Vegder's Blog

August 4, 2009

Skeletons, skulls and bones in Japanese Art – and elsewhere 骸骨, 髑髏, 人骨 – Part One

Filed under: Art,Japanese woodblock prints,Kabuki — vegder @ 10:21 am
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Gaikotsu 骸骨 is skeleton in Japanese, zugaikotsu 頭蓋骨 is skull and jinkotsu 人骨 is  for human bones. By itself 骨 means ‘bone’ and is pronounced ‘hone’ in two syllables.

Fatal attraction: There is hardly a kabuki play which is not muddled in one way or another. The problems of understanding and following the themes are compounded by the fact that every major play seems to have numerous versions. In one the main character is a hero in the next he is a villain. Sometimes love remains unrequited and other times it is requited very nicely, thank you. Such is the case of the monk Seigen (清玄) and the woman he burns for, Princess Sakura (桜姫). Let me explain: In one version he is having a homosexual fling with a younger man, they agree to commit suicide together, the younger man leaps to his death on his 17th birthday – while yearning to come back as a woman – and Seigen chickens out at the last moment and doesn’t jump at all. Fast forward seventeen years and Seigen has made quite a name for himself as an abbot and is visited by a gorgeous young woman – you guessed it – and who, not meaning to, sweeps him off his feet and just happens to be the reincarnation of his erstwhile gay lover. Well no good can come of this I can tell you. In some of the stories Sakurahime, the princess, becomes his lover while in other stories she flees and is pursued, flees some more and is pursued some more and so on. All of this – either with her as his lover or not- is more than her devoted servant can stand so he kills Seigen and that should be that. But no, the dead man’s passions are too great and he rises from the grave to haunt the princess.

The image below is emancipated (and tweaked a bit) from a 1783 print by Shunshō. It shows Danjurō V as the ghost – that’s right, the ghost – of Seigen terrorizing Sakurahime. Wearing a skin tight, black suit painted to look like a skeleton he performed against a black background to heighten the effect. Only the crest on his right arm tells us who is in there.


Lust, betrayal, murders, a skeleton and a ghost: In 1796 Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) published a scandalous Gothic novel called The Monk: A Romance.  It was pretty much banned because it was downright racy and obscene by contemporary standards. Lewis tried to revise it to a more respectable level, an R rating say, but the damage had been done. One part describes a very young girl, Beatrice de las Cisternas, who is forced into a Spanish nunnery by her parents. But when she reached puberty… watch out! “…no sooner did her warm and voluptuous character begin to be developed than she abandoned herself freely to the impulse of her passions, and seized the first opportunity to seize their gratifications.” Yeow! She ran off to Germany to be the mistress of a Bavarian baron. She threw orgiastic feasts which rivalled those of Cleopatra. She slept with the baron’s younger brother who promised to make an honest woman out of her if only she would kill the baron. So she did. Stabbed him through the heart. Ran off to the cave for a rendezvous with his brother expecting to get married only to be murdered by him. He left her body to rot there and by the time she was just little bits of flesh, hair and bones her ghost began to haunt the new baron’s castle dressed in her nun’s habit, carrying the bloody knife. In time she succeeded in frightening the new baron to death, but not before a long period of torment. They called her the Bleeding Nun.

The next baron called in a famous exorcist who went to the cave and quieted the spirit of the Bleeding Nun, but not completely. At that point her bones could not be moved to hallowed ground, but the exorcizer – who is said to have been none other than the infamous Wandering Jew – ordered her to remain quietly at rest as long as he lived, which wasn’t very long. In time Beatrice remains were moved “…and deposited in the family vault [and] all due ceremonies were performed…”

I mention this because in one case the story is Japanese through and through, frightening crowds in 18th century Japan, while the other, a totally independent tale, was doing the same thing at about the same time for European readers. Both seem to share a common thread: No distinction was made between the moldering flesh, the skeletal remains and the vengeful spirit/ghost. Both involved uncontrollable lust, murders and subsequent hauntings. How uncanny.

