After quite some time, Japan reopened again for small groups of foreigners, and I was one of them. I also believe that it cannot have been a coincidence that I was not only welcomed by my in-laws but also by Hokusai himself. Indeed, I had an opportunity to see and enjoy two exhibitions devoted to the Master. One would close down the day after my arrival, the other opened just before my departure.

Showing Hokusai prints, illustrated books and a number of paintings all from the British Museum collection, the first one, at the Suntory Museum of Art, also displayed a few ‘masterpieces of painting from collections in Japan.’ Could it be that the organizers were afraid that the audience would be disappointed with the 108 works on loan from the BM, including one of the five best copies of the Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa in existence? Or that it would fail to recognize the exceptional strength in the painting of the demon inhabitants of Onoshima, in vain trying to pull the string of Minamoto Tametomo’s bow, complemented with an inscription by Kyokutei Bakin (曲亭馬琴)? The painting celebrating the completion of the novel Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon, Chinsetsu yumiharizuki (椿説弓張月, 5 parts, 1807-1811) was even displayed together with the mirrored image from the first part of the book that was the source for the painting. Or would it maybe overlook the elegance of the rather impromptu portrayal of the poem diviner that Hokusai made his first work of the brush in the New Year of 1827? Then there were also three paintings from his 88th year (when Hokusai was extremely productive, making at least some thirty paintings), one of a couple of ducks in the water, another of a cormorant on a wooden pole, and then one of the Chinese philosopher Sōshi (荘子, 胡蝶の夢) with a butterfly hoovering over his head – as he once woke up after dreaming of a butterfly and being unable to discern whether he had become that butterfly, or whether that butterfly had assumed his form. Sure, it was nice and good to see all these works again, though nothing new for me, even among the seven works from Japanese collections.

Indeed, for a real and most welcome surprise, I had to wait until the day before my departure, when I had a chance to see the very nice exhibition of demons in the oeuvre of Hokusai at the Sumida Hokusai Museum (すみだ北斎美術館 until 28 August). Amongst the large and comprehensive selection of plates from, among others, the various Manga volumes (北斎漫画, 27 plates from vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 and 12), the Quick Guide to Drawing Vol. 4, Hayashinan yonpen Ehon hayabiki (早指南四編画本早引, 1817), and the later Ehon hayabiki Vol. 2 (画本早引二編, 1819), all with their modest basic tints of rose and grey, as well as those from the Illustrated Life of Shakyamuni, Shaka goichidaiki zue (釈迦御一代記圖繪, 6 plates, 1845), just in black and white, sumizuri, the three full colour prints of the One Hundred Ghost Stories, Hyaku monogatari (百物語) of late 1831 (Shunen しうねん, Sara yashiki さらやしき, and Warai Hannya 笑ひはんにや) almost light up on the walls as it were.

Katsushika Hokusai, Dōjōji, The Sumida Hokusai Museum

However, the great surprise is a painting on Dōjōji (道成寺), the story about the young monk Anchin who used to stay with the headman of the village of Masago when making his annual pilgrimage to Kumano, whose daughter fell in love with him and begged him to marry her. This, of course, he refused to do, but she followed him to the Dōjōji Temple where he eventually hid from her under the temple bell. When she found out about his hiding place, she turned into a dragon and coiled herself around it, thus not only destroying the bell with her heat, but also burning Anchin to dust as well as perishing herself in the molten bell.

In Hokusai’s painting the dancer impersonating the young woman has adopted the appearance of a female demon with long waving hair, wearing a Ja mask, rather evoking a snake demon than the more common female Hannya demon, and holding onto a pillar of the temple, a red and white staff in his raised right hand. He is dressed as a Shirabyōshi dancer, wearing a red hakama over a white kimono. The painting in ink and pigments on paper measures 823 x 263 mms. and is signed Hokusai ga (北斎画), with two seals reading Tatsu/masa (辰政), suggesting a dating in the Bunka period, but before 1810, when Hokusai started using the name of Taito (戴斗). Please note: the painting is only on display until July 24th, when it will be replaced by a photographic reproduction.

The story is obviously derived from the Nō repertoire but it was also the source for various dance dramas in kabuki. Though difficult to proof – there are quite a few performances of Dōjōji plays in early Bunka — it seems most tempting to relate the painting to the performance of Sugata hanamusume Dōjōji, 容艶花娘道成寺, in XI/1807 at the Nakamura Theatre (中村座, KN 5:404). This performance was in so far special, as Segawa Rokō III (瀬川路考, 1751-1810), who had just before taken the name of Senjo (仙女) so as to prepare for retirement, played the role of Kiyohime, wearing a mask to make her look like a snake, which is the Ja mask in the painting, while Segawa Michinosuke (瀬川路之助, 1782-1812), who had just been given the name of Rokō IV, played the role of the monk Anchin.

The fact that Hokusai also made a print of Segawa Michinosuke, in the role of Komume (女房小梅), the wife of Ume no Yoshibei (梅の由兵衛), played by Sawamura Gennosuke, after an unrecorded performance of Sumida no haru geisha katagi (隅田春妓女容性) in the same year 1807, might well suggest some special relation between Hokusai and Michinosuke, even more so as this diptych composition represents the only known example of a traditional print of actors since Hokusai left the Katsukawa atelier. This diptych composition is apparently only reproduced in my Hokusai. A Guide to the Serial Graphics (1974), Plates 34 and 35, only the Michinosuke sheet being known in a Japanese collection.

When the museum acquired the painting, it had a very simple mounting (also on display) that hardly supported the vivid sense of drama in the painting. The museum therefore decided to have it remounted with a very appropriate silk brocade with repeated motifs of dragons, also giving it much wider margins right and left that really make the painting stand out, a well-deserved upgrade as it were. This is the first time it is shown at the Sumida Hokusai Museum and, again, only on show until July 24th.        A 192 page catalogue complements the exhibition, published by Kodansha and available at 2.640円 (ISBN 978-4-06528083-6).

I am grateful to the Sumida Hokusai Museum for allowing me to use their photographs of the painting.