Miss Hokusai – Tales of the Anomalous and Strange in the late Edo Period


Sarusuberi – Miss Hokusai is a fascinating film, and manga series, that is deeply rooted in the beliefs, rituals, and practices of Edo Japan. Hinako Sugiura, the original manga’s author was a researched in the lifestyles and customs of the Edo Period, and throughout the film we see her research feature in the nuances of painting, and life in Edo. It is, however, the interconnected nature of the human and spirit realms that particularly interests me, as Miss Hokusai presents its audience with a number of interrelated, but individual stories that present a vision of a society where spirits and humans mingle, but rarely meet. While Miss Hokusai is a jidaigeki, a historical story that deals with the minutia of its time, it also incorporates aspects of Kaidan, tales of the strange and mysterious, stories that focus on the spirits, and demons that were, and continue to be a subject of immense fascinating. Kaidan, meaning ‘narrating the strange’, is a rather apt description for this film, as it depicts the processes of drawing a dragon, ghostly hands, and the power of a simple painting to torment those around it. Furthermore, the film uses as its focus, one of the central elements of Edo-era popular culture, ukiyo-e paintings, and prints.

Tales of the supernatural with haunting elements have appealed to people all over the world throughout history. The fascination with such tales is partly due to the quest for stimulation, or a subconscious longing to associate with nature. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan, each Japanese would have reasons and expectations that would vary with their different socio-economic background and experience. Overall, however, the general appeal of kaidan appears to be fourfold; a fascination with the grotesque, plausible explanations for unexplained common occurrences, attraction to the exotic, and social commentary. One of the ways in which kaidan were spread around society was through the practice of hyaku-monogatari (One-Hundred Tales). Hyaku-monogatari were collections of kaidan, as well as gatherings where people exchanged stories with the intent of inducing a supernatural experience. People would gather in a large room, sometimes in a temple or other semi-public venue, and tell short, spooky stories or anecdotes about ghosts, yokai, or mysterious occurrences. After each brief tale, a lantern or candle would be extinguished. At the end of the final story, the room would be plunged into complete darkness, and then, it was said (or hoped, or feared), a real yokai or mysterious creature would appear. Buddhist priest and author Asai Ryoi (d. 1691) explains, ‘It is said that when you collect and tell one hundred stories of scary or strange things that have been passed down since long ago, something scary or strange is certain to occur’.


Hyaku-monogatari supposedly has its origins as a test of bravery, something known as a kimo-dameshi, or ‘challenge of the liver’, undertaken by samurai. Whether this is true or not, by the early Edo period, hyaku-monogatari gatherings had become a popular form of entertainment and a lively venue for the performance and exchange of oral narratives. Some of these were based on local legends, while others were personal experiences of memories, and many came from Chinese literature, and then others that were created for the purpose of the gathering itself. Whatever the origins of these stories, as they were performed and shared the images and attributes of individual yokai, yurei, or other, mysterious creatures and circumstances were enhanced and developed, taking on more concrete, and recognisable forms. Furthermore, given the vibrant literary and artistic world of the time, publishers soon began to sell hyaku-monogatari collections, and there was a resurgence in the creation of emaki (picture scrolls or hand scrolls), alongside the increasingly popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings that are the main medium of Miss Hokusai. Many such scrolls, paintings, and screens were popular throughout Edo society, with many wealthier families using them to enhance their intellectual status, and alluding to their knowledge of their cultural history. They also served to provide a visual image for what would have been to many a mental one, a physical, and spiritual representation of the anomalous and strange. They also represented a physical connection between the world of humans and that of spirits, a gateway through which humans could see youkai, while simultaneously allowing youkai to affect the realm of humans, a theme hinted at during Miss Hokusai on a number of occasions.

