Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: The Earth Spider Creating Monsters in the Mansion of Minamoto no Yorimitsu
In the early nineteenth century, the supernatural gained widespread popularity in Japanese popular culture.
Ghosts, demons, and monsters were featured in everything from ukiyo-e prints to Noh theater performance. Many factors might have contributed to this increased interest in grotesque and macabre subjects, but what is clear is that the themes were not only a source of entertainment, but also a mode of political and social commentary.
The Tokugawa rulers who took control of Japan in the early seventeenth century instituted a policy of strict isolationism and ushered in a period of long-lasting peace. However, the Tokugawa Shogunate also instituted laws that were extremely repressive of individual freedoms. Censorship was rife and was applied to artistic motifs as well as literature. Banned subjects included anything that might contain veiled criticism of the government (e.g., historical images of previous regimes) or that might be harmful to public morality (e.g., erotic material). Artists who created images that failed to meet the censor’s standards could be punished with fines, imprisonment, banishment, or even death.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s triptych, or three-part work, Earth Spider, draws on traditional Japanese folklore. Here, the Heian period hero Minamoto no Yorimitsu, also called Raikô, lies ill and sleeping, completely unaware of the presence of the evil Earth Spider, who moves in to capture him in a giant web. Raikô’s guards are not prepared for the monster and his diabolic retinue. Although there is no firm proof that Kuniyoshi intended for this print to be interpreted as an attack on the government, the public understood it to be thinly disguised satire. The censors tried Kuniyoshi and his publisher and seem to have confiscated the woodblocks used to make the print, but the perceived damage was already done. The prints had already circulated far and wide. Charges were dropped against both artist and publisher.
Addiss, Stephen. Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural. New York: George Braziller in association with Spencer Art Museum, University of Kansas, 2001.
Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. Revised and expanded edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Takeuchi, Melinda. “Kuniyoshi’s Minamoto Raikô and the Earth Spider: Demons and Protest in Late Tokugawa Japan.” Ars Orientalis xvii (1989): 5–38.