Supernatural themes have been featured in folk tales and legends from Japanese literary and religious traditions for over a millennium. Prominent nineteenth-century artists featured in this exhibition, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kawanabe Kyōsai, Utagawa Kunisada, and Katsushika Hokusai, mined these rich traditions, while developing innovative printmaking techniques that enabled their art to be enjoyed by abroader, and increasingly secularized, public. In particular ghost stories were frequently featured in the elaborate dramatic effects of kabuki theater. Fantastic Stories will also include clips from classic Japanese ghost films of the 1960s to demonstrate how such frightening narratives have evolved during the twentieth century.
The nineteenth century in Japan was a time of deep uncertainty, brought on by frenetic changes in politics, economics, and international relations that undermined senses of security and identity. Already weakened by a series of natural disasters that caused widespread famine and riots from the 1830s, the once-fearsome Tokugawa military government revealed its inability to control Japan's destiny, leading to a chaotic period of assassinations and rebellion before the establishment of the Emperor Meiji as the new, stable figurehead for the nation.
Urban commoners, whose culture of colorful drama, fiction, and visual arts is examined in this exhibition, responded to the uncertainty of the times largely through escapism–especially though kabuki plays and imaginative woodblock prints. The prints often held subtle or disguised references to current events. While portraying imaginary realms and figures, the artwork in this exhibition thus represents a very real engagement with the world of its time.
This exhibition was organized in conjunction with Bowdoin College Assistant Professor Vyjayanthi Selinger’s Fall 2012 course "The Fantastic and Demonic in Japanese Literature." The exhibition is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Endowment Fund.