The Effect of Culture and Mythology on Japanese Art

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Words: 2208 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2021

Words: 2208|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2021

Japanese art is very rich and includes many styles of art and media such as pottery, ink painting and calligraphy on scrolls and silk, sculpture, ceramics, woodblock prints, and ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world”, modern manga comics and anime cartoons, and many other types. Besides political and religious influence, mythology has a great impact on the art and culture evolution of Japan. In this paper, we will briefly review Japanese art history and some of its art expression styles. Next, we will review two art pieces, “Shuten Dōji ('Yorimitsu and the drunken monster of Mount Ibuki')” by Kano Okunobu, and “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, representing two major directions of ukiyo-e: painting and woodblock print. A short background of the authors and the art schools which they belong to will be covered after that. The myths that inspired the authors and media used in the creation of their art pieces will be reviewed as well.

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Japan’s long art history starts from around 10,000 BC and is shaping and evolving up to the present day. It has been influenced by short contacts with the outer world during invasions and minimal contact with other cultures due to its geographical and political isolation. Eventually, the Japanese learned how to analyze and mimic other countries’ cultural features and adopt what suited their own sense of beauty. Chinese culture and Buddhism had a great influence on the development of Japanese art and culture during the 7th and 9th centuries. Starting with 15th century Japan was overwhelmed by economic, social and political unrest and started forming their own styles by distancing from Chinese and religious influence and by developing more worldly art. During the political reign of Edo Shogunate in 17th-19th centuries country’s economy thrived, the wars were stopped, political isolation and a strict social order brought peace and stability to Japan. Edo Period let the Japanese art and culture to flourish. With the decreasing influence of Buddhism religious sculpture became a less preferred medium and gave way to painting, calligraphy, and woodblock printing.

Japanese painting art was heavily influenced by the Chinese art style and one of the biggest and most influential schools in the history of Japanese art is the Kano school. It was founded by the son of a samurai and amateur painter Kagenobu, Kano Masanobu in the late 15th century. After the death of Masanobu his son Motonobu became the head of the school and it is believed that through his leadership the Kano school was shaped into what it represents today. This school trained the majority of artists during the Edo period. It represented a renewed Chinese painting influence with brightly colored and heavily outlined massive decorative wall panels for nobles and represented distinctive Japanese culture and traditions and at the same time kept the monochrome Chinese style brush paintings. Artists from Kano school were professionals due to formal workshop training similar to Renaissance and Baroque painters and worked mostly for the royal family members and nobility. Kano school covered a wide range of painting styles and innovated new types. One of the artists representing Kano school was Kano Okunobu who created a painting masterpiece called “Shuten Dōji ('Yorimitsu and the drunken monster of Mount Ibuki')” in 17th century during the Edo period. This artwork was attributed to the head figure of the Kano school, Kano Motonobu.

The paining “Shuten Dōji ('Yorimitsu and the drunken monster of Mount Ibuki')” is based on one of the most famous oni legends about the demon-ogre called Shuten Doji or “The Drunken Boy”. According to the Japanese folklore during the rule of emperor Ichijo in the period of 986-1011, there were a lot of reports about missing people in the capital of Kyoto. The majority of the missing were young women. The royal fortune teller and emperor’s adviser, Abe no Seimei, determined that the demon-king of Mountain Oe was behind the kidnappings. Later the demon was identified as Shuten-Doji or “The Drunken Boy”. The ruler of Kyoto ordered Minamoto no Raiko, also known as Minamoto no Yorimitsu, and Fujiwara no Hosho, also known as Fujiwara no Yasumasa, to track down and terminate the Shuten-doji. Raiko was followed by his shitenno, or lieutenants, and Hosho was accompanied only by his shogen, or junior secretary when they left Kyoto in their mission after the ogre demon in 995. During their travel, Raiko and his followers met a group of four people who were the avatars of four gods. The deities advised travelers to disguise themselves as yamabushi monks. When they went through the tunnel in the cave, they met an old kidnapped woman who was doing the laundry at the river. The old lady told them that the ogres abducted young girls and forced them to act as their servants and simply butchered them to eat their flesh and drink their blood. The warriors, disguised as monks, convinced the Shuten-doji to shelter them and the monster king welcomed them with sake. He told them the stories about himself and that he was called “The Drunken Boy” by his minions for his passion for sake. He told them that ogres had to leave their ancestral lands when Enryaku ji temple was built near Hira Mountains and move to the Mountain Oe in 849. Raiko treated the demon king with a drink given by the gods. This drink made the demon king unconscious. The warriors unpacked their weapons and armor from their priestly looking backpack chests where they hid it all the time and got dressed and prepared for the battle. They assaulted the ogre’s headquarters while the demons were drunk. In his true form, Shuten-doji was a fifty feet height red demon with five horns on the head, fifteen eyes, black and white legs, and blue and yellow arms. The four gods were holding Shuten-doji’s limbs until Raiko cut off the demon’s head with one sweep of his sword. However, the demon didn't die, and his head started flying around and trying to bite Raiko’s head off. To defend himself Raiko put on two additional helmets that he took from his men and the demon flying head’s jaws could kill the hero. The party of heroes returned victorious to Kyoto with the head of “The Drunken Boy” and buried it in the Uji no hozo at Byodo-in temple.

The composition is a section from the handscroll that is based on a famous set of scrolls attributed to Kano Masanobu. It is created with ink, color, and gold on paper. The section illustrates the crossing of the river by Raiko’s party on the way to the demon king’s lair. This piece has a great amount of colorful details and strong outlines on a golden background which are distinctive characteristics of the Kano school and Chinese art. Today this piece of art is part of the British Museum collection.

