What inspired the Yōkai exhibition

Upon the severed heads of forty thousand foes, the Pax Tokugawa was founded. The year 1600 marked the end of a period of wars, which saw the defeat of the forces opposed to General Ieyasu Tokugawa.

Without the constant presence of war and the memories of past atrocities, epic tales with dark and terrifying themes were able to flourish, such as the ritual of the hundred candles, which is believed to have been invented by certain samurai in the 17th century as a way to prove their courage.

The Yōkai exhibition opens with an immersive room that allows visitors to relive this terrifying and legendary experience. The ritual of the hundred candles would start after sunset, as the samurai gathered in a room lit only by the glow of a hundred candles. As part of the ritual, each samurai had to tell a story featuring Yōkai, the legendary monsters of Japan, to their comrades, in order to test their courage and scare them to the bone. After each story, the storyteller would stand up, extinguish a lantern candle, take a mirror, and gaze into it from the farthest corner of the room. As the room grew progressively darker, the stories became more and more chilling, filled with suspense and terror.

yokai firenze (2)

Similarly, visitors will make their entrance into a completely dark room, illuminated only by the faint light of one hundred candles, casting flickering red shadows on their faces. Then, one by one, the candles will go out, accompanied by the somber voice of an old samurai who went mad after encountering a real monstrous Yōkai in the night.

After leaving the Room of the Hundred Candles, visitors will make their way through the dimly lit exhibition and come across works featuring monsters caught off guard by voices, sounds, and sudden, hoarse tales and evocations. These works will evoke the fear felt by ancient samurai who, as they listened to terrifying stories in the pitch-black room, would ask themselves:

Are these monsters only creatures of myths and legends, or will I encounter them on my way home before daybreak, still free to roam the night?”

Yōkai, Yūrei, Oni, Bakemono, Kappa and Tengu

Fear on display.

Japanese folklore, dating back to the time when it was primarily transmitted orally, is filled with monsters and spirits. The term Yōkai encompasses all of these creatures, as well as the sense of fear and amazement before an extraordinary event that can only be explained by the presence of a non-human entity. During the Edo period (1603-1868), these legends gained literary value, and the monsters that appeared in them began to be depicted by famous artists. As we approach more recent times, these creatures took on increasingly concrete and fixed characteristics, their terrifying appearance softened, and they became objects of entertainment.

yokai firenze (3)
yokai firenze (1)

These entities are very different from each other. There are Yōkai, eerie creatures and unexplainable phenomena that, despite always having a monstrous appearance, do not necessarily possess malevolent intentions. All of them possess extraordinary, divine powers, and some have the ability to change their appearance at will. Additionally, there are the Yūrei, gghosts or spirits of people who were killed in a violent manner and are unable to depart from the human world. These vengeful entities still harbor a thirst for retribution against those who wronged them. Yōkai interact with humans in countless ways, often by chance, while Yūrei never harm humans indiscriminately. Instead, they pursue their murderer and seek peace.

Among these Yōkai, which literally means monsters, are the Kodama – spirits of trees; Omukade – gigantic and venomous centipedes; Kaiju – immense beasts usually hailing from the sea; Oogumo – cave spiders the size of calves that suck the life from sleeping humans; Bakeneko – werewolf-like cats with two tails; Gama – vampire toads. There are also Bakemono – shape-shifting monsters such as the Jorogumo – alluring women who reveal their true form as giant spiders to their victims – and Kitsune – seductive fox women. Additionally, there are Tanuki – charming shape-shifting badgers; Kappa – water creatures who harass boats; Ningyo – Japanese mermaids whose fragrant flesh can grant youth or a gruesome death to humans; Okiku – the inconsolable ghost who searches for the tenth plate stolen from her.

This fantastical world has been a source of inspiration for literature and cinema, manga, anime, and video games. Some notable examples include the colossal Godzilla, shape-shifting Pokémon, the creatures created by the master Hayao Miyazaki, and the anthropophagous giants in Attack of Titans.

The Yōkai exhibition as told by its curator

Yōkai reveal everything people tried to hide, control, and regulate: the fear of the night, with shadows lurking in city alleys or rural areas left behind by urbanization; uncontrollable passions that challenge rigid social codes (love, betrayal, madness, revenge); the threat of creatures lurking in rivers, reclaiming the space and time of nature that humans try to govern.

Yōkai blend into everyday scenes – city alleys, merchant homes, major roads, pleasure districts, theaters – invading prints of beautiful women (bijinga) and actors (yakushae). They also express political and social critiques through reinterpretations of legends or traditional figures, often seen in popular kabuki theater performances.

Heroes in gunki monogatari (tales of warriors and battles) face not rival samurai but monstrous creatures like bakeneko, ghost-cats, or giant skeletons. Many works depict the “hundred demons” parades, the hyakkiyakō, flooding city streets and breaking down barriers between worlds, boundaries, and authorities.

Paola Scrolavezza