The presence of yokai and kaidan in Edo society and culture played an important role in offering temporary breaks from the rigidly structure Neo-Confucianism that was the hallmark of Tokugawa politics and social stratification. The ukiyo-e painter in the Edo period could look at the world around them and turn it on its head through the use of parody and satire – and although we see little of that in Miss Hokusai, there are hints at its existence in the form of discarded paintings, and attitudes towards life that would arguably not be tolerated in more polite company. Furthermore, the grotesque images of oni, and youkai found within numerous paintings and prints are used as a counter point to the more rigid forms of Edo political and social life. This is further highlighted by the lifestyles of those who produced these works – figures that could create wonderful paintings, but were equally as likely to go out and get drunk rather than work. Similarly, there is a mysticism which surrounds individuals like Hokusai and O-ei, as if they are channelling their creativity from somewhere or something. This aspect of painting is further highlighted during the early moments of the film as we are introduced to Hokusai finishing off a magnificent painting of a dragon, only for O-ei to ruin it through her own carelessness. We are then told that recreating the work would be impossible because the dragon has gone, and won’t return. During the night, a storm arrives and a dragon once again descends from the heavens, and arrives on the paper through O-ei’s brush.


This is likely a retelling of a story from the Tang period in China (618-907), that describes a technique for capturing a dragon in a painting. Not only does this story allude to the Chinese origins of certain Japanese beliefs, alongside the continued, and increasing fascinating with China and the exotic during the Edo period, but it also highlights the perceptive powers of the artist. The client suggests that Hokusai (Tetsuzo) could simply reproduce the painting, assuming that it was the simple act of brush strokes and paint. But, in the imagination, and customs of the period, such works of art were also an act in explanation and illumination. The Japanese Dragon (Nihon no Ryuu), are water deities, and have long been associated with legendary emperors, and semi-mythical figures in Japanese antiquity. That only a truly gifted artist can create such a beautiful picture suggests an unerring ability to perceive other aspects of the world they live in, and channel such imagination and creativity into the works of art that they produce. Tetsuzo cannot recreate the painting because his dragon has come and gone, it has escaped, but, as O-ei waits for the coming storm we see another dragon, just waiting to descend and be seen. Suddenly an immense gust of wind blows through their studio, scatting paper, paintings, and drawings, and as the scene changes to the morning, we are left with a dragon on the floor. The dragon has descended and been captured – that such a powerful, frightening, but also enigmatic creature can be perceived by the artist suggest an ability to perceive and explain the supernatural in a way that others cannot, and there is the suggestion that in this moment it is less about talent and more about perception.

In this simple, but nonetheless powerful scene we are presented with Edo Japan’s continued fascination with the exotic, represented by the dragon. China and Chinese culture has long exerted significant influence over Japan – during the Heian era, much of Japan’s high, court culture was modelled after China, and even Heian-era Kyoto was based on the Chinese Tang capital of Changan, and was built using the principles of Chinese Feng Shui, the Four Symbols of Chinese Astrology, and the principles of Geomancy. In many respects, much of Japanese culture is Chinese in origin, although, over the centuries the original has been changed, and turned into something immediately recognisable as Japanese. While Japan’s fascination with China stretches back to before the Heian period, it was during the Edo period that this interested peaked; Chinese books were a major element in the secular intellectual expansion, something that was unmatched in any previous period.

This was arguably partly due to the Tokugawa governments adoption of Neo-Confucianism as an ideology that underpinned its political, social, and cultural policies. But, as Yamaguchi Takeshi (1933) writes, Chinese culture and books were revered in the Edo period; China was an unknown, profound, and remote place, and its many mysteries were considered difficult to rationalise and comprehend by Japan’s standard of reality. Furthermore, due to the Sakoku policy which forbade Japanese from travelling abroad, the Japanese reverence for China and its enigmatic nature about which they would have read, and heard would only be further enhanced. In this context, what appears to be a relatively simple scene about painting a dragon further alludes to the continued importance of Chinese stories in Edo Japan, and suggests that in many cases these stories have been largely removed from their origins and taken on a Japanese twist instead.


