Garei – The Picture Ghost


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

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Ochiguri Monogatari, and Other Sources

Long ago, there was a dilapidated folding screen with the portrait of a woman holding her child. The screen was the property of the Kanju-ji temple in Kyoto, where it was kept buried away in a storehouse. One day, a request came from a retainer of the samurai Honamiden to borrow the screen. Thinking it was nothing more than a worthless nuisance, the temple was only too happy to comply with the request. The priests sent Honamiden the screen with all due haste.

Even though the screen was old and neglected, the painting was beautiful and Honamiden proudly put it on display in his house. That very night, reports started coming in of a mysterious woman who appeared in the vicinity of Honamiden’s manor. She was beautiful, and was reported to be carrying a small child. The unknown woman appeared every single night and wandered the grounds of the manor. Finally, one of Honamiden’s servants followed the woman. He watched her as she entered the house, and gasped as she suddenly disappeared while standing in front of the ancient painting.

Upon hearing this, Honamiden returned the screen to Kanju-ji as quickly as possible, mentioning nothing of the mysterious woman or the incident. A beautiful picture was one thing, but he did not need to attract strange spirits.

Now, that same mysterious woman began to appear around the Kanju-ji temple. Suspecting the painting was the origin of this apparition, a clever servant placed a piece of paper over the head of the woman in the painting. Sure enough, that evening when the ghostly woman was seen her head was covered by a piece of paper.

Kanju-ji assembled some artists to investigate the painting, and they all agreed it was the work of the artist Tosa Mitsuoki—and an important work at that. Because Tosa was dead, there was no way of knowing the story behind the woman in the painting, but they all agreed that it was a shame that such a valuable painting was allowed to degenerate to such poor condition. Hearing that, Kanju-ji paid to have the screen restored to its former condition and properly displayed.

From that time onward, the mysterious woman never appeared again.

Translator’s Note:

Winding down on my Halloween yurei posts! Although the last two haven’t exactly been yurei, but spirits of a different sort …

This story comes from Fujiwara Ietaka’s Ochiguri Monogatari (落栗物語; Tales of Fallen Chestnuts), thought to be written sometime in the 1820s. Ietaka’s book is a loose collection of random bits and pieces, observations of daily life of the time and stories overheard. Obviously, the Garei falls into the latter category.

The connection between art and ghosts is an old one, going back at least to The Ghost of Oyuki and probably even further. The story of the Garei builds on the idea that certain works of art and craftsmanship are able to be infused with some of the soul of the artist and take on a life of their own. The story serves as a cautionary tale with a definite moral—treat works of art with respect, or they will come out and haunt you.

(Speaking of which, this can almost be seen as an inspiration to films like Ringu, with the ghost emerging from the painting instead of Sadako emerging from the TV. Of course, the Garei from this story wasn’t quite so vengeful as Sadako; she just wanted her picture to be appreciated and treated nicely. )

Yokai researcher Oda Kokki identifies the Garei as a type of Tsukumogami , a belief in Japan that household objects can gain life after 100 years. I’m not personally sure I agree with that, as the painting in this story is not yet 100 years old. And Tusumogami tend to be everyday objects that are handled and used daily, slowly gaining life as human’s infuse them will small pieces of their motive energy over the century. Garei-type stories tend to be more about the power of the artist, how certain artists attain such skill that they are able to infuse their works with souls. A similar story has an artist painting such realistic portraits of Hell that they become actual portals to the netherworlds. Sounds like an episode of Twilight Zone, doesn’t it?

Oh, and by the way: Mizuki Shigeru ends his retelling of the Garei with a further warning—you better be nice to his comic books or he will make sure that all of the monsters he puts in there will come out to get you!

Further Reading:

For more stories of yurei and art, check out:

The Ghost of Oyuki

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

More Hokusai Manga Yurei

Yurei-zu: A Portrait of a Yurei

A Portrait of an Ubume


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dangochao
    Oct 28, 2013 @ 01:17:28

    perhaps some of the objects gain lfe early if the person who created if had a strong spirit?


  2. Zack Davisson
    Oct 30, 2013 @ 14:55:12

    I personally think they are separate from the Tsukumogami. Because with the Garei it is not the picture itself that comes to life, but the spirit of the picture that is able to leave it’s frame.

    If it was a Tsukumogami, the entire picture, frame and all, would be animated.


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