When you think of Japanese ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, you probably think of Hokusai’s beautiful landscapes in his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, or the stylized prints of beautiful courtesans in traditional Japanese dress. But there are also many pieces of Japanese art and ukiyo-e from the Edo to the Meiji period (between 1603 and 1912) that represent a more mythical and macabre side of Japan.

The following is a collection of 20 pieces that all contain skulls or skeletons in some form, many of them by renowned and famous artists of the time.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Soma no Furudairi (Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter)

Kuniyoshi was renowned for his paintings of historical and mythical scenes, and this piece combines both. Dating from around 1845, this famous painting from one of the masters of Japanese woodblock prints depicts a skeleton demon summoned by Princess Takiyasha. After the death of her father, Taira no Masakado, Princess Takiyasha continued living in  the ruined palace of Sōma, and legend has it that she was  a practitioner of witchcraft.


Oiwa Boukon

Another work by Kuniyoshi, this depicts the skeleton behind Oiwa possessing her.


One of the caricatures Kuniyoshi excelled at features a skull design on the clothing.


They may be small, bu there are skulls to be found in amongst the horde of demons.


Katsushika Hokusai

Kohada Koheiji

Koheiji was a kabuki actor who appeared in kabuki productions of ghost stories and romances. He was killed by the man with whom his wife was having an affair, and this picture shows him peering over a mosquito net at the two adulterous lovers.


Kobayashi Kiyochika

The Hell Courtesan, Jigoku Dayu

The Jigoku Dayu, or Hell Courtesan, was a famous courtesan known for her relationship with the priest Ikkyū, and she is the subject of many macabre pieces of Japanese art. Here, she graces the centre of the piece while on the right hand side a skeleton dances with a towel tied around its head. The skeleton guests on the left applaud.


Here we have a policeman rebuking two skeletal women for their lewd display of naked bones at Tennoji Temple in Yanaka. As well as human skeletons there’s also a rather cute little dog or cat down in the right-hand corner.


Kawanabe Kyōsai

Skeletons Pulling the Sleeve of a Beauty

Notice the top hat worn by one of the skeletons.


Skeleton tea ceremony

Three skeletons enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.


The Hell Courtesan, Jigoku Dayu

In Kyosai’s rendition of the courtesan, he captures her in an aggressive movement.


Takeuchi Seihō

Color on silk image of ‘kanka’

A skeleton in a sexy pose.


Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Hell Courtesan and Ikkyū

In Yoshitoshi’s version of the Hell Courtesan and her lover, Ikkyū spears a skull on a bamboo cane in front of her.



Enlightenment of The Hell Courtesan

Pale skeletons drift behind the beautiful courtesan.


This skull design would make a great tattoo.


Kawanabe Kyōsai

This creepy depiction of a lizard slithering through the empty eye socket of a skull remains very popular today.


Itō Jakuchū

Jakuchū rarely drew skulls, so this is an unusual piece. The stark use of black and white is striking.


Utagawa Hiroshige

This image shows Taira no Kiyomori  being assailed by the vengeful ghosts of the warriors he triumphed over in the Heiji Rebellion. Look carefully and you will see that the snowy landscape is actually composed of skulls.



Two skeletons have a picnic. This piece is thought to be from the Meiji period, around the end of the 19th century.


These skeletons appear to be having a good old traditional Japanese party, drinking tea and playing instruments.


This skeleton’s smile appears rather forced as he wanders around the woods at night with a lantern.

What do you think of these creepy works, Rocketeers? Would you like to see more, or do you prefer the typical Ukiyo-e style?

Source: Japaaan Magazine