Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Narihira, New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts


Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892)
Title: 23. Ariwara no Narihira
Series: The New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts
Publisher: Sasaki Toyokichi
Date: 1889-1892
Dimensions: 25.1 x 37 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.


Yoshitoshi's last woodblock series, New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts, draws on an array of supernatural tales from both China and Japan. The images depict the weird, wonderful, and sinister ghost stories that were widely told among the Japanese population. The eeriness of the series is playfully rendered by the mock-worm eaten border around each print. Interestingly, Yoshitoshi's Thirty-Six Ghost's was produced at a time when the recently established Meiji government actively discouraged anything that contradicted Western science and rationality, leading some critics to regard this series as a criticism of the government's new ideology. These works show that Yoshitoshi still found great inspiration from the rural folk tales that were prevalent throughout Japan's history.


One evening during the constant travels with which he occupied his exile, Narihira took shelter in an abandoned house. The autumn wind rustled the dead leaves, and he was filled with loneliness. As he looked out into the ruined garden, overgrown with grass, he imagined he saw his lover's skull, Ono no Komachi, through whose empty eye-sockets grass was growing. The vision moved him to ponder on the swift passage of human life and to write the poem reproduced in the cartouche.


The poet's robe is beautifully embossed, with skilful gradation of colour on his trousers. A metallic pigment has been used for the flame of the torch, which has now oxidised. The rich robe hanging on the right-hand side and the hat on the floor are a woman's, presumably Ono no Komachi.


'The autumn wind blows,
there is nothing more to say,
grass grows through the eye-sockets of Ono's skull.' - Narihira

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading woodblock print artists during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and one of the last to work in the traditional ukiyo-e manner. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he showed a strong interest in classical Japanese literature and history. When he was 11, he became a student at Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s studio. Under his teacher’s guidance, he showed exquisite draftsmanship and learned how to draw from life, something not necessarily part of the training schools of painting and illustration in Japan.

Yoshitoshi’s rise as an artist came at a time when Japan was faced with great changes and challenges. The new Meiji era (1868-1912) brought many conflicts between those loyal to tradition and those wishing to embark on a process of forced modernisation and adoption of western values. These sentiments, along with having witnessed some of the violent uprisings, influenced his early career, with intense, often disturbing images that reflect turmoil and pain. Even so, many other prints from this early period show whimsical touches, with reinterpretation of themes seen in his teacher Kuniyoshi’s works. With deep cultural roots, Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. He worked on series depicting kabuki actors, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), warriors, monsters and ghosts. Supernatural themes abound in his later work, showing a fascination for old Japanese folk stories.

The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular series 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' commenced in 1885 and spanned a wide variety of subjects, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners', published in 1888, shows Yoshitoshi’s ability to portray emotions like no other artist of his time, presenting women of various background and eras in Japanese history, each with distinct traits.

In 1889, the series 'New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts' started to be published, showing images of apparitions, mostly based on folklore and plays, depicted powerfully and imaginatively. This was, perhaps, a catharsis for the artist who claimed to have seen ghosts and strongly believed in supernatural beings. Many of Yoshitoshi’s late works were acclaimed at a time when western techniques of mass production such as photography were making the woodblock obsolete, breaking new ground by portraying intense human feelings through a traditional medium. He became a master teacher and had notable pupils such as Toshikata Mizuno and Toshihide Migita.

More Information
Print FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistYoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)
SubjectMale & Female, Ghosts & Religion
Size25.1 x 37.0 cm
Condition ReportVery light crease marks. Restored tear bottom left corner. Faint dark smudge on Narihira's clothes.
SeriesNew Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts::Yoshitoshi Tsukioka
publisherSasaki Toyokichi:1885-1898