Death is one of the most commonly represented subjects of art throughout history. From skeletons and skulls to cemetery architecture, there are many traditions in art that aim to demonstrate the beauty of death. One of these traditions comes from Japan, and shows in vivid detail the anatomical process of decomposition of the human body.
This unique tradition called Kusôzu, consists of watercolor paintings that depicts the slow decay of a body, usually female, from the first moment of death to the final stage of bare bones, with all the discoloured and bloated steps in between. Kusôzu was introduced to Japan in the 8th Century and was popular until the 19th century during the Edo period and appeared in various formats, including scrolls and printed books.
What better way to get out of the mood for love than by staring at a bloating discoloured corpse as it slowly rots in the open air?
Kusôzu, and its corresponding poetry kusôkanshi, was inspired by Buddhist beliefs that urged followers to meditate on the temporary nature of life and the physical world by focusing on the decomposition of the body after death. Kusôzu was meant to aid the viewer in observing the uncleanliness of the decaying corpse in the human realm (or jindō). One of the main goals of this meditation was to overcome obstacles to enlightenment and to conquer carnal desires, specifically those connected to the sexual appetite. What better way to get out of the mood for love than by staring at a bloating discoloured corpse as it slowly rots in the open air?
Japanese fan (probably 19th century) painted with an extraordinarily gruesome scene believed to represent martyrdom of Christians but also reminiscent of Buddhist pictorial practice of kusozu. #MuseumsUnlocked #religiousart pic.twitter.com/LaHNud1ZWj
— Jacob Moss (@fancurator) June 6, 2020
In medieval Japan, before we had the internet, if a monk felt he was being tempted by bodily desires he could go to a cemetery and observe a rotting body. This was because the interment of bodies was not widely practiced in Japan until the late-14th century. This meant it was common for bodies to be exposed to animals and the elements—similar to the tradition of a Tibetan sky burial. This explains how these depictions managed to be so authentic in their anatomical details.
The first mention of the stages of decomposition can be found in China with texts such as the Discourse of Great Wisdom, created in 405, which identified the nine stages of corporeal decay in the same sequence that was later used in Kusôzu art. These stages varied slightly as they were adapted and developed by the Japanese and over the years. The Chinese sequence is as follows: (1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso).
Many of these pieces depict a beautiful woman who dies and slowly decays.
In the late 6th Century, other texts, such as the Discourse on Mahayana Meditation and Contemplation, used the nine stages of decomposition to promote the idea of human impermanence. Here, the focus of contemplation expanded to include the transient nature of human life. By the 8th Century these texts made their way throughout Asia, reaching Japan and eventually evolved into poems, known as kusōkan. The Japanese word kusō translates to ‘nine stages’ or ‘nine thoughts’, and kan translates to ‘contemplation’ or ‘meditation’. Kusōkan means ‘contemplation of the nine stages of a decomposing corpse’ and is the reflection on the repulsiveness of the body. But remember, this was no mere gore porn, the artistic intention was spiritual enlightenment.
Many of these pieces depict a beautiful woman who dies and slowly decays. This has lead to Western interpretations of a connection to erotic art, or shunga that translates into “a picture of spring” that is a euphemism for sex. Blooming flowers are always sexy. The women who die in these pieces are also shown partially or fully nude immediately after death.
Contemplation of the nine stages of a decomposing corpse: The Japanese Art of Kusôzu
A popular example of Kusôzu is “Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages”, an ink and colour painting on a silk handscroll from the 1870s by Kobayashi Eitaku.
This scroll begins with a beautiful courtesan woman lounging before her death.
2. Newly deceased or fresh
In the next image she is dead, her body laid out and the upper half of her body is exposed showing her bare breasts.
3. Skin discoloration and bloat during early decomposition
Then, in stark contrast, her body is discolored and begins to bloat in the early stages of decomposition.
4. Leakage of blood in early decomposition.
As decomposition continues, her skin begins to split and blood begins to leak out of her corpse.
5. Skin slippage, marbling, and leakage of purge fluid during early decomposition.
In the next image her corpse has entered a more advanced state of decomposition, with skin slippage and leakage of more fluids.
6. Caving of abdominal cavity and exposure of internal organs during advanced decomposition.
By image six, her body is now well into the advanced stages of decomposition with a collapsed stomach cavity and exposed organs.
7. Animal scavenging during advanced decomposition.
At this point animal scavengers arrive to pick away any remaining flesh.
All that remains of her corpse is now her skeleton, but the process is not complete.
9. Extreme decomposition
The final stage shows disjointed bones that have partially decomposed into the surrounding soil.
Why are we still fascinated by images of death and decay?
These images and supporting texts were used for different purposes throughout their history in Japan, but maintained the same two themes: the meditation on the Buddhist belief of transcendence, and the lesson of impermanence. Death, slow decay to disjointed bones narrates the outcome of our physical bodies, while opening up questions of what happens to us beyond this state of death and decay. It is no mystery why Kusôzu was so popular in Japan for so long.
For Buddhists, it is a form of contemplation and meditation known as Maranasati and involves the ‘Nine Cemetery Contemplations’ – an integral part of meditation. It is listed in the Buddhist guidelines for establishing mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta, as the concept ‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death’. This meditation can relieve fear, help us connect more fully to our life and values, and help us to die a good death. Similar benefits are often quoted by us death-positive folk. For Buddhists, part of this involves meditating through the physical process of death to help familiarize ourselves with it and in doing so, no longer fear it. Kusôzu plays a key role in this meditation, along with physically going to burial grounds to be around the dead.
Turns out this type of death focused meditation is healthy for all of us. Research from the University of Essex and the Association for Psychological Science indicates that this contemplation of death and dying really does make us live life more authentically. Laura E.R. Blackie, a Ph.D student conducted a study that had people either think about death in an abstract or in a specific, personal way. The study revealed that when people think of death and mortality as concrete and personal, they become more connected to themselves and their lives. Blackie concluded that “Death is a very powerful motivation. People seem aware that their life is limited. That can be one of the best gifts that we have in life, motivating us to embrace life and embrace goals that are important to us.” When we meditate on the true nature of death and decay, we can find more value in the lives we are leading.