Legends cling to Kyōsai’s life like beads of moisture to the bottles of booze he hoarded. According to one story, at the age of nine, he found a severed head floating in a river, fished it out, and drew it over and over again until his horrified parents took it away from him. Fact or fiction, this story conveys an important truth about Kyōsai, or, rather, Shūzaburō, as he was known until adulthood. His precocity pulled him down paths few people would be willing to follow. While studying with the painter Maemura Tōwa in the early 1840s, he earned the nickname shuchu gaki, or “demon of painting,” an epithet he’d wear with pride for years to come.
All demons need something to work their mischief on, and for much of Kyōsai’s career, modern—or, more to the point, modernizing—Japan was his favorite target. In 1854, the year Kyōsai turned 23, the Tokugawa shogunate signed an economic treaty with the United States, opening up Japan to a flood of Western culture, cash, and technology. When reformist leaders dissolved the shogunate 14 years later, the processes of industrialization sped up: Factories and European fashions buried the feudal system, a development the Japanese people viewed with a mixture of pride and wistfulness.
In depicting the changing times, Kyōsai applied his distinctive humor to many traditional themes and genres. The results were—at least judging by the subject matter—similar to works by any number of other artists, but original and utterly modern in execution. Hyakki yagyõ, the ancient Japanese legend of the “night parade of 100 demons,” has probably inspired thousands of paintings and prints over the centuries, but few of these can rival Kyōsai’s for sheer inventiveness. In one 1889 illustration, a horde of skeleton soldiers rushes onward, one skeleton leading the charge on a horse with the head of a man. As with much of Kyōsai’s very best work, the luridness doesn’t come from any single source so much as the accumulation of fine, sickly details—like the pink, almost pornographic tongue dangling from the horse-man’s mouth. First these details creep up on you, then they overpower you.