Friday, 29 April 2011

Of Men and Umbrellas - Kasa-obake in Hirosada’s Woodblock Print

What a fantastic image we have here. Who is it, what is it, what does it mean? At first glance I suppose that this looks like a diffident man poking his head through the battered sides of a Japanese parasol.

This is a representation of a kabuki actor in the role of Kasa Ippon ashi or Kasa-obake - the "one legged umbrella demon". The demon is an artefact spirit or Tsukumogami - that is, an object that is over one hundred years old and according to belief has become imbued with a life force being both alive and aware. These spirit objects are similar in many ways to our belief in poltergeists. Like poltergeists they are playful and mischievous but rarely malign, although they become more angry when they witness needless waste which should make them popular with the current trend for recycling!

When not on the kabuki stage these sprites are pictured with one leg and an incredibly long tongue. Although they are traditional folklore creatures, they have enjoyed a resurgent popularity in the twentieth century. This is partly to do with the video gaming industry which tirelessly seeks out bizarre figures and outlandish plotlines. As you will see from some of the illustrations Kasa-obake now turns up as avatars, plastic toys, cartoon characters, and movie stars. The Hirosada woodblock print picture above is the first instance that we can find anywhere of a representation of the demon although I’d be fascinated to know if there exists an earlier one.

For those interested in Yokai, (Japanese demons) I recommend the movie trilogy Yokai daisenso ("Big Ghost War: Spook Warfare") Japan 1968, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; Yokai Hyaku Monogatari ("One Hundred Monsters") Japan 1968, dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda; and Tôkaidô obake dôchû ("Along With Ghosts") Japan 1969, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; or Takashi Miike’s recent Yôkai daisensô ("Great Yokai War") 2005. Kasa-obake makes a hugely entertaining appearance in these films, a clip of which can be seen here on youtube.

Kasa-obake make an appearance in Super-Mario Land 2 and in Muramasa - the Demon Blade; they also have a starring role in the great Manga series Gegege no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.

This unique print remains a superb and enigmatic image; the first depiction we can find of the umbrella demon. Beautifully printed and sensitively rendered it emanates a quiet mystery. It is a beautiful object and is available at the Toshidama Gallery for only £225.

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