The Legend of the Nue as Told Through Traditional Japanese Tattoos

The Legend of the Nue as Told Through Traditional Japanese Tattoos

Here are eight large-scale Irezumi masterpieces that depict one of the most bizarre mythological creatures from Japanese folklore.

Indomitable is our weekly series where we examine the symbolism and history behind motifs in Japanese tattoos (Irezumi). Make sure to check out some of the previous installments, such as this article about kitsune — aka magical foxes — and this piece about hannya masks.

Picture this: you hear a frightening cry in the night as smoke swirls around your feet, and then, out of nowhere, a terrifying monstrosity with a tiger’s body, monkey’s head, and a snake for a tail suddenly appears. Try not to soil yourself, but you are face-to-face with a Nue — a fearsome mythological creature from Japanese folklore. 

Originating in ancient Japanese literature, this bizarre animal became a somewhat rare yet staple figure in woodblock prints of the Edo period. Since then, it’s made its way from ukiyo-e and into Irezumi, where it survives to this very day, even though the Nue was supposedly exterminated around 1,000 years ago.

There are several accounts that describe the Nue, but the most famous story relating to it comes from The Tale of Heike — Japan’s equivalent to Homer’s Iliad — in which a pair of samurai slay the strange animal. A dark cloud appears over the Kyoto Imperial Palace during the late Heian period, and the emperor at the time, Konoe becomes ill. None of his physicians can deduce the cause of his sickness, but everyone suspects it has to do with whatever is making terrifying noises from within the mysterious plume of smoke. The expert archer Minamoto no Yorimasa is tasked with killing the source of the sound. He fires an arrow into the murky smog and the Nue falls, injured, from the sky, upon which the warrior’s retainer, Ino Hayata, uses his wakizashi — the shorter version of a katana — to slay the beast.

In Irezumi, the Nue is typically depicted in one of two ways. The compositions by Horitomo, Yoshio Hanjo, Jakoh, and Scott Ellis all demonstrate one of its common postures, in which it is seen plummeting from the unnatural cloud. In the body suit by Mike Rubendall you can even see Yorimasa loosing the fated arrow. Chris Treviño and Jarno Kantanen, on the other hand, show the chimera in its last moments of life, as Hayata slips the knife in. Some tattooists even stay incredibly close to designs of the Nue by famous ukiyo-e artists, as seen in Chris O'Donnell’s back-piece, which is almost verbatim to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s print from the late 1800s.

To see more mythological creatures that survive through the Japanese style, pay a visit to these tattooists’ Instagrams. If the tale of the Nue speaks to you, consider getting a sleeve or back-piece featuring the enchanted monster to show your appreciation of Irezumi and the folklore behind it.

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