James Riding

Demon Daze: Kawanabe Kyōsai


It was a British artist named Mortimer Menpes who gave us the most terrifying portrait of Japan’s ‘demon painter’. In 1887, Menpes was at a private party in Tokyo, where thirteen of the city’s finest artists had been invited to paint in front of distinguished international guests. Among the artists was Kawanabe Kyōsai, a painter at the height of his powers, known and loved throughout the country by everyone “from the highest noble to the lowest ragged child in the streets.” Yet Kyōsai was not in the mood to paint for a crew of prattling foreigners. “Boiling over with rage and indignation, he kept on putting off his time,” Menpes recalled, until all the other artists had taken their turn. Finally, having consumed a staggering quantity of sake, he approached the ink and brushes laid out for him:

Mad with rage and hating his unsympathetic audience, Kyōsai stood, or rather knelt, before his silk…He looked like a god as he knelt there, gripping his brush and staring at the silk – he was seeing his picture. He executed a flight of crows, a masterpiece. Kyōsai knew it was a masterpiece and, proudly drawing himself up to his full height, quivering in every limb, he threw down his brush, skidded the silk along the floor towards the spectators, and, saying “That is Kyōsai,” left the house in disgust. The dignity of the little man cowed his spectators. Everyone unconsciously felt the magnetism of the man, and realised that a master had been among them.

He was the ‘demon painter’ before he was Kyōsai. Born with the name Shūzaburō in 1831, he made his first sketch at the age of three and began his first artistic apprenticeship at seven. One day he fished a severed head out of a river; most children would have run a mile, but he took it home and spent hours sketching it. Shortly afterwards, he was transferred to the Tokugawa government’s appointed painting school for formal training, and it was here that his master gave him his infernal nickname.

The demon painter chafed against the crushing rigidity and time-honoured subject matter of the formal painting style. Aged twenty-four, he designed his first satirical print, a popular art form known as kyōga. This word literally became his calling card: two years later, he was using the name Kyōsai, meaning ‘parodic studio’. It was an unusual career progression for the son of a samurai, but it was not as if Kyōsai forgot his training. Rather, he saw formal painting and kyōga as two sides of a river he could bridge with his art. Why shouldn’t the ‘immovable deity’ Fudō Myōō be drawn placidly reading the latest edition of News Magazine? Why shouldn’t Enma, the king of hell, be shown gawping ludicrously, deprived of his usual authoritative appearance? Why shouldn’t a woodblock print called ‘The Spirit of Japan’ depict a turkey wearing trousers and Mr Punch dressed as a samurai?

The results of this approach are astonishingly modern: jocular, provocative, macabre, scurrilous and surreal. ‘Night Procession of One Hundred Demons’ (1871-89) opens the Royal Academy’s new Kyōsai exhibition, the first in Britain for nearly thirty years. Spread over a vast fold-out screen is a fever dream of misshapen monsters with cackling grins running riot. The brushstrokes are thick and assured; here is a painter working fast, bewitched by inspiration – and, quite possibly, sake too.

The first room of the exhibition, based on the extensive private collection of art dealer Israel Goldman, is designed to showcase Kyōsai’s protean talents. The variety of artistic voices he spoke in, the sheer number of styles and techniques he mastered, often manifests within a single piece. In one painted wall scroll, a pensive monkey is rendered in the foreground with exquisite detail against a minimalist backdrop; in another, a praying woman in the background has been laboured over while a crow in the foreground is little more than a few big strokes of black. The apotheosis of this stylistic playfulness is a painting of Jigoku, the ‘Hell Courtesan’ (1871/89), surrounded by tiny comic skeletons. Jigoku’s kimono is a patchwork of hellish visions, each image an individual exercise in style and composition, as if she is an anthropomorphised sketchbook.

Only Kyōsai could have painted ‘Ghost’ (c1868-70), a haunting wall scroll of a skeletal figure emerging from the darkness, said to be based on sketches the artist took of his dead wife. Delicate washes of grey ink emphasise the weaving of the silk, giving the whole piece a chilling tactility almost like a burial shroud. Likewise, only Kyōsai could have painted ‘Monks and Acolytes’ (1864), a ribald orgy scene featuring a high-ranking monk penetrating the Buddha. For every study of beauty or profundity in his oeuvre there is something ugly or absurd to counterbalance it. This is probably why he was so reluctantly praised by critics in his lifetime. In 1881, the judges of the Domestic Industrial Exposition said of Kyōsai’s prize-winning painting: “This one beauty conceals a thousand counts of ugliness, and has cleansed his usual reputation.”

Artistic spontaneity was highly prized in Kyōsai’s time. This was the age of shogakai, calligraphy and painting parties in houses and restaurants, where anyone who paid an entrance fee could commission an artwork from a painter on the spot. (At one single party, Kyōsai is said to have painted two hundred works.) In the words of William Hazlitt, Kyōsai could paint ‘by flashes of lightning,’ turning strikes of inspiration into masterpieces. The best examples, of course, are his trademark images of crows: it is astonishing how well he captures their essence with such speed and economy. It was a skill, however, that had to be honed. Late in his life, Kyōsai explained his method to Menpes:

“I watch my bird…and the particular pose I wish to copy before I attempt to represent it. I observe that very closely until he moves and the attitude is altered. Then I go away and record as much of that particular pose as I can remember…Then I go back again and study that bird until it takes the same position as before. And then I again try and retain as much as I can of it…in the end I have remembered the pose so well, by continually trying to represent it, that I am able to repeat it entirely from my impression”.

