This narrative scroll depicts the realm of the hungry ghosts (J., gaki), one of the Six Paths of Transmigration (J., rokudô) in Buddhist thought. It was produced in the late Heian period (794-1185), a time of increasing interest in the Six Paths through the dissemination of ideas concerning the “latter days of the law” (J., mappô). According to this widely accepted concept, Buddhist teachings and practices became gradually more difficult after the death of the historical Buddha. The culmination of this process, the final “latter period,” was believed in Japan to have begun in 1052.
The Kyoto National Museum Hungry Ghosts Scroll contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. The first and second sections relate stories of one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts, those who are tormented by thirst and constantly seek water to drink. The first section depicts the suffering of these wretched creatures. The second explains how those who have been born as hungry ghosts are saved by offerings (J., kuyô) made by the living. The central scene of the second section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker (J., sotoba) for the Ullambana (J., Urabon) festival for the dead. The lively depiction of the area outside the temple gate makes this work also notable as a genre painting.
The third and fourth sections are based on the Ullambana Sutra (J., Urabonkyô), which tells the story of the monk Maudgalyayana (J., Mokuren), one of the ten great disciples of Sakyamuni (J., Shaka), learning from Sakyamuni how to save his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts.
The textual source of the fifth section is unknown. However, it is recognized as a scene of hungry ghosts suffering from their inability to drink water. Because of the compassion of the Buddha, they are able to cast off their ghoulish bodies and drink water, and then they are born into the land of the Buddha. The story is drawn following an arc rising towards the right, and the picture employs a narrative technique in which the same figures appear at different times within a single scene (J., iji dôzu).
The sixth section tells how Ananda (J., Anan), another of Sakyamuni’s ten great disciples, heard about the suffering of a hungry ghost who continuously belched flame (J., engu gaki) and taught the ghost an incantation from Sakyamuni to achieve salvation. The seventh section recounts how Ananda passed on this method of salvation to the monks, who then began the ceremony of offering food and drink to the spirits of the dead (J., segaki).
In this manner, the various sections of the scroll bring together tales from different textual sources. There are also distinct variations in the style and composition of the paintings. Certain sections depict scenes close up, focusing on the human figures, while others convey a sense of space. The depiction of landscape also varies: in contrast with the lively expression of human figures in section two, for example, sections three and four are rendered with a less expressive brush. The thick lines of section one are unlike the very fine lines used in section six. For these reasons, it is thought likely that several groups of artists were involved with the production of this scroll.
From medieval sources we know that a set of Paintings of the Six Paths of Transmigration (J., rokudôe) was kept at Rengeô-in (commonly known as Sanjûsangendô), a temple built by the cloistered emperor Goshirakawa (1127-92, r. 1155-58). It is highly possible that the Kyoto National Museum Hungry Ghosts Scroll was part of this set.