Monday, February 27, 2012

Otsu-e painting of an oni with a shamisen

This is the illustration -- simultaneously creepy and amusing -- on the front of an old, undated postcard from Japan. The only words in English on the back are:
  • Post Card
  • ŌTSU-E
Let's start with Otsu-e, which translates to "pictures of the city Otsu," which is near Kyoto, Japan.1 The Otsu-e were folk paintings done by unknown artists and sold to travelers, beginning early in the country's Edo Period (1603–1868).

The website of the Mingeikan Museum in Tokyo, which features folk crafts, has an in-depth article about the Otsu-e by Haruhara Yoko. Here's an excerpt:
"This genre of folk art ranges from themes of good luck to those of happiness and prosperity. The paintings are at once frivolous, light-hearted and disarming, providing an amusing blend of auspicious symbols and social commentary. ... The name otsu-e is derived from the place where these paintings were sold, in and around the post town of Otsu, which lay on the Tokaido Road running between Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Stands were set along the road to sell these paintings as souvenirs to passing travelers. Created by anonymous artists, the paintings were sold in great numbers for little money."
According to "History of Otsu-e," a variety of techniques -- including compasses, a ruler, stencil plates and woodblock prints -- were used by the artists so that the pictures could be mass-produced. Sometimes, the entire family helped with the production process.

Today's postcard features one of the most popular and common Otsu-e images -- the oni (goblin or demon) of Japanese folklore playing a shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument) with a sake bottle and a cup in front of him. One similar image can be found here. Others -- all slight variations on the same approach -- are easy to find online.

Haruhara Yoko specifically discusses this type of oni painting in his article:
"One of the most popular motifs of these paintings was the goblin, which came into vogue as a decorative theme in the 18th century. Although the goblin is a symbol of evil in religious iconography, in the satirical otsu-e folk art tradition, the symbol evolved to represent human folly. One such work is 'Goblin Playing the Shamisen,' which depicts a drunken, red-faced goblin immersed in playing this Japanese three-stringed instrument. The farcical nature of this depiction teasingly tells the viewer that too much drinking is overly indulgent."
The article features another example of the oni/shamisen painting.

As mentioned, oni are not always humorous and satirical within Japanese folklore. According to The Obakemono Project, "the term 'oni' is roughly equivalent to the English term 'demon' or 'ogre', and as such can describe a great variety of entities. Oni are roughly humanoid, usually large but sometimes small, and have faces like men or apes or beasts and sometimes even birds. They more often than not have horns, but these can range from tiny nubs to long, sharp, spiraling arcs like an antelope's, or antlers like a dragon's."

Wikipedia adds: "Depictions of oni vary widely but usually portray them as hideous, gigantic creatures with sharp claws, wild hair, and two long horns growing from their heads. They are humanoid for the most part, but occasionally, they are shown with unnatural features such as odd numbers of eyes or extra fingers and toes. Their skin may be any number of colors, but red and blue are particularly common."

A related and recommended film -- if you're OK with black-and-white cinema and subtitles -- is the 1964 Japanese horror film "Onibaba," which is available in a wonderful edition from Criterion. Here's an excerpt from the Criterion summary:
"Deep within the wind-swept marshes of war-torn medieval Japan, an impoverished mother and her daughter-in-law eke out a lonely, desperate existence. Forced to murder lost samurai and sell their belongings for grain, they dump the corpses down a deep, dark hole and live off of their meager spoils. When a bedraggled neighbor returns from the skirmishes, lust, jealousy, and rage threaten to destroy the trio’s tenuous existence, before an ominous, ill-gotten demon mask seals the trio’s horrifying fate."
Translations of onibaba, by the way, include demon hag, witch, old hag, mountain woman, ogre and "The Goblin of Adachigahara."

Much less cheery than the drunken oni playing the shamisen!

1. I am almost certain to get something wrong in today's post, as I am clearly not an expert in the history and culture of Japan. Please comment below if I need to be corrected.

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