However, one of the main themes in the film is the use of kaidan and paintings to provide cogent explanations for inexplicable events that are encountered in daily life. Tetsuzo (Hokusai) and Oei hear a story about a Oiran (a type of courtesan that rose to prominence during the Edo period – a prostitute who was skilled in all manner of different skills, from tea ceremony, to ikebana and calligraphy) in Yoshiwara who’s head leaves her body at night, and decide, largely on a whim to meet with this Oiran and see for themselves what really happens. Tetsuzo also tells the story of his hands leaving his body at night, to roam far and wide throughout the city, an act that was seemingly the result of his producing a painting of Oni and Youkai. His story continues with an account of visiting a priest so that he can write sutras on his hands and bind them with Juzu (Buddhist prayer beads) to control his own spirit further emphasises the interconnected nature of spirits and humans within Japanese culture, and society.

Ultimately they do see the Oiran’s spirit leave her body, and fly around, only to be kept from flying off by bug netting. Both stories represent the use of Ikiryo (lit. Living Ghost), whereby spirits leave one body and haunt another, although the people in question are still alive. In the case of the Oiran, her story offers some resemblance to a similar story from the Kaidan collection called Sorori Monogatari (1663). One night, a samurai traveling from Kyoto arrives at a place called Sawaya in Kita-no-sho, Echizen Province (now Fukui City). He mistakenly believes that he saw a chicken fly from the base of a nearby stone tower onto the road. Upon investigation, he discovers that what he thought was a chicken is (or has transformed into) the severed head of a woman. Shocked by this grinning, severed head, the samurai attacks with his sword and chases it to a home in the capital of the province. Inside, the lady of the house wakes from a terrible nightmare where she was chased by a man brandishing a blade. This wandering head, according to the stories title, was the woman’s monen, a Buddhist term meaning a conviction based on flawed ideals/obstructive thoughts. Because of this incident, the woman later turns to Buddhism, and becomes a nun to repent of her sins.


Such explanations for the strange and the anomalous in Miss Hokusai are in keeping with the period, when strange, or simply curious incidents and sights were considered, if not normal, then at least part of daily life. In a collection of kaidan entitled Taihei Hyakumonogatari (One Hundred Tales in the Great Peace, 1732), there is a story about a doctor’s disorientation. In a year when influenza and measles were prevalent, a doctor named Matsuoka Dosetsu was visited at night. The visitor asked Dosetsu to come with him to examine his son, who, the visitor said, had a terrible case of measles. Dosetsu said that he would require five silver coins if the worst symptoms were gone that night, and then got into the palanquin prepared by the visitor. The visitors house was a splendid mansion, and as soon as Dosetsu saw it, he regretted asking for such a small sum. While he was examining the child, the bow died, and yet, the people attending to the son begged Dosetsu for more medicine. So, Dosetsu lowered his head to make some, but when he looked up to hand it out, there was nobody around. Thinking it rather odd, Dosetsu went to examine his deceased patient again and found a stone image of Buddha, and instead of a mansion, he was in a graveyard with many stupas (mound of earth where Buddha’s ashes are buried, a place for meditation). Dosetsu thought it must have been a fox’s trick and ran home as fast as possible. From then on, he decided that whatever the emergency, he would never go to a patient’s house again.

Readers of kaidan found in the stories cogent explanations for inexplicable events that they encountered in daily life, including the experience of being disorientated in a completely familiar environment. People still believed in the magic of the supernatural, and such simple disorientation was often attributed to the mischief of tricksters like kitsune and Tanuki. And while this story is that of the disorientation created by a trickster, it serves to illuminate the way Edo-period Japanese viewed the world as a place full of people, spirits, and apparitions. As with this story, the characters of Tetsuzo, and the Oiran encounter a strange phenomenon, but, unlike in western, or more specifically, Christian belief systems, is not immediately assumed to be evil or demonic. Instead, these incidents of Ikiryo can be explained by their actions – in the case of Tetsuzo, he first encounters his ghostly, wandering hands after finishing a particularly fine painting of Oni, and his story implies that his talent as a painter has resulted in a life like and powerful painting that captures some of the Oni’s power.

