It seems that the poor cat cannot escape accusations of sorcery in whatever culture it ends up. This could not be more true of Japan which abounds with legends and stories of vampire cats, witch cats, demon cats and cats which portend disaster or good fortune. Because the feline is so woven into legend and mythology it is inevitable that it should end up the subject of so many Japanese woodblock prints. The Japanese bobtail is the distinctive and noticeable cat of Japan. It is said that a long tailed cat, lounging by the fire had its tail catch light and ran through Edo setting fire to buildings as it went and that the Emperor decreed that all cats’ tails should be docked as a result. This is just story telling, since the manx tail is caused by a recessive gene and it was this breed that was introduced to Japan from Korea a thousand years ago.
Cats were first imported to Japan from China by the Emperor Ichijo in the eleventh century where they quickly became prized possessions. Since then they have occupied a major role in the country’s ethnic mythology. It was widely considered that various animals had the power to shape shift – the cat, the fox and the badger. In the case of the cat, it was most likely that the form it would take would be that of a seductive woman or sometimes an old woman or hag, mirroring similar superstitions in the west. On the Tokaido road, the main artery from Kyoto to Tokyo, there stands a distinctive stone, known locally as the cat-stone. This relates to an old woman who inhabited the temple at Okabe. She lured young women to their deaths in order to devour them. The stone is her final resting place, a manifestation of her evil.
In other stories such as the vampire cat of Nabeshima the cat is a seducer of men, disguising itself as a wife or prostitute. In the Nabeshima story, the vampire cat kills the mistress of a young prince and takes her form. She then proceeds to drain his blood at night whilst he sleeps. This and the story of the witch cat of Okazaki, both illustrated here in woodblock prints by the artist Kunichika, show a common attribute of the demon cat. Notice how in both prints, shadow plays an important role in revealing the true nature of the deception. It was widely believed that reflections or silhouettes could reveal the true nature of the cat demon and these devices – mirrors, lanterns etc – were used by ukiyo-e artists to engineer visual complexity into these mysterious designs. These same devices were used in prints to reveal the identity of tsuchigumo the earth spider.
It was not all bad news for the cat though. One legend which has flourished in modern times concerns the fate of the Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat. Statues and paintings of Maneki Neko can be seen all over Japan even today and they are considered extremely propitious bringers of good luck. The history of Maneki Neko begins with a prostitute called Usugomu in Edo Japan at the end of 18th century. She kept her beloved cat at her side at all times. One night when visiting the lavatory, her cat began tugging at the hem of her robe, refusing to let go. Suspecting the cat to be a demon, her client rushed at the creature and cut off its head with his sword. The cat’s head flew at the ceiling, attacking a venomous snake poised to strike Usugumo. The prostitute was distraught at the death of her pet and a customer carved her a statue of the animal with its paw raised. The good fortune of Usugumo led the carvings to become cult objects thereafter.
Despite the numerous depictions of evil cats in kabuki and woodblock prints, one artist above all others – Utagawa Kuniyoshi – stands out as the defender of the feline world. Kuniyoshi was well known as a cat lover and owner and frequently produced playful images of cats as comic prints or, as in his famous series Cats Forming Written Characters of 1842, cats forming distinctive letters in calligraphy. Kuniyoshi’s prints of cats are among the most collectible of all his work. Cats Suggested as the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road has sold at auction for $17000 recently. However, Buddhist cat lovers beware, the cat was one of ony two animals that failed to cry at the death of the Buddha… the other was the snake.
Toshidama Gallery will be showing Kunichika’s Okabe Neko print in our forthcoming exhibition 4 x 4 on September the 23rd.