There’s something beautiful about bones.
I know that sounds twelve kinds of macabre. But skulls and skeletons have been enduring symbols in art and design for centuries. And yes, I love a good skull.
Japanese art is no stranger to the grotesque, and skeletons dance through the history of Japanese prints like the squirming of tentacles – another signature creepy motif that makes occasional appearances in the Japanese woodblock oeuvre.
The print shown here brings to life a wild legend. Princess Takiyasha is the daughter of a warlord who has established a court to rival the Emperor of Kyoto. The Emperor, as emperors are wont to do, sends an army to crush his rival. Daddy is slain and Takiyasha dwells on in the ruined palace. When the Emperor sends a delegation headed by Mitsukuni to eliminate the surviving rebels, Takiyasha summons a gargantuan skeleton spectre to terrorize the delegation and run them from her palace home.
“Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” unfolds in triptych form.
- In panel 1, Takiyasha reads from a scroll, incanting a spell to summon the horrifying creature.
- Panel 2 depicts Mitsukini and his associate crouching beneath the gigantic skull of the spectre.
- Panel 3 shows the massively proportioned body of the skeleton, rendered in accurate anatomical detail. The artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, master of the ukiyo-e (images of the floating world) wood block style, was a collector of Western medical texts.
Kuniyoshi also seems to be a lover of kabuki, as a number of his artworks were drawn from the theatre. The story of Princess Takiyasha and the Skeleton was also dramatized on the kabuki stage.
The triptych dates from the end of the Edo Period in the mid 1800s. “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” like so many beautiful things is held in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Notes for Fellow Boneheads
This Utagawa Kuniyoshi masterpiece goes by a number of names. You might come across it titled any of the following:
- Sōma no ko dairi 相馬の古内裏（The Ancient Palace of Soma)
- Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre
- Takiyasha the Witch
- Princess Takiyasha and the Skeleton Spectre
- Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton
[Images via Wikicommons: Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre]
Want to gaze at more boney loveliness? Click here to set your eyes on Geisha Bones – Japanese print.