October 22, 2021

How to Summon a Giant Skeleton

         As we get into the Hallowe’en season, now seems a good time to share this epic fantasy/horror Japanese wood block print.  It dates to about 1844 and is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japan, 1791-1861).  It illustrates a historical/mythological scene in which Takiyasha, the daughter of an executed rebellious warlord, uses her witchcraft to summon a giant skeleton monster.  You can see her using a scroll or spell book to work her magic, and the monster is menacing a government official who had come to search for any of her father’s allies.  The sheer size of the skeleton makes it absolutely monstrous, but apparently it was summoned up from the presumably vengeful bones of those who had died in the battle in which her father was defeated.  Another version of the myth says that Takiyasha unleashed this monster in vengeance for the disrespect shown to her father by displaying his head in Kyoto.  The monster wrought havoc on Kyoto until the head was taken down and treated properly.
        It is a rip-roaring illustration with wonderful use of contrasts for drama.  In the background we see slashes of shape and texture that make up the dilapidated manor where Takiyasha lives, as well as the monster tearing right through the wall and curtains.  The colors are dramatic, too, with dark blacks and reds punctuated by the huge whiteness of the skeleton.  The monster’s details are masterfully depicted with its shape barely even fitting into the borders of the print.  Indeed, it overwhelms two sheets of the triptych.  From my interpretation of wikipedia’s slightly contradictory explanation of giant skeleton monsters in Japanese mythology, this story - and largely this print itself - was the inspiration for a kind of monster popularized in the later 20th century.  Called Gashadokuro, these spirits are giant skeletons created from the ghosts of unburied dead.  Gashadokuro capture travelers at night, bite off their heads, and drink their spurting blood, until all their anger is finally sated.  If you are out after midnight, you can have warning of the approach of a Gashadokuro by the loud ringing sound of its rattling teeth, and Shinto charms can be of some protection from them.
        While my brief overview of the story doesn’t show any of the characters involved to be particularly noble or heroic, sorceress Princess Takiyasha certainly sounds like an interesting character.  I wonder what other magic she performed.

[Triptych of Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, wood block print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c 1844 (Image from Wikimedia Commons (from V&A)).]


Anstice Brown said...

Wow! What a stunning and terrifying illustration. I'd never heard of Gashadokuro before. What a cool concept.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks, Anstice - hope I didn't scare you too much! ;)