Portraits of a loving mother or youkai, a young woman or an elderly person, Yama Uba (山 姥) was painted by many Japanese artists of the Edô period in various forms. This woman at the heart of many legends, mistress of the mountains, is seen as a goddess, an ogress or even a witch. Thanks to its diverse origins, this youkai has different names: Yamauba, Yamamba, Yamanba, Yamahime, Yamahaha… Let’s meet him.


Yamauba is mainly presented in two radically different ways. It is either described as an unpleasant, cannibalistic character, an elderly person, or as a particularly beautiful woman, young and sweet with long dark hair, like the archetypal wise woman. The image of this youkai therefore varies according to the translations and the regions, which makes the creature all the more mythical. It is for example described with ” long shaggy hair and golden white “And with a” dirty and tattered kimono By Hearn Lafcadio. She seems to have features in common with those of “the witch” according to Western myth.

Hokusai: Yamauba, hair down. Source: Wikimedia Commons
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Besides, she is often associated with magical or supernatural powers and many legends agree that the mysterious and inexplicable phenomena are the fruits of the manifestations of Yamauba. At the Noh theater, notably in the play “Yamauba, woman of the mountain” by Komparu Zenchiku, she is described as ” the mountain fairy, which she has been taking care of since the beginning of the world. She covers them with snow in winter, with flowers in spring… She is very old. White, wild hair hangs over his shoulders; her face is very thin. “

Certain painters of the Edô period lent themselves to the representation of this woman often seen as being grim and old. Kitagawa Utamaro is in radical opposition to these descriptions. He paints a series that features her in the position of a simple loving mother. He abandons the confusing personality of legends in favor of the mother figure. With his series Yamauba and Kintarô, he reveals the maternal fiber of the goddess and practices the representation of childhood.

The representation of the heroic child, Kintarô whose skin is painted a burnished color unlike his mother, places the deity in the role of a benevolent mother. The image that Kitagawa Utamaro gives of the goddess is a gentle deity who nurtures, raises, and cares for her son. We are then very far from the figure of a pretty young girl or the cannibalistic witch that the stories noted. This hermit woman is depicted with the beauty codes of the Edô period, that is to say with long black hair and pale skin. This design is notable throughout its series. In her print “Yamauba no kami o tsukamu Kintarô” (“The divinity Yamauba catching Kintarô”), made between 1801 and 1806, she is dressed in a kimono and she has long black hair.

Kitagawa Utamaro: Yamauba no kami o tsukamu kintaro (between 1801 and 1806). Ukiyo-e, color woodcut. Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Her oval face, her eyebrows drawn in black, her white complexion are typical of Japanese pictorial aesthetics but also of Japanese beauty as imagined at the time. His long nose and his teeth stained with black are also one of these characteristics as well as a tradition in its own right. Only slightly disheveled, tousled hair evokes the fierce personality of the character. Kitagawa Utamaro uses this principle in numerous images in his series, notably “Yamauba to kintarō chibusa” (“Yamauba giving the breast to Kintarô”). Her appearance and demeanor are reminiscent of a mother, but the detail of her hair refers to her rough and neglected side. Although they are messy, they are painted in a fluid, rippling fashion, framing a soft face. The benevolent character of the goddess is emphasized.

Kitagawa Utamaro: Yamauba no chichi o suh kintaro (1801). Ukiyo-e, color woodcut. Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kitagawa Utamaro’s series of prints therefore exhibits a very simple deity close to his son. However, these illustrations were not always used. This configuration of the artist is moreover rather original. During the 18th century, we find long parchments presenting youkai. One of them, made during this century, reveals the presence of the mountain goddess. In a seated position and resting his chin on a stick – probably used as a cane -, Yamauba is old, hideous. The features of her face are wavy, aged. With these curved lines, the printmaker wanted to convey the effect of an elderly person, who has practically already fallen into the afterlife. While she is later portrayed as a woman in the prime of her life, she was once figuratively slumped, with a cane.

