Every culture in the world has its ways of explaining the inexplicable. If it’s not a religious belief system, it’s superstition. If it’s not a rudimentary science, it’s a broadly accepted cultural understanding. And sometimes, it’s just those spooky things that go bump in the night.
In Japan, for several centuries, mysterious supernatural beings collectively known as yōkai have been central to understanding fate.
“There are different regions that experience a lot of natural disasters globally, but in Japan it’s really frequent,” explains superstar artist Takashi Murakami, “particularly with earthquakes that come and destroy cities, which has historically always been the case. I think these yōkai appeared as symbols and embodiments of that fear of the natural power.”
Yōkai run the gamut from a vengeful monster cat to a trickster river otter, a long-necked woman whose head goes out hunting in the middle of the night, a tragic ‘hell courtesan’, the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, and even a frog-like humanoid said to attack swimmers in murky waters.
These spooky beings were believed to be the cause of plenty of good and ill fortune, and vibrant depictions of them were a central part of Japanese art from the mid-1700s. Folk tales of invisible forces were made visible by artists like Toriyama Sekien, who made mass-produced books illustrating these monsters.
He also made scrolls showing a procession of monsters, designed to be unrolled frame by frame and read as they’re unveiled. The scrolls are considered to be one of the starting points for animation, and their characters still show up in Japanese culture: they feature in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, and are a clear inspiration for several Pokémon.
Their appearances in Japanese culture is the subject of Japan Supernatural, the Art Gallery of NSW’s major summer show, which features more than 200 artworks dating from the 1700s through to a brand new commission by Murakami.
Murakami’s work brings together yōkais and samurai from the Edo period in an eccentric, enormous canvas; at three metres tall and ten metres wide, it’s the largest single painting to enter the gallery’s permanent international collection.
Murakami is known for straddling the divide between high and low art, and is in demand with major galleries as much as with pop culture figures, like Kanye West and Billie Eilish, and fashion labels including Louis Vuitton. That makes him the perfect artist to be making 21st century depictions of yōkai (which have always been a significant part of Japanese pop culture) although he says their inclusion in his artwork isn’t designed to challenge any sort of cultural hierarchy.
“I’ve just made those motifs much bigger and now that’s in a museum,” Murakami says. “So it happens to become high art. But I’m not consciously working on that dichotomy anymore.”
In fact, another recent Murakami work uses Godzilla as its central motif. “It turned out to be a pretty good work and I think maybe 200 years from now, people will look at it as an amazing artwork.”
Despite Murakami’s enormous success in the west (his international art and design company Kaikai Kiki now employs 300 people across offices in the US and Japan) the Japanese response to his work has been less glowing. When asked if Japan has been slower to embrace his work, Murakami says nobody in Japan really embraces it at all.
“They like to see western art that’s imported, but they don’t like to think about things or make things according to western rules or western thinking,” he says. “I’m analysing Japanese culture based on western rules, and they really don’t like it.”
But like Murakami, yōkai haven’t always been popular with Japan. In the late 1800s, when the country began to embrace scientific thought and shunned superstition, they fell out of favour. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when manga started to boom, that yōkai were popularised again.
In fact, in the years leading up to the 1960s, Japan underwent an enormous transformation, where its social hierarchy and class structure started to loosen. The west’s divide between high and low art – where a cartoon would almost never be presented alongside works of “serious” artists – is now a foreign concept to Japan.
“After Japan lost the war and everything sort of flattened in terms of mindset and culture, that’s when that hierarchy vanished,” Murakami says. “So it doesn’t have such a long history, socially.”
One of Murakami’s great contributions to contemporary art is the term “superflat”, which describes a contemporary movement coming out of Japan. It was the title of a 2001 exhibition by the artist, and explains both an aesthetic and a social component of Japanese culture, influenced by manga and anime.
“Initially, when I started using the word, it was about the visual; how as opposed to the western 3D composition of a painting, Japanese painting really had these multiple points of view and a painting structure that was flat. But I gradually started coming to think that the social structure and the dynamism that formed the structure is the superflat. Now I think more about the social aspect of superflat.”
Japan Supernatural is at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 8 2020.
Ready for a summer of art? Check out the best exhibitions open in Sydney this month.