Features Australia

Bad hair day

A blockbuster exhibition showcases supernatural tales from Japan

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

In the photograph, masses of black hair – profuse and grotesque; a polluted waterfall – gush through a hole in the ceiling. Underneath stands a girl in a white dress with a pair of oversized scissors. She is wearing a mask that makes her face look old and haggard. Hair lies in great clumps on the floor, covering the wooden panels, turning them black. And yet it keeps coming. Surging, surging through the ceiling.

The monochrome print, by artist Miwa Yanagi, is part of a series that depicts Western fairy tales with a Japanese bent now showing at Japan Supernatural, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ blockbuster summer show. In this case, Yanagi is riffing, of course, off the Grimm Brothers’ 19th-century tale Rapunzel.

In the German version, Rapunzel’s hair symbolises youth, beauty and magic: it is so strong it can be made into a ladder and it shines like the finest gold. In Yanagi’s re-imagining, however, the hair is not ravishing but ugly and monstrous. Yanagi, it seems, is referencing Japan’s long and complicated history with unkempt hair: a symbol, among other things, of wanton sexuality and possession by dark spirits.

Indeed, look closely at Japan Supernatural, a show which covers the last 300 years, and hair – wild, unshackled, tangled female hair – seems to be everywhere.

In one hanging scroll an eerie ghost (called yurei in Japanese, meaning ‘dim’ or ‘faint’ spirit) clutches a dead chicken by its legs. Her unbound hair cascades down her white robes, until, like her body, it seems to disappear into nothingness. In another 1772-81 seminal scroll, the Night procession of the hundred demons, Toriyama Sekein has painted a yamauba or mountain hag. Her hair is chalky-white and runs, untamed, down her back, to her knees. ‘In Japanese stories hair can have a forceful life of its own,’ notes Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, on a tour of the works.

There are reasons for this preoccupation. Hair remains in the grave long after the flesh has rotted away – making it a tenuous, macabre, link between the living and the dead.


And, for those still very much alive, long hair in Japan is traditionally associated with untethered, and dangerous, urges. As Gary L. Ebersole states in the book Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures hair ‘was associated with sexuality, female reproductive power and ritual communication with divinities (kami) and the dead.’

In feudal Japan, hair was tied up in elaborate knots, a signal that the woman in question was in control, her emotions and sexuality bound. Yurei, by contrast, wear their hair down: these ghosts have been set free from societal restraints by their violent deaths. They are out for revenge. Stuck in purgatory, they haunt the living.

This image of a ‘ghost as a pale woman dressed in white with dishevelled black hair and limp hands who floats above the ground’ can be traced to a 1750 painting by artist Maruyama Okyo, notes Eastburn. The yurei’s unkempt hair, she adds, ‘is indicative of their wildness and distance from the constraints of everyday life.’

Such disquiet extends to pop culture. In what is known as the ‘Black Hair’ segment in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1960s horror film Kwaidan, a husband returns to his former wife only to find she is a ghost. Her tangled, knotted hair attacks him – the hair, it seems, is alive. In Hideo Nakata’s The Ring, Japan’s most famous horror export, Sadako, the murderous ghost who crawls out of the well in which her body has lain, reveals a single pulsating eye through curtains of thick black hair.

‘In Japanese horror films you have possessed hair – tied to an unregulated sexuality, an unregulated femininity because it’s unruly,’ explains Kingston University London academic Colette Balmain, an expert in Japanese horror. ‘Female ghosts in Japanese horror films always have their hair down. Hair is meant to be very orderly. There is this whole regulation of female hair in Japanese society.’

Much of this anxiety, according to Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn, dates to ancient Japan when it was thought that the hair of young concubines, who were jealous of their lovers’ other partners, would transform into snakes at night. As Hearn writes in his 1894 book Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan: ‘The long black tresses of each would uncoil and hiss and strive to devour those of each other.’

But if such unease runs through the older works in Japan Supernatural, the contemporary female artists on display offer newer interpretations of old horrors.

In her hypnotic video work Regeneration of a Breached Thought (2012), Fuyuko Matsui films a close-up shot of her head, as strands of her black hair blow across her eyes and lips. In one scene, the ink-black iris of a single eyeball bubbles up. In another, a blind, white borzoi, an aristocratic breed of hunting dog with an unusually long feathered tail, runs in a circle before it collapses, heavily.

The canine’s tail ‘wraps and coils across the screen while Matsui’s hair takes on a life of its own, engulfing the artist in an act of suffocation,’ says Eastburn. It is a dichotomy of ‘dark and light, beauty and the grotesque.’

In another series, Matsui portrays in the traditional nihonga style female cadavers who are decomposing. Kusozu, or ‘painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse’, were used to prevent Buddhist monks from succumbing to temptation by showing women of flesh and blood sink into bone. Even the beautiful, the message went, decay.

Matsui, however, turns the conceit on its head by directing the female gaze at the viewer – and in doing so challenges our concepts of horror. In her painting Keeping up with Pureness (2005), a corpse lies amongst a garden of flowers. In her belly, a uterus and embryo are brazenly displayed; she looks directly at us.

This corpse lies on her own pillow of long, luscious hair. It is, unlike the image Rapunzel, not a form of horror but of comfort: a headrest that cradles the dead.

Japan Supernatural runs at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 6

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