Yōkai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan
December 8, 2019–January 10, 2021
Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe
Even before viewing the modestly sized exhibition, Yōkai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan, there’s a decent chance you’re acquainted with the branch of Japanese folklore that’s a catchall for mythical creatures such as ghosts, monsters, demons, shapeshifters, paranormal tricksters, and other ambiguous creatures. Japanese horror films encompass yokai, as do manga (comics or graphic novels) and ubiquitous pop culture hits such as Pokémon. In other words, if your senses are pitch shifted to yokai, you’ll begin to see them often.
That’s one takeaway from the thirteen-month-long exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Another realization from the enlightening, tidy survey is the hundreds of years and wide swaths of media yokai penetrate. This Japanese mythology mainstay can be found in early print technology, ritual performances, toys and games, fashion, samurai weaponry, and even the commodities market geared towards fans of fear.
A circa-1830 scroll painting attributed to Eigyo and an 1857 woodblock paper-and-ink print by Toyokuni III are stunners, while Terai Ichiyu’s “White Hannya” Noh Mask—which depicts a horned hannya (or jealous female demon) that’s used in traditional dance-drama Noh theater—is divinely frightening. MOIFA commissioned the artwork, constructed from cypress wood, a variety of natural paints, and cotton cord, for this exhibition and the permanent collection.
Works from contemporary genres include printed pieces from the long-running GeGeGe no Kitaro, one of Japan’s best-known dark fantasy manga and anime epics, as well as a looped video from the 2002 film The Ring (which is a Hollywood remake of the 1998 Japanese Ringu) that shows a female ghost staggering out of the well where she had been flung to her death.
There’s an underwhelming yōkai haunted house towards the end of the exhibition that only takes a few moments to stroll. The abridged fear factory occupies prime real estate—additional scrolls or more works dedicated to kabuki theater might have made for a more lasting impression on the mind, paranormally tuned or otherwise.