Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): The Japanese Yokai
Being something of a fan of the stories of M. R James, whose heroes often come across intriguing manuscripts telling of ghosts and demons, I couldnât help but be reminded of his work when I happened across todayâs featured item, the âBook of Monstrositiesâ (or, Nihon itai jinbutsu zu).
Featured in Adam Matthewâs new digital resource, Research Source: Area Studies: Japan, the item is part of the collection of Phillip Franz Von Siebold, currently held by the British Library. A German physician, botanist and traveller, Von Siebold achieved prominence for his work with Japanese flora and fauna in the 1820s. However, during this period he also collected a large number of trinkets, keepsakes and books, many of which would be donated first to the British Museum and later to the British Library upon its establishment in 1973. The collection is impressive to say the least and consists of 1,088 items in 3,441 volumes.
Part of this collection, the âBook of Monstrositiesâ, is admittedly something of a mystery. A book of illustrations somewhat similar in tone to the work of poet and artist, Toryama Sekiens (in particular Gazu Hyakki YagyĆ or âThe Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demonsâ), it features sketches of various creatures known in Japanese mythology as âYokaiâ. A group of monsters, ghosts and demons often featured in Japanese folklore, Yokai can be mischievous, malevolent or heroic and are regularly featured in Kaiden (âGhost Storiesâ or âScary Storiesâ). During the Edo period, the printing press became a widely used technology in Japan and in particular, kibyoshi (a genre of Japanese picture book produced primarily between the 1770s and the early 1800s) became hugely popular. Yokai were often a popular subject featured within these works and it was during this time that a set âcanonâ of a particular group of creatures formulated itself within the popular consciousness. During this period and onwards Yokai became the subject of books, Manga, toys and film. Interestingly Yokai are not limited simply to the traditional creatures from folklore, with each new media often inventing its own Yokai that are then absorbed into the continued mythos.
Certainly, one of the more arresting images featured within the book is that of the mythical âKappaâ. Small, amphibious turtle like creatures, the Kappa are known as mischievous troublemakers and trickster figures. Known to have an affinity for cucumber, they are often featured in stories luring victims into the water. The earliest mention of a Kappa was in 720, in some of Japanâs earliest official records though as a folk figure it didnât emerge fully until the 1600s. The illustration featured within âThe Book of Monstrositiesâ is certainly one of the more frightening interpretations of a Kappa, adding to the lure of this intriguing but utterly fascinating item.