The Japanese Art of Kusozu Explained

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There are a lot of ways humans express themselves through art. In many cultures, it’s common to use art to depict aspects of the human experience that are hard to put into words. This is why you’re likely to encounter various different forms of art about death. In Japan, there’s a particular form of art known as Kusozu, or the art of decomposition. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

What exactly is Kusozu, and how does this art relate to the Japanese attitude toward death? There’s a lot we can understand about death in different cultures by exploring art, literature, and culture. Death is inevitable. It’s a part of humanity that connects everyone together. 

Coming to terms with one’s mortality isn’t always easy, so it’s natural to seek meaning through art and self-expression. In this guide, we’ll describe Kusozu as well as the history behind it. Though it might sound grotesque at first, this is a beautiful way to honor our final stage of being—and beyond. 

What Is Kusozu?

First, what exactly is Kusozu? In short, this is a form of Japanese watercolor painting that began to get popular starting in the 13th century. Though these are still done today, they decreased in popularity in the 19th century. The paintings themselves use traditional forms of Japanese art and symbolism to depict graphic images of death and decay. 

People don’t always feel comfortable talking about what happens to the human body after death. The reality is far from pretty, and these stages of decomposition are off-putting today. This has led to the increase in embalming and other preservation techniques to delay the decomposition process. Conversely, these Japanese artists embraced these stages of death, turning it into an art form in itself. 

Another important thing to note about Kusozu is the subject. Not just anyone is depicted as dying through these images. The subject was usually a noblewoman. While the main goal of these images was to show the frailty of mortality and the human body, it’s also a form of objectification for women whose bodies were depicted in these stages of decay. 

Nowadays, most people in Japan are cremated (vs. buried). This means the stages of decay are far different, as are cultural customs like Kotsuage. However, the art form still remains preserved in different art courses, schools, and museums. 

What Are the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse in Kusozu?

Next, there are nine distinct stages of Kusozu. These begin before death and continue long after the person’s body has decomposed. Though not intended for educational purposes, these stages are similar to what really happens to a body during decomposition. Today, these processes are usually delayed with embalming, freezing, or other modern disposition techniques. 

  • Stage 1 (Preparation): The noblewoman is very ill, and death is on the horizon. She makes her final preparations and surrounds herself with loved ones. 
  • Stage 2 (Death): The woman is recently deceased. Her body is attended to by mourners. 
  • Stage 3 (Distention): As the body begins to decompose, it swells. The muscles stiffen into place (rigor mortis), and bacteria are released into the body from the gut which produces a swelling gas.
  • Stage 4 (Leaking): Since there is so much built-up gas within the body, the pressure leads to liquid leaking from parts of the body. It begins in the nose, ears, and mouth. 
  • Stage 5 (Putrification): The body begins to spill into the nearby soil, nurturing the ground around it. 
  • Stage 6 (Scavenging): As the body purifies, it emits an aroma that attracts insects and animals who scavenge the remaining flesh. 
  • Stage 7 (Decay): Only the skeleton remains of the noblewoman. 
  • Stage 8 (Fragments): Over time, many of the bones have been scattered, scavenged, or destroyed. Only small fragments remain. 
  • Stage 9 (Memorial): Finally, the process of decay is complete. Nothing remains of the woman’s body except her manmade memorial. 

Though these stages are depicted in a series of nine images, this can take much longer in real life. The actual decomposition process depends on many things like the temperature, natural elements, and how the body is prepared for burial. It can take weeks or even months for the stages to be complete, though these visuals give the appearance of minimal time passing. 

Where Does Kusozu Come From?

Now that you know the stages of Kusozu, where exactly does this art form come from? From our western perspective, it’s hard to imagine why people would depict such gruesome images of decomposition. This is something we shy away from today. To understand, you have to take a look at how Buddhism depicts death and dying. 

In Buddhism, death is a natural part of life. It’s the final step for achieving enlightenment. If you want to become closer to the Buddha’s teachings, you have to acknowledge death and avoid attachment to your mortal form. By depicting death as something gruesome that belongs to the animal kingdom, these artists show the transient nature of humanity. 