Below is an image from the ossuary at Sedlec that typifies the marriage of the temporal and the eternal. This picture was placed in the public domain by Wilson44691 at The skull is real, the angel isn’t. More about Sedlec and ossuaries later.


I think it was Guy de Maupassant (1850-93: ・ド・モーパッサン) who gave his readers a disembodied hand which tormented a man until it killed him. For nights he had dreamt of a hand scurrying over his floors, walls and bed curtains using it fingers as though they were legs. When they found the body of the man it looked as though he had been strangled by a skeleton. At least that is what the examining doctor thought. In the victims mouth were the skeletal remains of a finger – bitten off in the struggle. Later a bony hand was found in the cemetary with a finger missing. Hmmm? Spooky!

Don’t ask…. I’m clueless (but you knew that already):The doctored image below is from a Japanese woodblock triptych by Kochoro dated 1893. I believe it belongs to a category of avant garde kabuki plays which were determined to shock their audiences with all things contemporary. Performers often wore western clothing and hair styles. The three main characters appear to have been live actors. I have removed a lot of lines which represented threads coming from above and attached to each of them making them look like large marionettes. Something tells me the role of the skeletons were indeed played by oversized marionettes. Just look at the differences between the one on the left and the one on the right. I’d like to see an actor do what the one on the left is doing. Now that would be a neat trick.


And what is it with those stilts? Maybe it isn’t kabuki after all. The three non-skeletal figures look a lot like circus performers. The lavender hose and the hint of a golden fringed corset (?) worn by the figure on the far left scream circus outfit. Possibly a female acrobat. And what about the fellow in the center? Who dresses like that? His stripes clash, for goodness sake. Thrift shop chic for sure. Surely he’s a carnie. Looks like one to me – even his face is painted and that hat…! And what is with those skeletons?

Clueless, I am absolutely clueless but completely intrigued. Your guess as to what is happening in this picture would be just as good as mine. But who cares? It is a great image either way. At least, I think so.

In case you are having trouble imagining these figures in an unadulterated form here is a detail from the middle panel.


War, good God y’all: I was going to save this next image until the end of this post, but what the heck. It is called “The Apotheosis of War” and is one of the most powerful paintings ever created. Painted in 1871 by the Russian Vasily Vereshchagin it is a bleak reminder to anyone comtemplating sending their sons off to fight. The only life visible is the birds looking for carion. Even the trees are leafless. If there is a more poignant indictment of war I don’t know what it is. It reminds me of a line from the poem by Percy Byshe Shelly that describes the ruins of a once great empire: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”


This image shown above may well be under copyright restriction, but I was unable to tell for sure. I tried to find a contact e-mail address so I could ask permission to use it, but was completely flumoxed. If someone from the Tretyakov Museum sees it and wants me to remove it I will. But… I hope not. It is too great an image and deserves to be seen more.

What is the connection between the Hebrew word shalom and the English word skeleton? Probably nothing, but there is a folk etymology which says there may be.  Our word skeleton comes from the Greek word skhellein which translates as ‘dried up’ or ‘withered’ body. It is a shortened version of sôma skeletón or ‘dried up body.’ Sclerosis and arteriosclerosis both have the same Greek source, skhleros, which means ‘hard.’ But what does this have to do with the word shalom? According to Ernest Klein the ancient Akkadian word for a whole corpse was shalamtu. From that evolved shalom (and the Arabic salaam) which today means ‘Peace’, but originally meant ‘Wholeness’.

