The “Yōkai” Art of the Master


Toriyama Sekien was an influential Edo-period artist who taught some of the giants of the ukiyo-e world. Today he is best known for his collections of yōkai illustrations, which he released in four books in 1776–84 as a form of mass-produced popular literature. We spoke with the translators who have made his work available to Spanish and English readers about the artist and the impact he continues to have to this day.

Matt Alt

Translator and writer. Earned his degree in Japanese at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and moved to Japan in 2003 to cofound AltJapan, a localization company focusing on Japanese entertainment and popular culture. Has translated video game titles for the Dragon QuestNinja Gaiden, and Gundam series and manga including Doraemon, in addition to authoring several works on Japanese culture. Contributor to the New Yorker, the Independent, Slate, and other publications.

Yoda Hiroko

Translator and editor. Cofounder and president of AltJapan. Earned her master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution from American University. Has been editor of the Japanese edition of CNNGo and an interpreter for United Nations delegations. Coauthor with Matt Alt of books including the “Attack series”—Yōkai Attack! Ninja Attack! and Yūrei Attack!—introducing Japan’s yōkai, ninja, and yūrei spirits in English.

Isami Romero

Assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, where he teaches comparative politics, diplomatic history, and Spanish. Born in 1975 in Mexico City. Graduated from Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in 1999 before going on to earn a master’s degree in social and international studies at the University of Tokyo, where he also completed his doctoral research. Has also taught at the University of Tokyo’s Department of Area Studies and Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies. He has translated numerous Japanese literary works into Spanish.

Toriyama Sekien is the pen name for Sano Toyofusa (1712–88), a woodblock print artist active in the mid–Edo period (1603–1868). He was a pioneering teacher and creator of ukiyo-e prints, developing new techniques and training famed artists including Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa school, and Kitagawa Utamaro. Today, though, he is best remembered for his four compendiums of yōkai illustrations—Gazu hyakki yagyō (1776; The Illustrated Demon Horde’s Night Parade), Konjaku gazu zoku hyakki (1779; The Illustrated Demon Horde from Past and Present, Continued), Konjaku hyakki shūi (1781; More of the Demon Horde from Past and Present), and Hyakki tsurezure bukuro (1784; A Horde of Haunted Housewares). We asked Isami Romero, who translated Sekien’s yōkai collections as Guía ilustrada de monstruos y fantasmas de Japón (Quaterni, 2014), and Matt Alt and Yoda Hiroko, who translated them as Japandemonium Illustrated (Dover Publications, 2016), to talk about the artist, his art, and the influence he continues to wield in the contemporary era.

Bringing Edo’s Yōkai to Modern Readers

INTERVIEWER Why did you choose this book? After so many hundreds of years, why was it time to translate this?

MATT ALT There’s been a boom in all things yōkai in Japan over the last several years, fueled by the Yōkai Watch franchise. But that’s only the most recent manifestation of yōkai in Japanese pop culture.

Toriyama Sekien’s 240-year-old books represent “ground zero” for yōkai as a media phenomenon. These weren’t the first yōkai ever illustrated, but they were the first yōkai product, mass-produced and consumed in a thriving Edo literary scene. The monsters in these pages are the ancestors of popular manga characters and the mascot characters Japan loves today.

We were surprised it had never been translated—until we started working on it, and belatedly realized why. [Laughs]

ISAMI ROMERO I think my Spanish translation was the first, at least into a European language. Quaterni, my publisher, wanted to introduce readers in Spain to the samurai and other parts of old Edo culture.

I translated the first novel by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko, Ubume no natsu [El verano de la ubume; The Summer of Ubume], from his Kyōgokudō series. The main character in these books is always talking about the old texts by Sekien. So I showed the publisher what Sekien had created, and they said, “Wow, this is great!”

YODA HIROKO I’ve liked yōkai since I was a child. And when it comes to yōkai, Toriyama Sekien is it. I grew up with the manga of Mizuki Shigeru, and it’s obvious that he got ideas from Sekien, too.

When Matt said he wanted to do this I thought he was nuts. The book is 240 years old, written in difficult-to-decipher kuzushi-ji calligraphy and kanbun Chinese styles. But we said: Who else was going to translate this? It was a challenge we wanted to take on.

INTERVIEWER Where did you get the source text that you worked from?

ALT Sekien’s works were very popular during the Edo period. They were reprinted three times. Most of the copies that are available to this day are reproductions of the third edition, which is very degraded. We were planning on using this material for our book as well, since it’s available on the National Diet Library website. It was only once we’d started the work that we found a much cleaner copy at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. That kicked it into high gear.

YODA It was in the Freer and Sackler Galleries [which house the Smithsonian’s Asian collections]. But it was missing one small part.

ROMERO Yes, for my translation we had to work from the Kadokawa Shoten edition. It’s a small paperback, but it includes this volume from Sekien’s Gazu hyakki yagyō, the first of the yōkai books he put out.

