A brilliant, entertaining view of exotic Japanese folklore

ACCORDING to folklore, Japan has some of the most relentlessly fearsome demons, goblins, and ghosts of any nation on earth. These supernatural beings are said to surround the Japanese wherever they are, and lurk in mountains and lakes, in trees and rocks, in homes and barns, and even in cooking utensils. No part of Japan, not even its largest cities, is free of them, and their activities have occasionally been reported in reputable newspapers and on television news programs. A brilliant, entertaining, and extravagantly detailed accounting of many of these spirits can currently be seen at the Asia Society here in numerous prints, paintings, screens, books, netsuke, and sculpture from the Edo and Meiji periods. These works are on loan from American collections, primarily in the Midwest, and they include examples by Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Hyakusen, Buson, and Chikuto.

They range from Taoist Immortals, Shoki the Demon Queller, demons and tricksters, to mountain goblins, female ghosts, male ghosts in Kabuki, and illustrations of supernatural tales. The exhibition was organized by Stephen Addiss for the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas. He is also responsible for two of the essays which grace its excellent and profusely illustrated catalog.

The show itself is a total delight and should appeal to almost everyone -- from older children, who will respond enthusiastically to the visual extravaganzas and comic-book grotesqueries of many of the demons, to sophisticated art lovers and scholars, who will be drawn to the exceptionally high quality of practically everything on view. In fact, it is the sheer excellence of the work, even more than its exotic nature, that first engages the viewer's attention. Ghosts, demons, goblins, and other strange beings may dominate these paintings, prints, and carvings, and yet nothing is more startling than the loving care with which they have been given pictorial life.

This is art and craftsmanship of the highest order brought to bear on what we in the West would consider worthy only of the talents of illustrators of children's books and fairy tales.

Much of that, of course, can be attributed to the seriousness with which the Japanese view these legends. That there are so many of them is due to the belief that, while the dead achieve final peace as ancestor spirits in another world, there is another realm where the spirits of the unjustly treated in life can reappear to wreak havoc on their former acquaintances.

Thus, Hokuei's ``The Lantern Ghost of Oiwa'' depicts a dead wife's haunting of the husband who murdered her. In this case, the ghost appears as a lantern, in others, the wronged manifest their anger through any number of objects, including plants, animals, rocks, and the wind. All is not hopeless for humans, however. Shoki, the Demon Queller, exists to exterminate demons, as he demonstrates with great flair in Yoshitoshi's dramatic woodblock print ``Shoki.'' A particularly fascinating section of the exhibition is devoted to tengu, the mountain goblins which can change into a variety of human forms, and tanuki and kitsune, raccoonlike dogs and foxes that delight in playing tricks on people who have offended them -- although they themselves are often the victims of their sly and occasionally malicious sense of humor.

The wit, imagination, and skill that went into almost every image in this show is truly extraordinary. No matter how one examines them -- as illustrations, as designs, or as examples of brilliant draftsmanship -- such works as Yoshitoshi's ``Benkei Fighting the Tengu'' and ``Fox Cry'' are minor masterpieces. And the same is true of Kuniyoshi's astonishing ``Ghost Skeleton,'' Chikanobu's ``Kiyohime and the Moon,'' and Tennen's powerful ``Shoki Triumphant.''

My particular favorite, however, is a tiny ink drawing on paper by Gyosai depicting seven oni (demons) doing acrobatics. It may be small enough to fit into my coat pocket, but it packs a terrific punch! And I must also admit to a fondness for Shunso's ``Oni in Zazen,'' an example of a demon whose bark obviously is far worse than its bite.

After its closing at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, on Sept. 1, this superb exhibition travels to the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence (Sept. 29-Dec. 22); the Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, Austin (March 6-April 13, 1986); and the University Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif. (June 11-Sept. 14, 1986).

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