Tales of Hungry Ghosts depicts scenes from the realm of hungry ghosts (gaki), one of the Six Paths of Transmigration (rokudō) in Buddhist thought. This narrative handscroll (emaki) also captures the hungry ghosts, who suffer from eternal starvation and thirst and who haunt those in the human realm, and their salvation. Of the two existing handscrolls, the Kyoto National Museum’s scroll consists of seven sections of painting and text. The first section illustrates hungry ghosts tormented by thirst; one is being chased away by an ogre as it attempts to drink water from a river, while the other grasps desperately for a few drops of water off the feet of a man who had just crossed the river. The second section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker (sotoba) to offer prayers for their deceased parents as wretched ghosts try to quench their thirst with the water trickling off the marker.
The third and fourth sections recount the wellknown Buddhist tale of how Maudgalyāyana ( J. Mokuren), one of the Buddha’s great disciples, saved his mother who had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts. The fifth section illustrates asynchronous scenes of how five hundred hungry ghosts, who could not drink water from the river because it turned to flames, ascended to a heavenly realm through the Buddha’s saving power. The sixth and seventh sections respectively depict the story of Ānanda, another of the Buddha’s great disciples, saving flame-belching hungry ghosts and a scene of monks conducting segaki, or the ritual of offering food and drinks to the hungry ghosts, by chanting an incantation for their salvation.
In this way, the scenes here come from several different sources. The textual sections also exhibit various calligraphic styles and formats, as do the painting styles, suggesting that this handscroll may have originally come from a more voluminous set. Scenes such as the blind hungry ghosts swarming towards the few drops of water within a bustling crowd in the second section represent an outstanding example of the traditional Japanese-style painting, yamato-e. Also as a genre painting, although the hungry ghosts are ghoulish, the images attract the viewer’s gaze.