Japanese Demons and Kabuki Spooky

by Christopher Agostino
see also: The Eye of the Demon — a StoryFaces Performance to learn about the stage presentation I do based on the legends of the samurai and the demons that they fight
I paint a lot of demon faces this time of year, many inspired by Japanese imagery and folktales. In 2008 particularly, I put an effort into exploring new face designs based on Japanese masks and kabuki makeup. That year I was painting at the Transworld Halloween Show http://www.haashow.com/ for Kryolan Professional Makeup www.kryolan.com and took the approach at the event to paint horror faces based on world mask designs, as a contrast to the traditional zombies and skulls, so most of the examples here are from around that time.
     This mask is a contemporary example of a Namahage Demon from the Akita Prefecture. It is worn for a traditional Lunar New Year celebration which sounds like Halloween in reverse, as young men wear the masks and visit people’s houses to scare their children and admonish them to listen to their parents—or the demons will come back! The parents reward the young men with sake and food. Although frightening, Namahage are said to be gods who bring good fortune, an example of the beliefs connected to spirit worship traditions in which powerful demonic spirits can become protective when they are appeased. Check out the Japanese movies Onmyoji and Onmyoji 2 for a fun depiction of demonic possession and the Ying-Yang master that has to restore the balance.
      In folktales, Japanese demons come with various descriptions. Some may be red or blue faced, with fangs, horns and one, two or three eyes. In the tale of the famous samurai Raiko and his battle with the Goblin Earth Spider, he is attacked by an army that drops out of the storm clouds, including animals that walk like men, beings with three claws and three eyes—one with eyes in its hands—and long serpents with human heads. There’s a few ideas for facepainting. At an exhibit of prints by the artist Kuniyoshi last year at the Japan Society I was very jazzed to see two illustrations of Raiko vs. the Earth Spider with imagery that has re-invigorated the way I tell and depict that tale through faces.

Example of Kabuki makeup, from the book “Body Decoration” (see the book page for info)

The prevalence of such beliefs within the medieval Japanese culture allowed for the growth in Edo province of “Aragato,” the style of Kabuki theater which produced the famous makeup for its samurai hero and for the ghosts and demons he would battle. The origin of Kabuki and other Japanese theater in shamanic ritual and spirit worship is evident in the hero’s ability to do the impossible because they have allowed themselves to be possessed by a powerful kami (“supernatural deity”) and thus have become hitokami (“man-gods”).

       In the book Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, from Pantheon Books  http://pantheon.knopfdoubleday.com/ I found a scary tale called “The Bridge”, which included a description of the face of the demon that haunts the bridge in the story: “a red face with one amber-yellow eye as huge and round as a cushion.” A folktale that comes with its own special face design included is like finding gold for a storytelling facepainter, and it has become the tale I tell called “The Demon on Omi Bridge”, here in a performance I did for NYC Parks Department a few years ago — a tale that is now substantially different than the original in the book, as all tales evolve and change in the telling, especially as I work to choreograph the facepainting into the tale in performance.

I did a “how to paint a demon segment” on The CBS Early Show last Halloween

I find these multi-eyed demon faces are fun to paint on Dads at family events, their kids get a kick out of Dad looking so weird

I don’t know much about it, but I have heard that Japanese tattoo traditions can include using a demon image to “watch your back”

In addition to masks, I have looked for inspiration in theatrical makeup designs in Japanese horror and fantasy movies, and this idea was from a rougher sort of depiction of a demon I saw in a film.

Turning a demon concept into a vampire on a little girl

Ghost makeup from the Kabuki theatre. Color symbology is key, with reds being the colors for heroes – depicting their positive use of energy – and blues and greys signifying the stunted and misdirected energies of the evil, villains and ghosts


Painted at the Transworld Halloween Show, for a photographer from Hour 13 magazine — a blend of the Kabuki samurai pattern with the demon imagery

From the master printmaker Kuniyoshi, a detail from “The Earth Spider conjures up demons…” 1843. His work is full of imagery I have used to conjure new designs. The story behind the print, however, is that Kuniyoshi frequently used traditional subject matter like this to tweak the powers that be, and this print was read by the pubic at the time as a satiric attack on the government, with various of the demons being identified as caricatures of public officials.