This is in response to a reader question about a particular yurei picture, specifically Hokusai’s manga yurei.
Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s best-known artist internationally. His print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, is without a doubt the most famous work of Japanese art. Like most artists in the Edo period, Hokusai illustrated supernatural scenes from famous kabuki plays and popular hyakumonogatari kaidankai tales. In 1831, he created five prints in a hyakumonogatari series that are still some of the most famous Japanese ghost prints.
The particular yurei in question, however, comes from a different period in his life. In 1811, at the age of 51, Hokusai changed his professional name to Taito, and began work on a series of sketchbooks and small images he called manga. The word manga (漫 画) translates directly to “frivolous pictures,” and Hokusai’s manga series were originally meant to be a quick money-making venture that would attract new students. The manga series was very popular, and Hokusai created fifteen volumes in total.
This yurei image comes from the 13th volume, one of the three not published during Hokusai’s lifetime. This yurei is not from any particular story, but just seems to be a “frivolous picture” of a yurei that Hokusai drew. The text next to the picture say simply yurei, with no other identification. It is a very usual depiction of a yurei in that it is winsome rather than scary. But it does include the standard Edo period yurei characteristics of pale skin, white kimono, black hair, and no feet.
The yurei is part of a four-paneled series of mythological creatures. The yurei is in the top left, with a picture of a Yamauba underneath. On the right side in the top left is a tengu, and underneath that is a mountain yokai called a Hihi. Hihi is the Japanese word for baboon, and at the time a baboon was no less a fantastical creature than a mermaid or tengu.
It is clear from looking at the original that the picture has been color-corrected. The original impressions from Hokusai’s manga series were three-colored, black, gray, and pale flesh.