The Fox-Woman Kuzunoha Leaving Her Child, 1890
Ink on Paper
14 9/16 in. x 9 7/8 in. (369.89 mm x 250.83 mm)
In Japan, foxes are believed to have the power to shapeshift into human beings, usually beautiful women, and often do so to reward human kindness. In the tale of Kuzunoha, the Fox-wife of Shinoda Wood, Abe no Yasuna, a 10th-century nobleman, saved a vixen from a hunter. Out of gratitude she transformed into a lovely young woman and married him. After three years together, when her true form was discovered, Kuzunoha left her husband and son in shame, the scene shown by Yoshitoshi in this emotional print. Since reflections and shadows are believed to reveal the true nature of a supernatural being, he shows the silhouette of her true fox form in the paper of the shōji screen.
- Meher McArthur, January 7, 2021
Note: XX (p.58-9) of "Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts."
On mat, in pencil: Marer 437, Thirty-six Ghost Stories. Artist's seal: Yoshitoshi. Signed: Yoshitoshi. Carver: Chokuzan to.
Engraver: Chokuzan. Printed: 1890.
Colored ink woodblock on paper; oban.
Meiji period Japanese color woodblock print with an image of a woman, with a fox's head (can see the head through a screen) walking through a door, leaving child behind in the house.
Foxes, or kitsune, are mysterious, magical creatures with powers many times greater than those of badgers. Sometimes well disposed to men, they are more often malicious and dangerous. A fox is guardian of the rice crop and messenger of Inari, the god of harvests. At the age of a hundred a fox's spirit can possess human beings, causing insanity, and can assume human form at will. At the age of a thousand it grows nine tails, turns golden, and attains great wisdom.
A charming tale of a fox transformation relates to Abe no Yasuna, a tenth-century nobleman. Abe was out walking one day, reciting poems in the gardens of the Inari temple outside Kyoto, when a group of men dashed by in pursuit of a fox which they were hunting for its liver, then used as a medicine. The fox ran into the gardens and stopped in front of Abe, a mute appeal in its eyes. Abe quickly hid the fox in his robes and the hunting party rushed on.
Soon after, Abe met and married a beautiful young girl named Kuzonoha. She bore him a son and they lived happily together for three years. She then died of a fever (or simply left him - the story varies), appearing in a dream three days later to tell him not to mourn her as she was not human but the vixen whose life he had saved. She left a poem written on a sliding screen: "If you think of me with love, come seek me in the forests of Shinoda, and you will find a kudzu leaf" (kuzu-no-ha, a pun on her name). For this she is often depicted as a fox with a writing brush in its mouth.
Yoshitoshi has imaginatively adapted the tradition that reflections and shadows show the true nature of a supernatural creature. The shadow of Kuzunoha's fox muzzle falls on the translucent paper of the sliding screens as she walks into the palace, her little boy tugging at her kimono. This boy grew up to be the famous astrologer, Abe no Seimei, who cured Emperor Toba of a spell cast by his favorite concubine Tamamo no Mae, or "Jewel Maiden," herself a nine-tailed fox (23).
Stevenson, John. Thirty-Six Ghosts. Hong Kong: Blue Tiger Books, 1992.
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