The word ‘bone’ on the other hand: “Somewhat unusually for a basic body-part term, bone, is a strictly Germanic word; it has no relatives in other Indo-European languages.” The German bein and the Swedish ben have the same source. “They both mean ‘leg’ as well as ‘bone,’ suggesting that the original connotiation… may have been ‘long bone.’ ” (Quotes from: Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto)

Skoal! To your health!: The word ‘skoal’ is related to the word ‘skull’ because skulls were used as drinking vessels.  The earliest root for both words meant to slice or cut and that may be because the skull was cut from the skeleton. It would appear that the word ‘skoal’ came into the English language via a visit to Denmark by the Scottish king, James VI – later James I of England. The original English word for skull was hēafodpanne, literally ‘head-pan.’

What I want to know is just who were the Vikings toasting? Surely not the donor of the drinking vessel. One other note: I am totally incapable – or nearly so – of exploring the etymologies of Japanese words. Perhaps that is  a good thing. But, if only I could… One can only dream.

I suppose everything after this will be anticlimactic – so to speak: The Japanese were masters of the grotesque and they were also masters of the erotic. Sometimes they combined the two, but rarely.  Erotic Japanese prints have a large audience of admirers some of whom are sophisticates, some who suffer from arrested development and act like teenagers no matter their age and some of whom are just downright creepy. In most cases it is first impressions which count and most viewers don’t give a damn how well printed something is or even who produced it even if we know. Such is the case of the skeleton image shown below. Look closely at it because it is quite clever. Crude and jarring, but still quite clever. Not only is the creature aroused, but his entire skeletal structure is made up of penis-shaped bones. The woman is obviously startled and terrified. Don’t you think? Should she survive the encounter who is ever going to believe her?

I don’t know who the artist is or exactly what he was thinking, but I am not sure that matters. (I have altered the image so it reads better visually, but kept all of the most important elements.)

The truth comes out!

I now know who did the image shown below. It was by Kuniyoshi, but under a pseudonym. It is from a series of twelve genital – both male and female -related prints entitled ‘Ghost Story: Night Procession of 100 Demons’. However, considering the Japanese penchant for punning through the use of homonyms it could also be read as ‘Pussy Stories: 100 Night Ejaculations’. The image itself is entitled ‘karikkotsu‘ or ‘Penis Skeleton’. This information is provided in Timothy Clark’s new catalogue of the Arthur R. Miller collection of Kuniyoshi prints. It illustrates the whole set on p. 258.


“If I had had to learn anatomy I never would have become an artist.” I am not sure I should go down this road, but someone has to I suppose. Look at the image shown above: There are so many things wrong with it on so many levels, but one of them pops up immediately. The penis is not a bone! In 1998 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to three researchers who had studied the effect of nitric oxide on living organisms. Nitric oxide is a pollutant which can enter the atmosphere from a car’s exhaust. The Nobel committee described it’s effects as such: “Nitric Oxide, NO, is a short-lived, endogenously produced gas that acts as a signalling molecule in the body. Signal transmission by a gas, produced by one cell, which penetrates membranes and regulates the function of other cells is an entirely new principle for signalling in the human organism.” I can’t tell you how it works, but in the case of the human male the transmission of NO in the blood stream facilitates arousal and hence that led to the discovery of Viagra (バイアグラ). See how smoothly this works: Automobile pollution to blood stream to erections and a cure for one cause of impotence. Psychological issues are another matter altogether.  Still none of this gives the skeleton of a male a bone where there was none and never will be. Perhaps the artist knew this intuitively, but was taking ‘poetic’ license. Perhaps he didn’t.

When I entered junior high school and had to take gym classes and group showers afterwards I heard a lot of talk about boners and giving someone the bone. I had led a sheltered life in oh so many ways, was late in developing both physically and psychologically – and who can say that isn’t still the truth – and didn’t really have any idea what my wet, naked classmates were talking about. It was like dirty jokes: I had to  laugh just to cover the fact that I didn’t get them. But in time… naturally I did. And still the use of those terms – you know which ones I mean and don’t make me repeat them – I can be a bit of a prude – became clear enough. Who cared how it worked on me, them or the anatomically incorrect – and some would say inappropriate – skeleton shown above. Who cared if there was a bone there or not. And yet… thank goodness for those three researchers and that insightful Nobel committee. Was there ever a better prize? Ask Pfizer stockholders: Was there?