One more art style that was transferred to the early Edo Period was woodblock printing. Influenced by Buddhism woodblock printing in Japan was initially designed to translate the religious scripts and later in history it started turning away from religious topics towards more secular themes. It was considered a convenient print text reproduction method in the 8th century. The process of woodblock printing consisted of a wooden piece engraved with an image or text that was transferred to paper by pressing the woodblock against it. Later the method was improved by innovative progress that allowed color print and was called Nishik-e. Items, such as calendars, printed by the Nishik-e method were popular amongst wealthy people in the Edo period. This method was widely used in 11th-19th century Japan.

Let us review one of the greatest examples of the ukiyo-e woodblock printing of early Edo period called “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Specter Invoked by Princess Takiyasha” or “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter” created by the Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi in 1844 and his background to better understand why this artist’s legacy has a significance in Japanese art.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was born on January 1, 1798 in a family of silk-dyer Yanagiya Kichiyemon and died on April 14, 1861, in his home in Genyadana at the age of 63. As a kid, he was impressed with the ukiyo-e prints of warriors and depictions of craftsmen artisans in the manuals. Kuniyoshi assisted his father as a pattern designer and it is suggested that it influenced his rich tendency to use colors and textile prints in his prints. When he was 12 years old his talent was noticed by the grand ukiyo-e print master Utagawa Toyokuni. He was a representative of the Utagawa school and one of the last Japanese ukiyo-e style grandmasters in painting and woodblock printing. He was creating his art in a wide range of topics including kabuki actors, beautiful women, landscapes, regular and mythical animals. He is famous for featuring legendary historical and mythical battles and heroic samurais in his art which incorporated Western characteristics landscape paintings. Starting the 1820s Kurniyoshi’s heroic triptychs attract the attention of Japanese society and become demanded because of growing popularity during the Edo period of Suikoden, translation of the Chinese novel “Shui Hu Zhuan” which means “The Water Margin”. This novel tells the story and adventures of the outlaw band that travels the areas around mount Ryosanpaku. These outlaws are depicted as heroes who participate in epic battles. Kuniyoshi’s prints are one of the most beautiful creations which incorporate select Western landscape and anatomic style and became a collation of classical Japanese heirloom form of art and a conjunction of Eastern and Western worlds.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter” triptych is an eye-catching masterpiece that depicts a dark legend of Princess Takiyasha. This scene is a depiction of a popular novel “The story of Uto Yasakuta” written by Santo Kyoden in 1807. Takisha was a princess and the daughter of the samurai general Taira no Masakado, who was a leader of the large renegade forces against the Kyoto’s central government. Masakado wanted to establish an “Eastern Court” in Shimoga Province and it was against Kyoto’s Emperor’s interests. The rebellion failed and the leader of rebel forces was killed. His daughter was crushed by father’s death and stayed in the ruins of the Soma palace. Takiyasha’s name means waterfall demon princess and it is believed that she was a witch. Having the magical powers and the manuscript that allowed her to raise dead she decides to continue the fight against the emperor and resurrects her father’s most loyal warriors as skeletons which makes a grand army. It is believed that the manuscript is of Western origin and it was a copy of a book that contained Western anatomical drawings. The legend states that the great warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, Japan’s great warrior and emperor’s servant, heard of the story of Masakado’s defeat and that the raised army of the dead, and decided to travel to the palace’s ramparts to see if the tale was true. Princess dressed up and pretended to be a prostitute when Mitsukuni arrived at the ramparts and tried to seduce him. Her plan failed because Mitsukuni suspected a trap and described the death of her father in great detail. His narrative disturbed Takiyashi’s emotional balance and she ran away from the warrior crying. Later that night, the princess’ army of skeletons ambushed Mitsukuni. She unleashed a humongous skeleton specter Gashadokuro who was the size of a castle. Mitsukuni rushed into the battle on the back of a toad and defeated Takiyasha. Princess’ plan to continue her father’s rebellion failed.

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On the first sheet of the triptych, we can see the princess Takiyashi holding the manuscript, which allowed her to raise the dead while hiding behind the drapery of the ruined castle. The second sheet depicts Oya no Taro Mitsukuni and his follower confronting the giant skeleton specter Gashadokuro, who is crushing through the walls of the castle with his hands and menacingly hangs over the samurais. The unknown samurai gets injured and Mitsukumi helps him to get back on feet. On the third sheet, we see half of the skeleton’s immense torso immerging from the void darkness of the breach in the castle’s wall. It helps the viewer to understand the true scale of the giant skeleton specter. This woodblock print triptych creates a colorful and detailed panoramic composition that represents a grim story and has a powerful dramatic effect on the viewer. At the moment this masterpiece is stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK.


  • The British Museum. “Shuten-Doji (Yorimitsu and the Drunken Monster of Mt. Ibuki).” British Museum, Trustees of the British Museum, 2019, accessed on 10/24/2019,
  • Noriko T. Reider. “Shuten Dōji: ‘Drunken Demon.’” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 64, no. 2, 2005, p. 207. EBSCOhost, accessed on 10/26/2019,
  • Grovier, Kelly. “Culture - Yorimitsu and Shuten-Dôji: The Drunken Demon of Kyoto.” BBC, BBC, 21 Jan. 2019, accessed on 10/25/2019,
  • Honolulu Museum of Art. “Honolulu Museum of Art.” Honolulu Academy, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2019, accessed on 10/24/2019,
  • Lent, John A. “Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection.” International Journal of Comic Art, vol. 12, no. 2/3, Oct. 2010, p. 690. EBSCOhost,
  • “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Aug. 2019,
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The Effect Of Culture And Mythology On Japanese Art. (2021, November 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
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