Many western viewers got their first introduction to the world of Japanese horror in the late nineties/early noughties when films like Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002) made their debut in the wider world. These films helped to cement the aesthetics seen in many Japanese horror films today into the minds of the western audiences (a ghostly woman with white clothes and long black hair) as well as acquaint the audiences with the concept of a vengeful spirit, or an onryō. While truly terrifying and great stories in their own right, these modern tales of terror have their roots as far back as the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Kaidan tradition, or “a discussion or passing down of tales of the weird, strange or mysterious”. In other words, strange tales passed on by word of mouth. While many notable stories have their origins in this particular period, none is quite as noteworthy as Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, or The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. Written for the kabuki stage in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV, it’s a tale of deceit, betrayal and revenge, and perhaps more importantly, it’s the tale of Oiwa, the personification of the wronged woman and the perfect embodiment of a vengeful spirit.
The story starts with Oiwa’s husband, masterless ronin Iemon, killing his father-in-law as a result of a heated argument. At the same time Naosuke, a man obsessed with Oiwas sister Osode, murders a man he mistakes for Osode’s husband Yomoshichi. Together the two murderers hatch a plan to blame the killings on someone else and swear to avenge the murders, thus getting Osode to agree to marry Naosuke.
Time passes and the murders remain unsolved and unavenged. Oiwa has grown weak and sickly from childbirth and Iemon is getting increasingly frustrated with his current situation. A young woman by the name of Oume Ito has fallen in love with Iemon but believes that she is no match to Oiwa’s beauty, so the Ito family decide to send Oiwa topical poison disguised as medicine. Half of Oiwa’s face is instantly horribly scarred by the poison, making Iemon want to leave her. He asks a local brothel owner, Takuetsu, to rape Oiwa so he can legally divorce he, but after seeing Oiwa’s ghastly face, Takuetsu cannot go through with the task. Instead he hands Oiwa a mirror and after seeing what’s been done to her, she accidently kills herself in a fit of frenzy. But not before cursing Iemon’s name with her last breath. In the meantime, Iemon is getting married to Oume, but the happy couple will not get to be happy for very long; Oiwa’s ghost returns for her revenge that very night, making Iemon accidentally kill his new bride and grandfather-in-law.
What follows is a bloodbath where the remaining members of the Ito household are annihilated. Naosuke returns to blackmail Iemon and to pressure Osode to marry him. Osode convinces Naosuke and Yomoshichi to kill her, but not before leaving behind a note revealing that she and Naosuke are in fact brother and sister. Horrified by this and wracked with guilt, Naosuke kills himself.
Still haunted by the ghost of Oiwa, Iemon escapes to a lonely mountain retreat. There, half crazy over the ever escalating haunting, he finally meets his death in the hands of Yomoshichi, who has come to revenge the death of his wife.
This tale of violence and revenge was perfect for the kabuki stage. The stage itself known as Mawari-butai, or revolving stage, allowed for the scenes blend in to each other seamlessly, creating a smooth, uninterrupted flow of the story and the use of trap doors known as Seri, allowed ghostly apparitions appear on stage as in from thin air. A walkway (hanamachi) extending out into the audience also helped the actors make dramatic entrances as well as speedy exits, adding to the drama and atmosphere of the play. These conventions were later on adapted and mimicked in the film version of famous kabuki stories and were one of the major reasons why kabuki specifically lent itself so easily to the cinematic format.
And borrow filmmakers certainly did. Over the decades, Nanboku’s story of revenge has been filmed over 30 times, starting as early as 1912 (Makino). The adaptations vary between more psychological takes on the theme, like the 1949 version The New Version of the Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Shinshaku Yotsuya kaidan) by Kinoshita Kaisuke, to the more traditional ghost story, which more notable examples are the black and white 1956 production The Depths (Yotsuya Kaidan) by Masaki Mori, and the 1959 glorious technicolour version by Nobuo Nakagawa simply titled Yotsuya Kaidan, both produced by Shintoho films. More recently it has been adapted to film by the Japanese horror legend Takashi Miike, in his 2014 psychological horror Over Your Dead Body (Kuime). Besides film, Yotsuya Kaidan has also seen its fair share of TV adaptations including four-episode anime version in 2006 as part of Aykashi: Samurai Horror Tales TV-series, and is of course still being produced in its theatrical form all around Japan.
However, the popularity of Oiwa’s story was not only contained to the stage and screen, but has been an inspiration for many artists over the decades, prominently the masters of Ukiyo-e (translates as Floating World) woodcarving and panting. Besides Kabuki theatre and its actors, the supernatural was amongst one of the most favoured subjects of the Floating World and Oiwa naturally ticked both of those boxes, making her a great subject for any painter. Her spirit has been captured by such artists as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Kunisada and Shunbasai Hokuei. Perhaps the most iconic image was created by one of Japan’s best-known Ukiyo-e artists Katsushika Hokusai, who immortalize Oiwa’s ghostly face appearing on a paper lantern as part of his series One Hundred Ghost Stories.