The quote that led off this section is attributed to Ingres (1780-1867: アングル), one of the greatest artists who ever lived. He painted gloriously and like Picasso (ピカソ) was still painting images of voluptuous, languid and oh-so-sexy women when he was an octogenarian. When Ingres was about 35 years old he created one of his many masterpiece, La Grande Odalisque. Some of his critics were brutal. “She has too many vertebrae. Three too many.” In Ingres’ defense others have said he was taking artisic license and was thinking of the 16th century Mannerists and their preternaturally elongated limbs. Even one masterpiece by Pamagianino (パルミジャニーノ) is called “The Madonna with the long neck”. But the criticism stung – what criticism doesn’t – and perhaps that is what led Ingres to say that if he had ever had to study anatomy he never would have become a painter. Maybe the artist who created the ithyphallic skeleton knew better. Maybe he didn’t. We’ll never know. (Below is Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. Gorgeous, isn’t it? That is not a real question. I know it is – extra vertebrae or not. Perhaps it is even a bit sexist of me. Women can have as many vertebrae as they want, but men can’t have bones where they don’t belong. That is just plain wrong.)


The Piss of Death: At the beginning of the 20th cenury the German artist, Max Klinger (1857-1920: マックス・クリンガ), painted an image of the Grim Reaper taking a moment out from his busy schedule to take a leak. This was referred to as Der pinkelnde Tod. Ten years before that Klinger had produced an etching/drypoint of the same subject entitled Tod am See. Both are interesting and both are a bit goofy. In neither one are there any human observers – others than us, of course. Finally a moment alone. Naturally they are as ridiculous  as the Japanese print shown above displaying the skeleton with an erection. These images are absurd and counter-intuitive, but not in the way that quantum physics is. We get these. We relate even though these imagaes exist in a world which just can’t be. (Richard Feynman – リチャード.ファインマン, on the other hand,  said that no one can understand quantum mechanics. We just have to learn to accept it.) Both pictures of skeletons are silly. Everyone knows that skeletons don’t drink, don’t sweat and don’t urinate. Everyone. But that didn’t stop Klinger. (See the detail from the print below.)


Channeling Gahan Wilson – or is it the other way around? What I know about channeling – or care to know, for that matter – you could fit a thousand times over in a nanotube. But looking at their works either Klinger would seem to be channeling  Wilson or Wilson him, because they share the same sense of the comic/macabre. One site notes that Wilson’s earliest know drawing – age 6 – is of the Grim Reaper killing a man. Picasso, on the other hand,  at that age was drawing copulating donkeys. Maybe he was 7. Then there is always the possiblity of reincarnation – another of my intellectual black holes. Klinger died in 1920 and baby Gahan was born in 1930. I am not suggesting…  (K.D. Lang, born. 1961, says she is the reincarnation of Patsy Cline who died in 1963. A neat trick if you can do it, but that’s none of my business either.)

I first saw Wilson’s dark, but witty cartoons in Playboy Magazine. The one I remember best was that of the skeleton of a man sitting in the driver’s seat of a convertible at a stop sign. The sign said “Stop” so he did – pernmanently. In a similar vein is Max Kinger’s figure lying across the railroad tracks.  I would sure love to know how the body got there in the first place and what in the hell happened to that damned train, but your guess would be as good as mine.



For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. nice

    Comment by severnyproductions — August 4, 2009 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  2. Vegder, you rock. Your research and writing are fresh and wonderfully profound: micro details, leaping connections, fantastic “derailments” (脱線) into converging fields. Keep it up.

    Comment by medaka — August 12, 2009 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  3. The comment above by medaka says it all. It’s always remarkable, and then some. Thanks.

    Comment by Marilynn Bloom — December 3, 2009 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

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