and to show his knowledge of Chinese.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 83n831
    Apr 12, 2012 @ 18:57:42

    It’s interesting to me that there is a close ubume parallel in the Grimm Brothers tale “Brother and Sister.” Condensing the rather episodic plot, it concerns a girl (and her brother, who is magically enchanted into a deer) who runs away from an abusive stepmother. She encounters a king, who makes her his bride. But shortly after she gives birth, the evil stepmother tracks her down and murders her. Her spirit then haunts the royal bedchamber, coming every evening to breast-feed her baby.

    It’s not commonly included in the sanitized canon of fairy tales published for children, so it isn’t very familiar. But it didn’t surprise me that Nippon Studio chose to adapt it in its 1987-88 anime series “Grimm Masterpiece Theatre” and gave the ubume element a very full and intense treatment. The dead queen’s appearance in the anime even suggests graphic arts renderings like the one Shigure reproduces and discusses.

    (Grimm and Nippon give the tale a happy ending — interestingly enough, different happy endings. The one in the original tale is not very convincing and seems unearned, so Nippon invents a new final episode that’s a bit like Orpheus and Euridice.)

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 09:51:40

      That is in interesting parallel. The big difference with standard ubume is that typically they die while pregnant, with the child then being born from the dead body. Uusally this isn’t discovered until later. But there are many, many variations on the ubume legend. I have one other tale translated on her called “The Yurei Child” about a wife who dies, but then gets pregnant and delivers a baby as a ghost, all without her husband suspecting. It is only after the baby was born that she revealse she has been dead all along and moves on to the after life.

      I am not surprised that that story was included in a Japanese version of “Grimm’s Fairly Tales.” It very much suits the Japanese sensibilities. They would recognize the figure instantly and be able to relate to the story. I haven’t seen that animation, but it sounds interesting. Strange that they gave the story a happy ending; Japanese folklore isn’t big on happy endings, and they are usually bittersweet at best.

      Reply

      • 83n831
        Apr 22, 2012 @ 15:40:12

        The happy ending is the European tale’s ending, which traditionally has a “happily ever after” coda. The fact that it is so obviously illogical and tacked-on in the anime episode suggests that the Nippon Studio adaptor honored the Grimms’ original ending, but only half-heartedly.

  2. vilajunkie
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 12:37:16

    I think variations on the ubume legend is a pretty common motif no matter what the culture. Would it be wrong to consider it a subset of the Vanishing Hitchhiker legends? I’m talking about the variations where the mother vanishes after getting food for her baby or a ride past her gravesite.

    There’s a similar ghost in Mexico and Mexican neighborhoods in the US called La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”). However, she fits in more with the aggressive, vindictive ubume, like the ubume-dori. La Llorona drowned her own children and was denied entrance to Heaven until she could find all her children on earth and bring them to God. Of course, since it’s a nearly impossible task, she tries to cheat the system by kidnapping children that are in the streets alone.

    Reply

  3. Zack Davisson
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 12:57:53

    Definitely. A “ghostly mother” motif is a fairly common scenario.

    The word “ubume” in Japanese folklore actually covers a few different types of ghosts. There is the “kosodate yurei” (child-raising yurei) and “amekae yurei” (candy-buying yurei) which are sweeter versions of the tale of a poor ghost mother trying to buy sweets for her child. The child has usually been born from her dead body and is still alive in the coffin (Ge ge ge no Kitaro anyone?) and when people follow the ghost-mother back they dig up the coffin and find the baby. Children born this way are usually marked somehow, and are often said to have supernatural powers.

    Then there is the ubume who is more like a yokai, who carries a baby that she tries to get people to hold for some foul purpose. Actually sever yokai have variations on this legend, like the nure onna and the umi bozu–which I always find to be an odd mix-and-match.

    Reply

  4. vilajunkie
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 21:18:41

    “Children born this way are usually marked somehow, and are often said to have supernatural powers.”

    Definitely the case for Kitaro on that part! :)

    Going on an Epileptic Tree Limb here: Since no one *really* knows what the umi-bozu is or looks like under the water, for all we know it could be the nure-onna’s pet, a colony of nure-onna in there, or–worse–the nure-onna “queen” that gives birth to them.

    Reply

  5. angrygaijin
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 14:46:59

    That Kyosai, trying to show off. ;) I can relate.

    Reply

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