YODA In the end we located a copy of the missing part in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. So our book is very American, somehow. [Laughs] But it turned out very well, because the quality of the images is so good.

ALT One of the most striking examples of this quality is the print of Furu-utsubo, which we translated as “Oldquiver.” Most reproductions are of the third edition, which is blurry.

YODA This is the version I grew up with. It’s hard to make out. Is this a face? Something else? But the Smithsonian version is so clean and detailed. You can see a face, you can see peacock feathers. There’s even text that isn’t in the third printing. It was a huge discovery for me to see this version. And even better, the copy of the book we found had a prologue missing from later printings.

The Furu-utsubo print copy available at the Smithsonian (right) shows much finer detail, in addition to including the text missing from the National Diet Library’s copy. (Courtesy National Diet Library and Smithsonian Libraries)

That explained a mystery: each entry in the fourth book ends with a phrase, “So I dreamed.” Why? Thanks to this newfound preface, though, it became clear—Sekien fell asleep and dreamed that he entered the ruins of an old palace, where all the things began moving around. After waking up, he drew what he remembered. That’s the fourth book.

Prints as Pop Literature

INTERVIEWER How do Sekien’s works fit into the literary sphere of his times?

ALT Maybe they’re the Edo equivalent of New Yorker cartoons. Imagine 240 years from now picking up a collection of cartoons from our era—“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”—and not understanding what the Internet is. Or a dog. [Laughs] It’s a time capsule of what was popular in late-eighteenth-century Edo.

It can also be read as literature. There isn’t really a sustained narrative, but it’s filled with references to famous works.

ROMERO Sekien produced these books one by one, each of them put together in three volumes. As with any author, his job is to show that readers will like this. He puts one out, the people like it, he gets to try again. I think that the first three books he put out are filled with yōkai from the past, that everybody would know about and enjoy, like kappa and tengu. But the fourth book came from his own imagination. He took things in the kitchen, mirrors, and everything in the house and transformed them into yōkai. These hadn’t been part of the popular culture until he made them, but they became such lasting characters that Mizuki Shigeru used them in our era.

YODA Sekien gathered and “remixed” a lot of information that had been previously scattered. Before his books were published, the yōkai were known from painted scrolls, where they would appear all by themselves, with no backgrounds. His visual contribution was to take them and place them in habitats, giving them a real-world context.

So the question becomes why he selected these particular backgrounds for the yōkai. It fascinates me.

INTERVIEWER And you added plenty of explanations to help readers follow along.

ROMERO When I did the Spanish translation, I offered to add additional information going beyond the text on the original images. But the publisher said no, they only wanted what’s there. The otaku types in Spain who are into this material would appreciate that added information, but the publisher thought it was irrelevant. That context is important, though, because Sekien wants to say something with the images he creates.

Visual wordplay abounds in the Gangi-kozō print, with the gangi-shibori pattern at upper left, in addition to a stone waterfront ramp (also called a gangi) and the creature’s teeth, said to be sharp as a rasp—one common type of which was the gangi-yasuri. (Courtesy the Smithsonian Libraries)

YODA Here’s a good example. This is Gangi-kozō, the “River-Terrace Boy.” Look at the V-shaped dots and lines at upper left. Was this just a misprint? No, it turns out that this pattern is called gangi-shibori, and it’s used in dyeing robes. So it wasn’t random. Why did Sekien draw this way? Why did he place this here? I constantly asked myself that as we worked on this project.

ALT I’d be done with the translation and ready to move on to the next page, and Hiroko would be saying no! This or that is here for a reason. That’s why we have so much analysis when Sekien’s original text was only a few words long in many cases.

ROMERO In my case, the publisher only wanted that original text and told me that it’s all the readers needed—that they could imagine and find out for themselves what other meanings were presented there. We had the bare minimum of analysis, just telling the readers the literal meaning of the name in some cases.

ALT We found that many of the two-page spreads had meanings that showed up when you viewed the images together. For example, Ungai-kyō, the “Mirror Beyond the Clouds,” appears opposite Suzuhiko-hime, the “Bellprince-Princess,” in what seems to be a parody of the legend of Amaterasu the sun goddess being lured from her cave. This is one reason we stuck to our guns and insisted that the book be laid out the same as the Japanese edition, right-to-left, even though it’s harder to read. Without that readers would miss a lot of the meanings.

This pair of images represents a parody of the legendary scene from Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) where a bawdy dance coaxes Amaterasu from the cave where she is concealing herself. (Courtesy the Smithsonian Libraries)

ROMERO Some of Sekien’s images feature the yōkai as a very small part of the composition. The Yamabiko [“Mystical-Valley-Echo”], for example, is this tiny little creature up in the corner of its print. My editors asked whether we could have a close-up view of just the yōkai, but I said no, because there’s other information presented in the image that we don’t want to do away with.