His hands are possessed due to his talents, and need exorcising by a priest to relieve that burden. In the case of the Oiran, as a prostitute she is confined to Yoshiwara, and unless she can buy her freedom, will spend her entire life in the walled town. Her spirits attempt to escape is just that, she is stuck in Yoshiwara during the day, but at night, she can fly across the walls and explore the wider world. In both cases, the characters involved simply go back to their daily lives, they are not possessed, cursed, or tormented, although, while Tetsuzo was able to have his hands exorcised, the Oiran comments that it would be impossible to have sutras written on her neck. Furthermore, when they leave the Oiran, Tetsuzo mentions that he made up the story so that he could see the Oiran’s Ikiryo for himself, it is a convenient, and believable story that gives him, and O-ei the opportunity to see a strange phenomenon for themselves, perhaps to use as inspiration for a painting or carving. Although, given the nature of kaidan in the Edo period, and the nature of Tetsuzo’s work, it would be easy to believe that he did need his hands exorcising in the past.


There is one specific story within Miss Hokusai that focusses on the links between spirits and humans in a very direct manner by concentrating on the problems caused by a painting of Jigoku (Buddhist hell) by O-ei. In this story the wife of a patron is continuously tortured by visions of hell, yokai, and yurei that originated from Oei’s painting. As with many kaidan, like those found in Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain, 1776) by Ueda Akinari, the everyday world is turned upside down by bizarre, or frightening events. The patron’s wife is visited by apparitions in the night, and even has visions during the day, mistaking a white magnolia and servant for a tree filled with human skulls, being shaken by a large red Oni. Certain elements of this story parallel the settings of hyaku-monogatari, with lanterns and creatures emerging after dark. While it is argued by Zenjiro Ikeda that her problems could simply be illness, and that the painting is just too realistic, it is the more supernatural explanation that is given further consideration and weight. The real world takes on a horrific nature that threatens the lives of those who live within the same building, alongside a good amount of the area given the dangers of fire in a city made of wood and paper. There is however a brief moment when, illuminated by the light of a burning lantern, the patron’s wife takes on the visage of a youkai herself. As with ikiryo, there is a briefest of suggestions that this woman is being affected by a powerful picture of Jigoku because of some past sin (an inaccurate word with Christian connotations, but it will have to do), or other misdemeanour.

One especially fascinating aspect of Japanese culture is the way women are portrayed and viewed. They are simultaneously revered and feared, with jealousy in particularly representing an especially strong force of fear as seen in numerous anime where a jealous (yandere) female character either kills a main character, or many of their friends. The power of jealousy explains their deeply ambivalent attitude towards women, who they worship, but also fear. Izanami one of the gods from Japan’s origin myth (Izanami and Izanagi) is the creator of life as well as the personification of death and pollution. Her jealousy at the purity of her husband and brother Izanagi for prompted her to vow to strangle a thousand people a day for example. And yet, she had no reason to be jealous of another woman, for as far as we know from legend, there was never another in Izanagi’s life. Social status still remains an important aspect of Japanese social life, and any threat to that status (for women) is believed to unleash jealousy of the most violent kind, something that many men in contemporary Japan may still live in fear of. It is still customary for example for brides to wear a white hood at their weddings (assuming Japanese, and not western style), something that looks like a loosely wrapped turban, and it is called a tsunakakushi, or ‘concealer of horns’, the horns namely of jealousy.


Now, we have no evidence from the story that there is any jealousy involved, however, the potential damage that this woman could do to her house should be viewed in relation to the continued influence of yokai and Shinto belief on Japanese society during the Edo period, something that is arguably still true today given the continued fascinating with kaidan in contemporary Japan. She is not possessed in any conventional sense, but the influence that this painting and the Oni that it depicts have over her are perhaps best understood in relation to the terrible power that women in historical Japan were seen to control if they were ever truly angered. Ultimately the case is solved when Tetsuzo realises that O-ei had not completed the painting – her representation of hell is perfect, even beautiful, but it is also too powerful, a power that is tempered when Tetsuzo completes the work with the addition of the Amitabha, or Pure Land Buddha, offering reprieve to the tormented souls in Jigoku, and severing the connection between the woman and the demons that plagued her.