Anonymous: Yamauba, detail from Bakemonozukushie (between 1700 and 1800). Ukiyo-e, woodcut and ink and color on parchment. Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This image of an old woman seated, withered, and leaning on a cane is taken up by Sawaki Suushi in 1737. Making in his turn a parchment exposing youkai, he presents Yamauba on the edge of a precipice, in the mountain. Unlike the anonymous painter, Sawaki Suushi unveils a little more the nature of the divinity by contextualizing it. His character is in the scenery of a mountain and she is dressed in oak leaves. This outfit makes it possible to identify it perfectly.

Sawaki Suushi: Yamauba, detail from Hyakkai- Zukan (1737). Ukiyo-e, ink and color on parchment. Source: Wikimedia Commons

These two characters relate much more to the description than they are in the myth, looking much more like a witch. However, even if she is related to the old woman of the mountains described in certain variations, she also corresponds in part to the portrait made by Gaston Renondeau: sometimes described as a simple old recluse woman, sometimes openly characterized as a witch. In these two representations, Yamauba is far from expressing supernatural powers, and far from the cannibalistic image.

This is the famous Katsushika Hokusai, in 1830, who painted it under this line. It illustrates “The Laughing Demon” which fits in with the Mephistophelic features of the goddess. The Library of Congress describes the print as showing “a face made up of two demons: a Hannya, a woman who turns into a demon because of jealousy, and a Yamauba, a demon who eats infants brought to the mountains. “

It is Hokusai who offers a terrifying version of the goddess, mixed with a demon. In this present case, it is possible to ask the question: is she still a divinity? This character he represents with horns and fangs, smiling and mocking, points to the torn off head of an infant. This refers to the anthropophagy mentioned in certain aspects of the myth. Far from the image of the sweet young woman, she is also far from illustration of a kami who could be worshiped. However, there were families who made offerings to him in certain regions in order to benefit from his protection …

Katsushika Hokusai: The Laughing Demon in the Hyaku Monogatari series (1830). Ukiyo-e, ink and color on paper. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hokusai is in the lineage of Sawaki Suushi by the representation of a wrinkled woman. The painter’s attention to detail goes to the drawing of the hands that seem to be affected by osteoarthritis. Nevertheless, he also stands in the continuity of his contemporaries by representing Yamauba with unkempt hair. Through the hand of Hokusai, and for all eternity, Yamauba definitely acquired his image of a terrifying and feared monster. which still haunts the minds of those who observe it a little too long …

But who was Yama Uba?

These few prints from Japanese history show the presence of a diverse representation of Yamauba. From a representation in the guise of an elderly woman using a cane to walk to that of a mother or a demon, Yamauba has different conflicting interpretations. This discrepancy can be explained by the differences of times: convictions, issues, popular fears, interests are changing. We will notice in passing how the image of a woman isolated in nature, independent and considered “boorish” seems to generate the worst fears across cultures around the world. One thing is certain, the creature has survived so far in our collective imagination.

The legend of the mountain witch is still a source of inspiration for modern pop culture. Lippoutou, the pokemon, would be directly inspired by the character of Yamauba. She also appears in the anime Mokke, an episode of which is named after her. Without forgetting the very famous Yubaba of Spirited Away, old witch responsible for public baths for the spirits, directly inspired by Yamauba. Still, Japanese parents use this naughty witch myth to gently scare their children in order to make them obey.

The legend is therefore never very far from contemporary culture. Adjoined to each other, they nourish each other. Yamauba continues today to live in our now globalized imaginations. Who was she really? Did she even exist? Was she a monster? Or a simple victim of popular fears like our European witches? It will be noted that the alleged witches were often midwives close to nature, like the original image of Yamauba. The qOne will rarely say beneficent has gradually transformed them into monsters. Perhaps a walk in the forest in the heart of the mountains of Japan in the middle of the night will answer these questions …

And if you don’t want to sleep at night, watch the Japanese short film by the witch Yamauba, all made with the help of frankly terrifying little puppets.


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