New forms of thirty-six ghosts

by Taiso Yoshitoshi

Ghosts stories were popular in Japan. People liked to gather by candlelight and tell scary tales. When a legend was finished, one candle was blown out and the next person began.

When Yoshitoshi created 100 ghosts’ stories, he used this tradition. Twenty-six selected designs and a title page were published in 1865. It became his first popular series.

Two decades later he told and retold stories. New forms of 36 ghosts were Yoshitoshi’s last important series. The woodblocks were made after Japanese and Chinese stories. Many pupils assisted him during the complicated preparation. Circa twelve blocks were carved per design and separately used for each colour or special effect. The prints were published from 1889 until 1892. Three designs appeared posthumously. First editions sold out immediately, because Yoshitoshi had become a famous artist at the end of his life. 

The woodblocks are difficult to understand for Westerners. Therefore, I wrote direct descriptions in simple wordings. I hope that you will appreciate what you see. More information about the ghost stories can be found in a recent book by John Stevenson, Yoshitoshi's Strange Tales, Amsterdam 2005. 

The prints are listed in the order used by Segi and Keyes. When a thumbnail is clicked, a new page will be opened. The title, a large picture and a description unfold. A 'slide show' of individual prints begins, if ‘next print’ is clicked. 


Jan van Reek


Contents page. 

1. A demon makes a nightly charge on a nobleman in the imperial palace. The haunted lord reacts fearlessly and the demon flees.

2. The beautiful maiden watches herons. Sometimes, a heron changes into a maiden and vice versa in Japanese stories.

3. A saddle-horse asks a strategic question to a future military leader. The boy becomes annoyed, strikes at the saddle and kills the transformed badger.

4. An arm has been cut off a demon. She escapes as an old woman and holds her severed limb. 

5. The samurai carries a girl across the stream. He notices the horns of a demon in her reflection, draws his sword and strikes for a kill, before she can use her dagger.

6. The beautiful courtesan ‘Cherry Princess’ watches the fire. Smoke circles towards the wooden door at the back and vaguely shapes into the ghost of her lover. 

7. An evil man approaches a tree. The spirit of the cherry tree appears as a courtesan. He tells her his plan to cut down the tree. Before he can raise his axe, the spirit changes into a branch and hits him.

8. A boy observes the giant carp. The monster has eaten his mother. Soon they wrestle in the pool. He will use the hidden knife and revenge the evil.

9. A killed warrior changed into an angry thunder god. He has thrown a thunderbolt from a torrent of clouds. It will kill the executor.

10. The girl has seen her love at the other side of the river. She changes into a serpent and will cross the stream. When she arrives, he becomes terrified and hides under a bell. She embraces the object. It melts by the fire of her love and both die.

11. An army officer wrestles a phantom to the ground. It is going to disappear. The Buddha statue smiles upon the scene.

12. Yoshitoshi portraits his favourite courtesan 'Phantom Lady', as Jigoku or ‘Hell’. Skeletons are ready for a macabre promenade. 

13. A bearded queller chases the demon in a dream of the emperor. 

14. An aging nobleman has been sent to the countryside. He compares his loneliness with the cheerfulness of sparrows.

15. A giant centipede approaches a sea palace. The gallant archer is going to kill the monster. A princess hides behind the hero.

16. The lord notices the reflection of a demonic girl in a bowl. He reaches for his sword. 

17. The ghost of a maid rises from a well. She counts dishes and whines when number ten appears to be missing.

18. A ruthless man has become insane. He watches the skulls of his victims in agony and will perish soon.

19. The vigorous archer makes a ferocious impression. The smallpox demons flee, when he looks at them.

20. A samurai has moved through a tunnel to a cave. He will have a conversation with a goddess. 

21. A commander shot an arrow into a descending cloud. He hit a monster, consisting of a monkey’s head, a badger’s body, tiger legs and a snake’s tail. It fell off the roof and is being killed.

22. A man saves a fox from hunters. Soon after, he meets a beautiful girl. They get a son. Her child wants to keep her, but she leaves him and returns to her old life three years later.

23. The poet stares at the long grass in the darkness. The vegetation seems to grow from a skull. 

24. A monk did not get a major wish granted. He starved himself to death. His infuriated spirit changes into rats. The beasts destroy sacred books and scrolls.

25. The sago palm has been imported. It complains about the cold each night. The samurai has to cut down the tree, but it hates the plan and starts walking. The palm strolls southwards, people say. 

26. This fatal woman stands before a rock. Her original form was a golden fox with nine tails.

27. Two ghosts are on their way to a nightly meeting. The lady is accompanied by a maid who holds a peony lantern. One fateful morning a dead man will be found. He embraces the bones of the lady.

28. This angry young man led a fleet during a sea battle. He jumped into the water, when the fight was hopeless. Later he appeared as a ghost in the bay.

29. The man with the long nose speaks wise words to the brave general in the middle. Two men on his side. They are spooked.

30. A princess wants to warn her lover for an ambush. She has to cross a frozen lake. Fox fires guide her across. She dances forward and will save him.

31. A poet spends the night in a ruin. The two ghosts in the corner write a verse. They are arguing about one strophe. The man finds the solution at once and they leave irritated. 

32. The giant ground spider wants to catch our delirious hero. He manages to draw his sword and will seriously injure the monster.

33. A nurse prays under a waterfall for the safety of a boy. When she kills herself as a suing sacrifice, the child survives from captivity. He will revenge the death of his father eventually.

34. The badger takes a nap and has forgotten its disguise as a priest. It can also take the shape of a tea kettle. When the pot is heated, it will run away as a badger.

35. A mother protects her little boy. The ribbon looks like a snake and seems to threaten them. It foretells the coming drama.

36. The old woman has greedily opened a large box. Awful creatures appear. They are going to swallow her.

More exhibitions of Japanese prints
Series by Hokusai and Yoshitoshi