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Human Decomposition in Japanese Artwork

kusozu

In traditional Buddhist teachings, contemplating about death is an integral part of meditation. Buddha himself said that death is “the greatest of all teachers”, for it teaches us to be humble, destroys vanity and pride, and crumbles all the barriers of caste, creed and race that divide humans, for all living beings are unescapably destined to die. Many Buddhist cultures also practice sky burials, where human corpses are left out in the open, such as mountain tops and forests, to be eaten by wild animals. This may seem macabre and gruesome for people of other cultures, but for practicing Buddhists, sky burial is yet another way of acknowledging the impermanence of life.

Such pragmatic and mature approach to the subject of death is the rationale behind the gory and unapologetic Japanese art form called kusôzu that appeared in the 13th century and continued until the late 19th century. Kusôzu, which means “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse”, portrays the sequential decay of a cadaver, usually female, in graphic detail. The shocking art genre appeared routinely for more than five hundred years in various formats, including scrolls and printed books.

One of the earliest examples of this genre is a 14th-century scroll titled Kusōshi emaki, whose English translation is rare lengthy—”Illustrated handscroll of the poem of the nine stages of decaying corpse”. The scroll consist of ten narrative illustrations portraying the nine stages of decomposition starting with a healthy subject—an aristocratic female who has been identified as the 9th-century poetess, Ono no Komachi. In the second panel, she has died and is laid out on the floor and covered with a blanket. In subsequent panels, her body, now in the open, can be seen getting progressively decomposed and putrefied until all remaining flesh and bones had been pecked clean by scavenging animals.

Below: Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition. Ink and color on silk, circa 1870s. Courtesy: British Museum

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

“The function of these works is to demonstrate the effects of impermanence and the gross nature of the human form, especially the female one,” writes Gail Chin. “The pictorial function is attuned to Buddhist meditation on the corpse, which is to instill a deep sense of revulsion for the human body, particularly that of the opposite sex, so that the monk or devotee will not be tempted by the flesh and realize the impermanence of the body, especially their own, and renounce it.”

In Buddhism, overcoming sexual desire is a necessary step towards achieving enlightenment. Since the female body was a source of desire for men, meditating on a decaying corpse became a form of aversion therapy for Buddhist monks. Not only men, women too were asked to meditate on the repulsive aspects of their own body.

The use of the female cadaver as a tool to despise one’s own body has a long tradition in Buddhist literature dating back to medieval times. However, the visual depiction of this theme is a specifically Japanese adaptation.

Some modern scholars have interpreted the exclusive use of female corpses in the kusōzu genre as a testament to the prevalence of misogyny in Japanese Buddhist thought. But Gail Chin denies this claim by arguing that because the female body is used to teach one of the most important Buddhist lessons, she must be inherently valued as representing Buddhist truth.

Below: The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. circa 1700s

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

In the first painting a court lady in a kimono is seated indoors at a low red table, with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem: she is pallid, and her expression is preoccupied.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

In the second painting, she has died, and is laid out on the floor covered to her shoulders with a blanket, with a lady and a gentleman in attendance.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

In this painting, her body is out of doors, naked apart from a loincloth, on a mat, the lower part of which is folded up over her legs; her skin now has flesh tones.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

In the fourth painting, putrefaction has just begun.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

Here her body is decaying in the advanced stages of putrefaction.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

The putrefying body is now carrion for scavenging birds and small animals.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

The flesh has almost all decayed revealing the skeleton. There are wisteria flowers in blossom above her body.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

Only a few fragments of bone, including the skull and fragments of rib. hand and vertebrae remain visible.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body

The final image is of a memorial structure upon which her Buddhist death-name is inscribed in Sanskrit.

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