Mind and muscle memory were of equal importance to Kyōsai, and a painter must commit his subject to both to do it justice. It took a lifetime for him to be able to execute that flight of crows in seven minutes. Providing his faculties were sufficiently uninhibited, Kyōsai understood that to be a satirist in a time of censorship you need deniability. He excelled in insinuations and inversions, choosing to depict contemporary military conflicts, for example, as waged by armies of frogs. His paintings of ‘fart battles’ are Kyōsai at his silliest, showing naked men blasting each other with great gales of their own wind: but, produced at the time of a samurai uprising, they are also caricatures of political ferment and macho posturing.

When he had had too much to drink, however, he occasionally crossed the line. Most famously, in 1870, an impromptu painting at a shogakai led to Kyōsai’s arrest. (We don’t know what he painted because Kyōsai was too drunk to remember it, although it is thought to be a satire on the influence of foreigners on the Meiji government.) He was imprisoned for a few months, which took a serious toll on his health, and eventually sentenced to 50 lashes, although it is unclear whether this punishment was carried out. The boy who spent hours sketching a decapitated head had not yet lost his appetite for danger – although he had learned the hard way how brutal the consequences of risk-taking could be.

The suggestion that Kyōsai was satirising foreign influence in his scandalous shogakai painting, as well as Menpes’ story of his haughty behaviour towards the guests in Tokyo, might give the impression that he was a reactionary who held Westerners in contempt. It was true that Kyōsai spun comic gold from an era that was rushing headlong towards Westernisation. The imperial regime was on a furious campaign to modernise after two and a half centuries of relative isolation, and in the space of a few decades Japan would adopt European dress codes, Prussian constitutional law, British naval strategies and French architecture. Kyōsai’s curious painting of a skeleton in a top hat and Western clothes, while still brandishing a samurai sword (1871/78), exposes a country in transition – and warns that all the new Western fashions in the world will not alter the transience of life. And now that Christianity was legal in Japan, it was fair game for mockery: he pictured Christ on the cross smugly clutching a fan.

Yet the artist did not shun Westerners in his personal life – in fact, he welcomed many into his studio, including the British architect Josiah Conder and the Anglo-Irish journalist Francis Brinkley. Kyōsai and Conder’s relationship is particularly touching: they travelled around Japan together on sketching trips, and Conder was present at Kyōsai’s death bed in 1889. Nor did Kyōsai spurn Western artwork as a creative influence. In 1874 he co-created a comic magazine, E-shinbun Nipponchi, which is thought to be one of the very first manga magazines. It took as its model Japan Punch, a satirical comic by a British cartoonist named Charles Wirgman.

The greatest influence on Kyōsai’s art is, however, his mighty predecessor Katsushika Hokusai, and viewing the Kyōsai exhibition two months after the British Museum’s Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything it is clear why Kyōsai is seen as his closest successor. Yes, there are those unmistakably stylised rolling waves; but there is a tonal similarity too, a joint fascination with the strange and the imaginary and an urge to depict everything on heaven and earth. Like Hokusai, Kyōsai became a Buddhist, and both artists loved to paint the Buddha and associated figures such as Daruma. In the shared way their art leaves little distinction between the visible and invisible worlds, Kyōsai might accurately be described as Hokusai’s spiritual successor.

Now allow me to propose an unexpected successor to Kyōsai. Eiichiro Oda, born in 1975, is the author and illustrator of One Piece, the best-selling manga series of all time and, in my opinion, the best comic ever made. What began as a simple adventure story about a crew of super-powered pirates has swelled, over twenty-five years and one thousand chapters, into a towering feat of world-building, the work of a complete virtuoso with an obsessive mind. Genuinely funny in a way much cliché-ridden manga is not, One Piece retains a lightness of touch and a magnetic pull towards the the ridiculous even as it tackles weighty themes such as slavery and genocide.

A user on a Japanese internet forum has convincingly argued that Oda consciously drew on the composition of a Kyōsai painting, ‘Dragon and Tiger’ (1865-1870), to create one of his illustrations for One Piece, an homage to traditional Japanese painting featuring his characters dressed as samurai. I would argue, though, that this influence goes far beyond a single double-page illustration. In One Piece no character, however godlike or monstrous, is beyond mockery. The battle scenes are infested with detail and in-jokes. There are samurai, long-nosed tengu, and a musical skeleton who wears a top hat and carries a sword.

Kyōsai’s piercing satire is not the style of One Piece, which Oda keeps hermetically sealed from current events. But both artists revel in depictions of odious upper-class snobs and firmly side with the little man. Most importantly, I see in both artists an eccentric, a maverick, a child prodigy with a fondness for the juvenile and a fearsome devotion to his art. And in both cases, this is art that has charmed and delighted the world precisely because it is so weird, so powerful, so unapologetically Japanese. That is Oda. That is Kyōsai.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection (Royal Academy, 19 March – 19 June 2022)

James Riding is a UK journalist and comic author.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.