Throughout the film, as with many other similar anime, such as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, Mushishi, and Noragami (to name but a few), the worlds of humans and spirits are interlinked, but only cross paths at very specific moments, or certain places. What is interesting about Miss Hokusai in particular is the use of art as a medium through which this happens, while also presenting to us the normality of it all on everyday life during the Edo period. These events are not dismissed as the ramblings of mad people, or viewed as anything particularly special, unique, or supernatural, rather, they are viewed as normal, if a little troubling in the case of the jigoku painting. Instead, the kaidan told throughout the film serve as an explanation for these curious events, a way of making sense of the strange and anomalous events, visions, or circumstances that are part of normal life. Throughout the film Oei and Tetsuzo constantly remind Zenjiro Ikeda that the reason his paintings and drawings are empty is because he lacks the imagination to see the world for what it really is. The curious stories, visions, and incidents all fuel the imaginations of these artists – indeed, Tetsuzo deliberately mentions his ghostly Ikiryo hands to the Oiran so that they are given the opportunity to see her spirit leaving her body at night. In effect the kaidan are part of the imaginative and creative process of artists like Tetsuzo and O-ei, whilst also representing another aspect of the multi-layered Edo society, alongside Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.


These beliefs, structures, and socio-cultural norms and woven into the fabric of Edo-era society, and are part of daily life. Kaidan are one aspect of these cultural, social, and political systems; stories used to make sense of the anomalous and strange in the world, provide cultural and social critiques, and revel in the weird and grotesque. Although the central stories of Miss Hokusai directly deal with kaidan, it is the final scenes in the film, those dealing with O-ei’s younger sister, Onao, that are particularly interesting, and illuminating with regards to kaidan, and what the illuminate about Edo-era Japan. Throughout the film we are given glimpses of Onao, blind at birth, and quite weak, she is still loved by those around her. However, as the film draws to a close, she falls ill, and although she appears to be making a recovery, ultimately succumbs to her illness and dies. Throughout this segment of the film there are little moments that direct the audience toward the continued importance of religious beliefs – Tetsuzo painting a guardian deity to watch over Onao is one such moment. Another particularly powerful scene is that of Onao’s death – as she dies, a sudden gust of wind blows through Tetsuzo’s studio, mimicking the dragon earlier in the film, and deposits a single tsubaki (camellia) flower in front of Tetsuzo. In this moment, she has finally visited Tetsuzo and his studio in the form of that flower, something she was never able to do while alive. That Tetsuzo instantly recognises the flower as Onao further reinforces the deeply rooted Shinto, and Buddhist beliefs in society at the time. Although, it is important to note that the appearance of the tsubaki is neither taken as a religious, or spiritual sign, but is instead presented as something akin to a normal part of life.

Throughout Miss Hokusai the real world, and the stories told by many of the characters intertwine with one another. Kaidan are part of that world, enriching individual perception of what is around them, while also offering ways of understanding specific circumstances and odd occurrences. Similarly, individuals’ daily lives inform the creation of new kaidan, or interpretation of old kaidan. The two are interlinked, and form part of the creative process portrayed in Miss Hokusai. That stories such as these continue to exert their influence of the popular cultural medium of anime also suggests that despite modernisation, contemporary Japan is still as interested in kaidan as it was during the Edo, and earlier periods. But, rather than representing ways of understanding the world around them, and of exploring the exotic nature of distant lands, these kaidan become a way in which the historical past can be understood. Although, since there are still numerous rituals followed by the Japanese people, it might be accurate to suggest that kaidan also still represent a direct link with the spirit world. They are not religious stories, at least not in the conventional western sense (especially since Japan is not considered a religious country), which is also why they are not described as supernatural stories, but tales of the anomalous and strange. Many may view them as odd, even old fashioned, especially in a world where reason and logic dictate that otherworldly beings cannot exist, however, kaidan, like those depicted in Miss Hokusai continue to exert their influence of Japanese culture, thus offering a direct, tangible link with the historical past, and people of the Edo-period and beyond.


About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

2 Responses to Miss Hokusai – Tales of the Anomalous and Strange in the late Edo Period

  1. Cymric says:

    Excellent post… Love your blog!

  2. Mar'yana says:

    I have recently seen Sarusuberi and really liked how it death with the real and imaginary worlds.
    Nice insight! Will definitely check some monogatari.

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