Ghosts and Goblins in Japanese Art

A mountain cat dressed as a woman, who preys on travellers. A bird-like goblin that plays mischievous tricks. The ghost of a wronged lover. These are just some of the rich menagerie of deities, demons, supernatural creatures and shapeshifters that populate Japanese art and culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dr Rosina Buckland, senior curator of East and Central Asian collections at the National Museum of Scotland, takes us inside this wondrous world. [MP3 version]

Supernatural creatures were inextricably woven into early modern Japanese society. Their forms ranged from benevolent manifestations of sacred beings, through humorous goblins, to malevolent shape-shifters and ghosts. These themes were a mainstay of popular visual culture, theatrical productions and literature, and while the various creatures often provided entertainment, they also served to remind people of the importance of religious and folkloric beliefs. Some forms were imported from China, as part of the larger framework of classical civilization and learning, but other were native to Japan, emerging from particular topographies and practices. These supernatural beings can provide us with insight into the way Japanese people of the time understood the world around them, as well as that which lay beyond the knowable world. The lecture will present examples from the visual tradition, in woodblock prints, paintings, masks, and personal ornaments, exploring both the anthropological meanings and the artistic interpretations to be found in this rich cultural sphere.

This lecture was the first of an Institute of Advanced Study series on the evidence of spirits. The series continues until March 2016. Other podcasts from the series are available below.

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