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

Translated from Mikzuki Shigeru’s Yokai Zukan

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

The moon hangs in the sky like the blade of a sickle, giving off a dim glow. A ghostly air permeates the scene, and from a thicket of bamboo emerges the form of a single yurei.

An emaciated body wrapped in a kyokatabira, the traditional white burial kimono, this figure is the very epitome of a yurei. Our eyes are instantly drawn to the clenched teeth from which dangles a pale, severed head. Held tightly by the hair, the yurei shows no sign of allowing its precious bounty to drop, and its expression challenges anyone to make it try. And while the eyes of the dead, severed head are closed, the eyes of the yurei look as if they could pop out of their eye sockets at any moment. An unearthly light surrounds the yurei and its head. The scene is blood curdling.

The head is painted in vivid colors, but we do not know its story. There must have been some terrible curse, some tragic event, to produce such a terrifying circumstance.

Although there are other paintings along similar themes, in this work the artist Kawanabe Kyosai has emphasized the horror, the eerie nature of the image. Kyosai is known as a master of yurei paintings, and surely this is one of his masterpieces.

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, titled simply Yurei-zu (幽霊図), meaning “Picture of a Yurei,” is india ink on silk and was painted in 1870 – The 3rd year of the Meiji period. The painting is currently housed in the Fukuoka City Museum.

The story of this particular painting is not known, and indeed there may be no story. Kyosai painted a few portraits of yurei carrying severed heads. The reason for this is usually related to a story from Kyosai’s youth. As a nine-year old boy, he found a severed head by the side of a river, and brought it home to study and play with it like some discovered toy. When his parents found the head and ordered Kyosai to throw it back in the river, he did so only after he drew the head from every angle, fully studying his gruesome find.

Further Reading:

Check out other yurei art from hyakumonogatari.com:

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

More Hokusai Manga Yurei


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Real Queen of Horror
    Mar 30, 2012 @ 08:58:13

    Very creepy!


    • Zack Davisson
      Mar 30, 2012 @ 09:21:47

      Thanks Zena! I checked out your blog as well. Very well done!

      This one is rare in that it is, in fact, creepy. Even though J-Horror films can be scary, most old Japanese kaidan focused on the “weird” factor rather than the scary. The stories were meant to be odd and unsettling, or to tell a story or explain some event, but they were rarely out-and-out horror.


  2. vilajunkie
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 21:26:15

    I dunno, because futakuchi-onna, one of the not-so-powerful kind of youkai, is pretty horrifying. Imagine finding out your wife has a giant mouth (with teeth!) in the back of her head and tentacle-like hair to snatch up food.


  3. Trackback: Garei – The Picture Ghost | 百物語怪談会 Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

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