Kusōzu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. Watercolours.

[between 1700 and 1799?]
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About this work


The lady is identified with the 9th-century poetess Ono no Komachi (Chin, op. cit., pp. 296-309). In the first painting she is seated indoors at a low red table, wearing a kimono, with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem: she is pallid, and her expression is preoccupied. In the second, she has died, and is laid out on the floor covered to her shoulders with a blanket, with a lady and a gentleman in attendance. In the third, her body is out of doors, naked apart from a loincloth, on a mat, the lower part of which is folded up over her legs; her skin now has flesh tones. In the fourth, putrefaction has set in, and so it continues until she is a heap of bones, having been pecked at by various animals along the way. The final painting shows a stupa or sotoba, the symbol of the Buddha


[between 1700 and 1799?]

Physical description

9 paintings : watercolour ; images approximately 17 x 24 cm


Wellcome Collection 766666i

References note

Gail Chin, 'The gender of Buddhist truth: the female corpse in a group of Japanese paintings', Japanese journal of religious studies, 1998, 25: 277-317
Fusae Kanda, 'Behind the sensationalism: images of a decaying corpse in Japanese Buddhist art', The art bulletin, 2005, 87: 24 (abstract: The kusozu, "painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse", portrays the sequential decay of a female cadaver in graphic detail. The shocking subject, rooted in Buddhist devotional practices, was regularly painted and reinterpreted during half a millennium of Japanese art. The images of a decaying corpse were charged with contextualized functionalities that have gone unrecognized in current scholarship. Through an examination of four major exemplars of the genre, this study shows how new meanings of the image were catalyzed by religious and social transformations)

Creator/production credits

Similar to the style of the Tosa school; also possibly by an artist in the style of Hanabusa Itcho (17th century), who was trained in the Kano school

Exhibitions note

Exhibited: 'Flesh' at York Art Gallery, 23 September 2016 - 19 March 2017.


1. Stage 0: the noble lady in her lifetime
2. Stage 1: the noble lady newly deceased, attended by two mourners
3. Stage 2: the body of the noble lady subject to distension
4. Stage 3: the body of the noble lady subject to exudation of blood
5. Stage 4: the body of the noble lady subject to putrefaction
6. Stage 5: the body of the noble lady subject to consumption by birds and animals
7. Stage 6: the body of the noble lady as a skeleton
8. Stage 7: the body of the noble lady as disjointed bones
9. Stage 8: tumulus over the body of the noble lady



  • nine watercolours

Where to find it

  • no. 1

    Closed stores
  • no. 2

    Closed stores
  • no. 3

    Closed stores
  • no. 4

    Closed stores
  • no. 5

    Closed stores

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