There are many factors to why Yotsuya Kaidan has kept its allure over the years. It’s enormous success in the Kabuki stage was largely to do with the subject matter; not unlike today’s audiences, the masses liked violence, and Yotsuya Kaidan is nothing but. Nanboku also did something quite modern when writing the story and based it on two actual real-life crimes: a case of two servants killing their respective masters and a story of a samurai who brutally murdered his cheating mistress and her lover, nailed the bodies to a board and threw it in the Kanda river, all elements present in the play. However, it was not merely the violence that attracted people, but the story itself. A story of a someone without power gaining it, albeit after death, and being able to avenge the wrong doings they encountered, was a theme that really spoke to the people of the time. And not only that, Yotsuya Kaidan also combined two theatrical conventions; Kizewamono, “raw life” domestic drama that focused on the lives of non-nobles, and kaidanmono, a ghost play, thus bringing the story of a vengeful ghost in to the homes of everyday people, making the story more relatable for larger audiences and, of course, that much scarier. In modern times, the mythology around the story is perhaps one factor that helps to keep it as popular and as terrifying than it was 200 years ago. Much like MacBeth, Yotsuya Kaidan has a reputation of being a cursed story. Whatever the production, be it theatre, film or TV, directors and actors still go on a pilgrimage to Oiwa’s grave site in Myoko-ji temple in Sugamo Tokyo to ask for her permission to tell her story, as those who don’t will find their productions, as well as personal lives, haunted by misfortunes and freak accidents, hence enforcing the legend of a vengeful ghost still lurking around even after two centuries.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Yotsuya Kaidan’s continuous popularity is Oiwa herself. With her terrifyingly disfigured face, long black hair and a white burial kimono, Oiwa is the epitome of a classic onryō, one of the most feared creatures in the immense tapestry of Japans mythological creatures. Onryō has only one purpose: revenge. They are people that died as a result of an in justice such as murder, betrayal, war or suicide and whose need for vengeance is so strong it keeps the spirit in this world to seek justice. Like Oiwa, they are also often people who had very little power in life, such as women or servants, and in death gain the power they lacked in life. However, unlike normal Yūrei (ghost), onryō’s rarely let go of their wrath even after they have had their revenge. Instead the grudge they hold can contaminate the place they inhabit (usually the place of their death) or even an object (such as a kimono they used to own), and they continue to inflict their hatred upon completely innocent people.
In the story Oiwa’s mission of vengeance gets its ending when Iemon is finally killed by her sister’s husband. In the 1959 film version by Nakagawa the ghostly apparition of Oiwa, who has regained her beauty once more, disappears in the mist with her infant son in her arms. Rather than staying as a monster she’s become, she returns to the idealised version of motherhood and femininity from which she started. However, this has not stopped her from becoming the inspiration to some of the horror wold’s most iconic and scariest characters. The most notable example of course is Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film Ringu and its terrifying antagonist Sadako Yamamura. The similarities between the two characters start from the superficial; both dressed in white, both with long black hair and while Sadako is not disfigured like Oiwa was, she keeps her most of her face hidden by her hair, only revealing one eye to anyone who is unlucky enough to encounter her. They are both women with very little power who end up dying as a result of being betrayed by the very people who are supposed to protect them. As Oiwa is betrayed by her husband, so is Sadako by her legal guardian and both women’s bodies are cruelly discarded in a body of water (river and a well), making water an integral part of the hauntings that later ensue. Much like the kabuki play of Yotsuya Kaidan, Ringu also did something to modernise the old ghost story tradition in order to bring the story closer to its audience. The horrifying spirit was no longer found lurking in a decrepit old building or a cursed pond. No. It came into your home from the modern equivalent of a black mirror; the TV screen. And even worse, it was spread in a virus like manner by an innocent looking VHS tape, of which one viewing would result in death. The main difference between the two characters remains the culpability of their actions. While Oiwa is purely seeking her revenge against the one person that harmed her, Sadako is carrying out her reign of vengeance on the humankind in general, leaving no one safe from her wrath. Oiwa can be seen as the protagonist of her story, while Sadako is most definitely the antagonist. This difference echoes the changes the classic ghost story has gone through over the years and the necessity to make the monster of the story something that would still strike fear into the hearts of the modern audiences. To create horror similar to that of what Yotsuya Kaidan managed to exude, the monster had to be something inescapable, thus Sadako’s wanton quest for revenge.
Oiwa’s influence in the world of Japanese horror is indisputable. Much like her curse that is said to still haunt the productions of her story, her tale keeps defying time, refusing to disappear into the murky mists of history. Her story has been reinvented and reimagined many, many times. It’s been borrowed from and used as inspiration. Her influence can still be seen in the faces of numerous horror characters today and undoubtedly will continue to be seen in years to come. What will the next century bring for Lady Oiwa? Who’s to say. One thing is for sure though; her ghostly story of vengeance will endure and carry on terrifying people whereever they may encounter it.