The Lasting Impact of Sekien’s Imagination

INTERVIEWER Are we reading the classics here, or is Sekien still relevant to culture today?

ALT The yōkai are still vital parts of modern pop cultures. Yōkai Watch features many parodies of ancient yōkai. Another example is Nurarihyon, who’s a main character in the anime series Nurarihyon no mago, translated as Nura: Rise of the Yōkai Clan. So old yōkai are still being used as modern-day characters.

YODA Nowadays yōkai is a household word in Japan. But Toriyama Sekien is far less well known. Now that yōkai are getting popular around the world, we wanted to bring his books to readers outside Japan, to popularize his name with them.

The fact that he was the originator of many of these creatures is important. If you like something, it’s important to go back to its roots, to understand more of its background. Without that, you’re just surfing the surface of the material. We’re trying to give the outside world access to something very old—the roots of yōkai.

ALT Sekien is one of the most unsung artists in the pantheon of Japanese art. Few people know his name, but without him, ukiyo-e woodblock printing would not have existed in the form that it did in the Edo period. He trained Utagawa Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa school. He trained Kitagawa Utamaro. He devised the fuki-bokashi technique that let printers do color gradations. Sekien’s DNA runs throughout popular art to this day. But if you look him up in an art encyclopedia, it usually says just “he was this guy who trained Utamaro.” We wanted to change that.

ROMERO It’s difficult to find reliable biographical information, and we don’t know all that much about him. But he was the first artist to show the images of yōkai to the mass audience. Before he came along, there was a general idea of what a kappa was; the concept of this creature existed. There may have been other ideas of how these creatures looked in Kyūshū or Tōhoku, but once his images went out from Edo, they expanded to become the accepted images for yōkai all over Japan.

ALT Edo had a surprisingly modern multimedia marketplace. People would go see the kabuki like we watch a movie; they might buy an ukiyo-e print like we pick up a magazine. And the merchandising of yōkai started with Sekien. His books were inspired by the work of previous artists, but Sekien’s were mass-produced, not one-offs. He made yōkai Japan’s first true pop characters.

Deciphering the “Sekien Code”

INTERVIEWER It may be mass-produced, but the art in your English edition is beautifully presented. Are there other editions out there that do a similar job with his art?

ALT There are some books out in Japanese, like the Kadokawa and Kokusho Kankōkai editions, for starters. But they’re based on a set of third-edition prints that aren’t in top condition.

YODA For Japanese readers like me, the Kokusho Kankōkai edition offered the first access to this art, even if there were missing pages and the prints were worn out. That’s why we were so excited to find clean copies in the Smithsonian.

ROMERO There’s another publisher in Spain that put out a yōkai encyclopedia, which sold quite well. And the people who read it wanted more. While hardcore Japan lovers want deeper information, average readers love this. They read it casually, like a manga. And the publisher used this strategy, marketing this book as “the roots of manga.” You might like Dragon Ball or Naruto, but here’s what you need to read to see how it all began.

ALT Speaking for Japanese readers, when we started sharing some of the images from our book on Twitter, Japanese yōkai fans were amazed. They’d never seen reproductions this clean, even in their home country.

YODA The fact that we kept the Japanese names of the yōkai on their pages has also helped Japanese readers who want to follow along. They’re looking at our translations and saying “Oh, so Kutsu-tsura is Sandalface.”

Multiple layers of meaning concealed in the Kame-osa print show what a treat Sekien’s works were for informed readers—and how hard they are to decipher centuries later. (Courtesy the Smithsonian Libraries)

ROMERO And these prints were just sleeping in the Smithsonian archives?

ALT Yes! It’s ironic that we found them outside Japan, but also kind of full circle, because foreign texts informed Sekien’s work. He really absorbed influences from Japan, China, Korea, perhaps even Europe too, and digested it to create what he did.

YODA That’s one thing that gave us such a hard time. There’s nothing random in there. He’s always referencing some poem or book or event—every word, every element of the images. We put a lot into our explanations, but I’m sure we missed a lot too. Not the Da Vinci Code, but the Sekien Code. [Laughs]

INTERVIEWER Did you crack the code?

ALT The very last yōkai in the book, Kame-osa, is one that Hiroko cracked.

YODA We translated Kame-osa as “Captain Crock.” It’s a crockpot of sake that never goes empty no matter how much you drink. But he could have just drawn the pot and left it at that. So what’s this furry hand creeping in on the left side?

It turns out that this comes from a nō play called Shōjō. The shōjō is a mythical creature, and Sekien quotes the play in his text. That’s one layer. Second, one of Sekien’s disciples was Koikawa Harumachi, who was also nicknamed Sakenoue no Furachi, the “unpardonable drunk.” While he studied under Sekien, he went by the name Kame-osa. All that is in here.

Deciphering all the layers made this a very tough job—but one we really enjoyed.

(Based on a June 2, 2017, discussion at the offices.)

Edo period art literature yokai Toriyama Sekien