Viewers of Kusozu were meant to meditate on these works of art. By thinking about what might become of their own bodies after death, they can get closer to true enlightenment. Humans are not seen as important in the grand scheme of eternity. They’re passing beings, and their bodies are inconsequential. 

The visibility of corpses

Another reason for Kusozu rising in popularity was the visibility of corpses. In medieval Japan, it was not common for bodies to be buried underground. They weren’t buried until much later in history. During this time, bodies would be laid on the ground and exposed to the elements and wildlife. 

Because corpses were so visible, monks often meditated on rotting bodies as a way to understand their own mortality. Even when cremation and burials became more common, this was typically not a luxury afforded to the lower classes. Instead, corpses were left to decay aboveground in graveyards. This acted as source material for many of the images that survive today. 

Kusozu and sexuality

Finally, it’s important to note the sexual undertones in some of these images. Because they almost exclusively feature women in the nude, there’s a form of eroticism to these images. There is inherent misogyny to Buddhism, a religion that believes women are inferior to men. Meanwhile, men were expected to overcome their carnal desires to resist womanly charms. 

By depicting these nude images postmortem, beauty is juxtaposed with decay. This not only shows that vanity is shallow, but it also encouraged men (especially monks) to remain celibate. In some ways, kusozu was a form of aversion therapy for those fighting their base desires. 

Notable Kusozu Works of Art

Finally, let’s put this into practice by examining some of the most notable Kusozu works of art. These all have similar themes, though artists choose to focus on different parts of the decomposition process throughout time. 

Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages by Kobayashi Eitaku

This work is from the Meiji Era, and it was painted in the 1870s. It’s ink and color on a silk handscroll, depicting nine stages of decomposition. The first image shows a beautiful, wealthy courtesan lounging as she prepares for death. Once deceased, her upper body is fully exposed and she appears to be asleep. 

Quickly, her body contrasts her beauty early on as it bloats and leaks blood. In the advanced stages of decomposition, her organs are exposed within her body. Wild animals pick away any remaining flesh until all that’s left are a handful of bones. 

The Death of a Noble Lady and the Decay of Her Body

Created in the 17th century, this is one of the more graphic interpretations of the human cadaver in stages of decay. The woman depicted in this image is suspected to be a ninth-century poetess who was well known for her beauty. In the first image, she sits at a low red table writing her farewell poem to the world. In the second image, she’s dead and is attended by two mourners. 

In the third image, she is fully nude. Her body begins to decompose into putrefaction and bones. At last, all that remains is a stupa, a memorial symbol of the Buddha. Nature itself is unaffected, continuing on all the same. 

In Keeping up the Pureness by Fukuko Matsue

Finally, modern Japanese artist Fukuko Matsue brought this style back in 2004 to critique the misogyny she found present in this art form. Instead of the body rotting away, the subject performs an act of self-mutilation to prevent objectification. 

With more anatomical dissection, viewers have a sense of discomfort while viewing. Lastly, this subject stares directly at the viewer, challenging them to watch throughout the stages of decomposition. Matsue believes art in Japan today is too pure, and she uses her skill to challenge these normals while evoking traditional methods. 

Explore Death Through Japanese Art

As you can see, the Japanese are one of the pioneers when it comes to the art of the corpse. Finding beauty in the natural world, this genre of painting has strong roots in Japanese ideals. While they remain popular today, many are questioning the social issues on display. 

Ultimately, these simple and accurate drawings of human corpses reveal what connects us all: death. Though we might carry ourselves differently throughout life, we all meet the same end. 


Sources:
  1. Chin, Gail. “The Gender of Buddhist Truth: The Female Corpse in a Group of Japanese Paintings.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. PSU. PSU.edu
  2. Clements, Thomas. “Art of the Corpse.” History Today. HistoryToday.com
  3. “Kusōzu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. Watercolors.” Wellcome Collection. WellcomeCollection.org
  4. “Trauma and Pain in the Art of Matsui Fuyuko.” Haverford Libraries. HaverfordLibraries.edu.

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