Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Giant Spiders - Obscure Meanings in Japanese Prints Part I

Arachnophobes - which I’m afraid includes me! - should look away now. Ukiyo-e is littered with the corpses and the dripping fangs of over-sized and fantastical spiders. Something one notices immediately is how similar they all look and also how dissimilar to any ordinary spider one might have come across. Not only in their size; you will also notice that most only have two eyes and six legs instead of the correct number of eight. Why is this and what is the ukiyo-e fascination with them?

There is some discussion over the creature known as Tsuchigumo, (the gigantic spider). The name translates as ‘ground spider’ and there has been a great deal of speculation about the relationship between the myth of the spider and an aboriginal race of people who supposedly lived in the north of Japan. The Koropok-Guru or Pit Dwellers of Northern Japan were a distinct racial group who dwelt in underground pits until around the 6th century and were anathema to the incoming races that form the dominant group of peoples in recent times. It seems as though these pit dwellers (also called Tsuchigumo) were wiped out by the incoming Ainu peoples whose roots are in Russia. The Ainu still form a distinctive racial group in modern Japan, finally recognised as such towards the end of the twentieth century.

It is possible, (although not proven) that the Tsuchigumo of myth is some kind of retelling of these ancient battles. Most of the research that backs up this theory is over one hundred years old and not entirely reliable. At any rate, the Tsuchigumo we are concerned with primarily appears in the story of Minamoto no Raiku. In this great myth the hero Raiko is busy investigating the appearance of gigantic floating skulls. During this quest Raiko falls ill and is confined to bed and ministered to by either a young servant boy, a beautiful woman or a priest depending which you believe. A retainer of Raiko suspects the boy, and his true identity as that of the giant spider is revealed. A chase ensues and there is a fight in a cave in which Raiko kills the beast who then erupts with enormous spiderlings which are in turn destroyed.
Kuniyoshi made many great prints of Tsuchigumo and it is useful to compare the Kuniyoshi version of 1845 with say, Kunichika’s masterly triptych of 1866. You will notice that despite the intervening twenty years, there is little or no difference in the rendering of the great spider. The comparison illustrates perfectly the normality of ukiyo-e artists in appropriating each others work for commercial and artistic ends. Ideas of copyright or intellectual property were completely absent in nineteenth century Japan leading to a huge pool of imagery that was copied, modified, recycled and embellished. There is something enviable in this humility and esprit de corps that is quite different from recent western regard for individual genius. The Japanese are no less creative, abundant or disregarded for their tradition and it is refreshing to see such great art that is free from the tiresome hubris of lonely genius touched by God.

Nevertheless to our eyes the myth has been responsible for any number of entertaining images and there is little doubt that the tradition of Tsuchigumo has informed recent graphic and literary output, especially in Japan where the imagery has migrated right across the diverse platforms of manga, anime and computer video games.

We have the most widely reproduced Kuniyoshi Tsuchigumo on sale at the gallery for £325 in the current exhibition and other arachnid images from our archives for those interested in the subject. The exhibition runs until 27th May 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, maybe you could help me with a question: You write, that the research that backs up the theory abbout a connection between the spider and a aboriginal race is more then hundred years old. Do you know when this theory came up exactly? Best Julius