Take a Trip to Japan’s “Island of Monsters”

Photo: SAOTOME, Ayashi, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.

In Japanese mythology and folklore, the yōkai are an eclectic bunch of spirits, monsters, and demons. They can be malevolent to mischievious in character, bewitching, beguiling mysterious creatures of a supernatural world that possess a spiritual power. Most commonly, they are shapeshifters, taking on an array of forms including animals, ogres, goblins, household objects, and grotesque humans.

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They first appeared in Chinese literature in the first century AD, making their way to Japan by 772 to indicate a strange phenomenon in the imperial court. From then there on they began to find their way into the culture, making an appearance in The Pillow Book and spreading widely during the Edo Period the the 18 century. Inevitably they found their way into manga, immediately at home in the literary space for multiple worlds, finding their way off the island of Japan and into imaginations around the globe.

SAGI, Tsuwano, Shimane Prefecture

SAGI, Tsuwano, Shimane Prefecture

French photographer Charles Fréger discovered the yōkai in 2013, after completing Wilder Mann, which looked at European mythology from a smiliar vantage point, exploring the the practice of masquerade as a means to manifest the savage heart. Drawn to the communities that continue ancient traditions in the modern day, Fréger set his sights on Japan.

Over the course of the next two years, he made a total of five trips to photograph the festivals where yōkai reveal themselves in human form, donning elapborate costumes made from any number of materials. From textiles to to planets, branches to straw, fur to flowers, each figure becomes transformed to a specific yōkai who comes alive once more.

ONJISHI, Yusutani, Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture

ONJISHI, Yusutani, Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture

Yokainoshima 9780500544594Fréger’s photographs are portraits, such as a thing is possible, or mythological figures made manifest. The works are collected in Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters (Thames & Hudson), a delightful book that provides an incredible look at native Japanese culture in all its glory. The book is a bestiary unlike any other, one that speaks not just to the past but to the present and the future. The yōkai are brilliantly situated within the landscape as a means to express the Japanese sensitivity to Nature, her power and vitality.

In this way we come to understand the integral connection between spirits and human life. The festivals provide continuity for the return, for the celebration and veneration of the energies that do not conform to “the known” but instead find a way to make their presence known and understood through non-linear means.

MEJISHI, Ogi, Sadogashima, Niigata Prefecture

MEJISHI, Ogi, Sadogashima, Niigata Prefecture

The book includes a detailed glossary featuring a description of the characters and the groups, to provide context for the visual narrative. Taken as a whole, Yokainoshima is a portal into another realm, like Alice going through the looking glass, taking us on an incredible trip, one that is as inspiring as it is enlightening, entertaining, and intriguing.

All photos: © 2016 Charles Fréger.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.