Nine Stages of Decomposition

Kusôzu; A Japanese art form that first appeared in the 13th Century and continued until the late 19th Century. The word Kusôzu which means “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse” portrays the sequential decay of a cadaver (always female) in graphic detail. This shocking art genre appeared for more than five hundred years in various formats, including scrolls and printed books.

The function of these works is to demonstrate the effects of mortality and the gross nature of the human form, especially the female one. The pictorial function is attuned to Buddhist meditation on the corpse, which is to instill a deep sense of revulsion for the human body, particularly that of the opposite sex, so that the monk or devotee will not be tempted by the flesh and realize the impermanence of the body, especially their own, and renounce it.

In Buddhism, overcoming sexual desire is a necessary step towards achieving enlightenment. Since the female body is a source of desire for men, meditating on a decaying corpse became a form of aversion therapy for Buddhist monks.

Some modern scholars have interpreted the exclusive use of female corpses in the kusōzu genre as a testament to the prevalence of misogyny in Japanese Buddhist thought.