Fantastic beasts

Photo of William Yeoman

WILLIAM YEOMAN sees monsters everywhere and loves it

As Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt write in their hugely entertaining and informative book Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, “The yokai ... are mythical, supernatural creatures that have populated generations of Japanese fairy tales and folk stories”.

They can be seen, the authors continue, “in museums worldwide on scrolls, screens, woodblock prints, and other traditional forms of Japanese art, menacing hapless citizens or being skewered by swashbuckling samurai”.

Once you’ve been made aware of the existence of these monsters and their ghostly colleagues, yurei, you start seeing them everywhere.

Having recently visited such evocative places as Tokyo’s Yanaka graveyard and Kyoto’s historic Higashiyama district, I felt certain kappa, tengu, nekomata, kitsune and other supernatural creatures were lurking at every turn.

Even more alarming was to encounter their malign yet attractive presence in the more concrete form of brilliant, bizarre artwork by Hokusai and others, much from the Edo Period (1603-1864), in Tokyo’s Sumida Hokusai Museum. And especially in Miyoshi’s weird and wonderful Yumoto Koichi Memorial Japan Yokai Museum, or Mononoke (ghost) Museum, as it’s also known.

But perhaps most compelling of all was to confront the contemporary manifestations of these wicked, mischievous creatures not only in the Kyoto Manga Museum, but in the cavernous studio-workshop of an artist who has been dubbed Japan’s answer to Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami.

We’ll meet Murakami-san in a moment. First of all, it’s either reassuring or unsettling, depending on your point of view, to know that from this Saturday, multitudes of these creatures will be taking up residence in the Art Gallery of NSW for one of the largest exhibitions of Japanese art Australia has ever seen — Japan Supernatural: Ghosts, Goblins and Monsters 1700s to Now.

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