Maruyama Ōkyo opened his eyes from a fitful sleep and saw a dead woman. She was young. Beautiful. And pale. Unnaturally drained of color, her bloodless skin peeked from her loose, bone-white burial kimono. Her bleached appearance was contrasted only by the thin slits of her black eyes, and by the long, black hair that hung disheveled across her shoulders. She had no feet.
What is The Ghost of Oyuki?
The Ghost of Oyuki is without a doubt the most famous and influential Japanese ghost painting. It is the template for the entire country’s idea of “what a ghost looks like.” The white-faced, black-haired girl in the white kimono has roots in tradition, but this image–particularly the lack of feet–comes from the brush of Maruyama Ōkyo.
Although the English title is The Ghost of Oyuki, the actual Japanese title is Yūreizu: Oyuki no Maboroshi (幽霊図(お雪の幻), which translates as Portrait of a Yurei: The Vision of Oyuki. According to a note on the scroll box, put there sometime by a former owner named Shimizu, the young artist had a mistress called Oyuki who worked as a geisha at the Tominaga geisha house in Ōtsu city in the province of Ōmi, modern-day Shiga prefecture. Oyuki had died young, how or when the note does not say; and Ōkyo mourned her deeply. Perhaps too deeply.
One night Maruyama awoke and saw Oyuki hovering at the foot of his bed. She stayed there for a moment and disappeared. When she was gone, Maruyama sprang from his bed and painted Oyuki exactly has she had appeared before him.
Maruyama had a reputation as the ultimate naturalist painter—if he painted something, you could trust that he had seen it. Because of his reputation, when Maruyama appeared with his painting and his story, the people of Japan had no doubt that this was what a yurei actually looked like. And they have been honoring that image ever since.
The story of Maruyama Okyo and the Ghost of Oyuki is told in my yomihon chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki available from Chin Music Press.
The Ghost of Oyuki is not an actual book, but a piece of “book art” commissioned from Mercuria Press in Portland, OR to support my upcoming book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. The Ghost of Oyuki is letterpress printed and handbound in the style of an Edo period yomihon, and was produced in a limited edition of 100.