Two Curators On How the National Museum of Asian Art’s “Staging the Supernatural” Came to Be |

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Two Curators On How the National Museum of Asian Art’s “Staging the Supernatural” Came to Be

Between ShogunGodzilla Minus OneThe Contestant and a host of new quality anime, it’s starting to feel like the only thing Americans can agree on is that we all love Japanese culture. Hearing this call, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art recently opened “Staging the Supernatural: Ghosts and the Theater in Japanese Prints,” a large and ambitious show that seeks to examine the origins of certain Japanese aesthetics when they emerged in the Edo years. We caught up with Kit Brooks, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, and Frank Feltens, curator of Japanese art, to hear more about the show.

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How did the idea for this show come about?

The origin of the exhibition dates back more than fifteen years but was buoyed into reality by two major acquisitions by the NMAA. The idea for a ghost-themed exhibition first came about while we were both studying at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama in 2009-2010. At the NMAA, the broad possibilities of a ghost-themed exhibition seemed endless and much had already been done by museums in Japan and elsewhere, so we decided to concentrate on theatrical representations in print.

The recent acquisition of the Pearl and Seymour Moskowitz Collection in 2021, with its rich focus on ghosts on the stage delivered an aperture onto ghosts as carriers of memory, examples of striking stage effects, and culturally significant stories. These narratives linked our world with the world beyond as well as the past with the present. The Moskowitz Collection further supplemented previous acquisitions given to NMAA by Anne van Biema (1915-2004) and Robert O. Muller (1911-2003) that contained many representations of supernatural subjects in kabuki. The subject of ghosts on the stage was further incentivized by a substantial collection of prints depicting the noh theater by the artist Tsukioka Kōgyo (1869-1927) that were given to NMAA by the Embassy of Japan in the 1970s. Kōgyo’s singular obsession with the noh theater and its slow, eerie aesthetic offered both striking counterpoint and direct connector to the kabuki works in the Moskowitz collection.

Broadly speaking, what are the key differences in the perception of ghosts in Japan versus in the West?

There are many similarities between ghosts in different world cultures—for example, it is common to encounter the belief that ghosts are the spirits of people who suffered a traumatic death. This is also true in Japan, and many of the ghosts in the show are vengeful spirits seeking to punish those who tormented them in life. However, people often comment on the high number of female ghosts that appear in Edo-period stories. It has been speculated that one contributing factor in this is the relatively low social and political power exercised by most women in this time. With regard to their interpersonal relationships, women were more powerful in death than they were in life, unbound by society’s rules and possessed of supernatural abilities. During this period, dramas based in the household became more popular in literature and theater. Naturally, women play a more significant role in domestic scenes than they did in military epics of the distant past.

Why was the Edo period so crucial to the development and solidification of ideas about the supernatural in Japan?

The Edo period brought about urbanization on a massive scale, especially as people from all over Japan moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in order to support the growing military government that was based there. As people from different regions came together, they naturally shared tales of the strange and the unusual from their home provinces. At the same time, publishing became a huge industry, and cheaply available woodblock printed books and prints were able to depict such stories in dynamic and engaging compositions, while also making them more widely known. Depicted by best-selling artists and authors, the manner of depicting these supernatural creatures often became standardized.

An installation view of “Staging the Supernatural: Ghosts and the Theater in Japanese Prints.” National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Colleen Dugan

What was the contemporary relationship between visual art and noh?

Even though people during the Edo period had few if any opportunities to see actual noh performances, subjects of the noh theater are a part of visual culture. For example, many seminal early modern artists of ukiyo-e prints created images inspired by noh plays. The work of Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) makes clear how noh subjects were not illustrated exactly according to the text but were incorporated into broader cultural allusions.

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For example, a print by Harunobu pays homage to the play Hakurakuten by embedding the protagonist in a referential context that is entirely unrelated to the play itself. In the play, the famed Chinese poet Bo Juyi (J. Hakurakuten; 772-846) arrives on the shores of Japan to test the poetic acumen of the Japanese people. The Sumiyoshi deity, also considered a god of poetry, rushes to the scene in the guise of a fisherman and so impresses Bo Juyi with his lyrical skills that the Chinese poet returns home chagrined, reluctantly admiring the elegiac dexterity of even the humblest of Japanese. In Harunobu’s print, the Sumiyoshi deity is replaced by a sex worker who competes with Bo Juyi not with written words, like those in the books that Bo Juyi carries in his boat, but with songs from Edo’s upscale brothels, as symbolized by the painting she holds up and the lute near her feet. The design of pine trees on her kimono alludes to Sumiyoshi Shrine, a place famous for its evergreens, hinting that she may be the god of poetry in disguise. As in other prints, Harunobu plays with the concept of ‘mitate,’ a kind of double (or triple) entendre that conveys layered meanings by recasting unrelated themes.

This form of noh, in which commonly known aspects of a play were reconfigured into other contexts, appeared often during the early modern period. So well-known were stories like Hakurakuten that neither reading the libretti nor seeing performances of it were necessary to understand puns on the plot. Printed books like Illustrated Wish for Riches (Ehon tsūhō shi) of 1730, which offered a guide to themes of good fortune, helped disseminate noh subjects and linked them to auspicious symbolism. A blend of superstition, playfulness, and relative prosperity across classes throughout the early modern period cultivated a ceaseless demand for propitious images. Artists of all backgrounds tapped into that lucrative market by turning to noh. Pictures of the play Takasago, which featured two deities in the guise of an old woman and an old man and was often performed around the New Year, were made and sold as harbingers of good fortune. In the Meiji era, noh became part of the country’s officially endorsed performance culture and people began buying noh prints like those by Kōgyo to learn more about plays and as tokens of fan admiration.

How does the work in this show presage some of the aesthetics we recognize in Japanese culture today?

It is difficult to draw a direct connection to the aesthetics of the noh and kabuki theater to contemporary Japanese culture. There is rarely a direct line of transmission between traditional aesthetics and contemporary culture. Techniques of performativity and acting in kabuki impacted early Japanese black-and-white film production and can be seen, to a lesser degree, in the works of Kurosawa Akira as well. In terms of female ghosts in kabuki, the drooping hair, bulging eyes and white clothing (traditionally used to dress corpses in Japan) that can be seen in depictions of Oiwa and Kasane, etc., was a progenitor for the representation of female ghosts in JHorror movies like Ringu (The Ring), which share those same features.

Filed Under: ArtsMuseumsInterviewsArts InterviewsKit BrooksFrank FeltensSuzuki HarunobuBo JuyiAnne Van BiemaSeymour MoskowitzPearl MoskowitzRobert O. MullerTsukioka KōgyoNational Museum Of Asian ArtAkira KurosawaJapanese ArtCurators


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