Dark Historical Japanese Artworks

Dark Historical Japanese Artworks

Japanese art has a rich and diverse history, spanning centuries of cultural and artistic evolution. One aspect of this history that is often overlooked or underappreciated is the tradition of dark and disturbing paintings that explore the darker aspects of Japanese culture and society. These works, often created during periods of political unrest or social upheaval, reveal a side of Japanese art that is rarely seen in popular media. In this article, we will explore the world of dark historical Japanese paintings, examining their origins, themes, and significance in Japanese art and culture.

Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre, circa 1764. Painted by Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781)

An oni or Ogre (鬼(おに)) is a kind of yōkai, demon, orc, ogre, or troll in Japanese folklore. They are believed to live in caves or deep in the mountains. Oni are known for their superhuman strength and have been associated with powers like thunder and lightning along with their evil nature manifesting in their propensity for murder and cannibalism.

In the mid 18th century, Japan was going through a period of artistic and cultural transformation known as the Edo period. During this time, the country experienced a rise in the popularity of ukiyo-e prints and paintings, which depicted everyday life and popular culture. One of the most striking and thought-provoking works to emerge from this period is the painting "Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre," created by Soga Shōhaku in 1764.

"Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre" depicts a dramatic scene from Japanese folklore in which the hero Sessen Doji faces off against an evil ogre. According to the legend, Sessen Doji was a young boy who was abandoned by his parents and raised in the forest by the god of the mountain. One day, he was confronted by an ogre who demanded that he offer his life in exchange for the ogre sparing the rest of the village. Sessen Doji agreed, and the ogre transformed into a beautiful princess who rewarded Sessen Doji's bravery by becoming his wife.

In Shōhaku's painting, the scene is depicted with vivid colours and bold brushstrokes, creating a sense of urgency and tension. The ogre is depicted as a large, menacing figure with sharp teeth and claws, while Sessen Doji stands before him with a calm and resolute expression on his face. The background is filled with swirling clouds and a dark, ominous sky, heightening the sense of danger and drama. The painting has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the years, with some seeing it as a commentary on the importance of sacrifice and selflessness, while others view it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of making deals with supernatural beings. Regardless of its interpretation, "Sessen Doji Offering His Life to an Ogre" remains a powerful and haunting work of art that captures the spirit of Japanese folklore and mythology.

Soga Shōhaku was one of the most influential artists of the Edo period, and his unique style and bold brushwork continue to inspire artists to this day. His use of vivid colors, dynamic compositions, and exaggerated forms make his works stand out as some of the most striking and memorable pieces of Japanese art. 


Ushi-Oni, circa 1700. From the Bakemono no e scroll, Brigham Young University


The Ushi-Oni (demon), or gyūki, is a folklore of western Japan. Mythology in Japan is filled with fascinating and terrifying creatures, many of which have been immortalized in works of art. One such creature is the Ushi-Oni, a demonic beast with the body of a spider and the head of a cow. This creature has been the subject of countless stories and legends throughout Japanese history, and has inspired some truly captivating works of art. One of the most striking depictions of this creature - the Ushi-Oni from the Bakemono no e scroll, circa 1700, held at Brigham Young University.

The Ushi-Oni is said to inhabit remote areas such as mountains and forests, preying on humans who venture too close. The name Ushi-Oni literally means "cow demon", reflecting the creature's cow like head. However, the Ushi-Oni is more often depicted with the body of a giant spider, complete with multiple legs and a vicious, predatory nature (as seen in the example above).

The Bakemono no e scroll, created in the early 18th century, is a collection of paintings and illustrations depicting various monsters and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore. The scroll is an important piece of Japanese art history, and provides a fascinating insight into the cultural and artistic traditions of the time. One of the most striking illustrations in the scroll is that of the Ushi-Oni. The Ushi-Oni from the Bakemono no e scroll is a masterpiece of Japanese art, showcasing the intricate detail and skillful brushwork of the artist. The creature's menacing presence is palpable, and the overall effect is both chilling and mesmerizing. The scroll as a whole is a testament to the enduring fascination that Japanese culture has with monsters and the supernatural, and provides a window into a rich and fascinating world of myth and legend.

In conclusion, the Ushi-Oni is a creature that has captured the imaginations of countless generations of Japanese people, inspiring stories, art, and cultural traditions. The depiction of the Ushi-Oni in Japanese art is testament to the power and enduring influence of this creature. Whether seen as a symbol of terror or a representation of the mysterious and unknowable aspects of the natural world, the Ushi-Oni remains a fascinating and captivating creature that continues to capture our imagination today.


Ghost of Oiwa, circa 1832. Painted by Shunbaisai Hokuei

This painting depicts 'lemon' being confronted by an Image of his murdered wife, Oiwa, on a broken lantern. Oiwa was a young woman who suffered a terrible fate at the hands of her husband 'lemon', and her vengeful spirit is said to haunt Japan to this day. 

Oiwa lived during the Edo period of Japanese history. She was married to a man named lemon, who was a ronin, or samurai without a master. lemon was dissatisfied with his life and wanted to marry a wealthy woman, so he hatched a plan to get rid of Oiwa. He poisoned her, disfiguring her face and causing her to die a painful and horrific death.

Despite her tragic fate, Oiwa's spirit did not rest in peace. Her ghost is said to have haunted lemon, driving him to madness and eventually causing him to kill himself. The story of the Ghost of Oiwa became a popular subject for plays and stories during the Edo period, and has since become an enduring part of Japanese folklore. There are specific traits to Oiwa that set her apart physically from other Japanese 'ghosts'. Most famous is her left eye, which droops down her face due to poison given her by lemon. She is often depicted to be partially bald, another effect of the poison.


Yūrei, circa 1700. From the Bakemono no e scroll

Japanese Yūrei, or ghosts, have been a popular subject in Japanese art for centuries. These ethereal beings are often depicted in a variety of mediums, from paintings to woodblock prints to manga and anime.

These ghosts are said to be the spirits of those who died tragically or violently, and are often depicted as pale, white figures draped in flowing robes. They are typically depicted with long, flowing hair and sometimes with a facial expression of anger or sorrow.

Yūrei have also been a popular subject in modern Japanese art, particularly in manga and anime. One notable example is the anime series "Ghost in the Shell", which features a variety of ghostly apparitions that blur the line between human and machine. The series explores themes of identity and mortality, using the imagery of Yūrei to add an eerie and surreal element to the story.