Yotsuya Kaidan and Japanese Ghosts

I will start off by saying that the Japanese really know how to tell a good ghost story.  Merely listening to a Japanese ghost story sends shivers down my spine and makes the hair on the back of my neck raise on end.  Being a quarter Japanese, I’ve had a fascination with this part of my heritage, and I’ve been wanting to learn more about the Japanese culture.  I’ve decided that for my next project, I’d like to adapt a popular Japanes ghost story for the stage in a contemporary Western theatre style, but also pay homage to the kabuki style in which it originated.  I love kabuki theatre as a whole.  I can’t really explain why except that I love the artistic form and how it communicates character and story on stage.

If you need a visual on “kabuki 101”, here is a handy YouTube video:

While on my journey into looking into more kabuki plays, I ran into this Japanese horror story by Tsuruya Nanboku IV, written in 1825, called Yotsuya Kaidan.  He tells the tragic story of Oiwa and Tamiya lemon.  This is my attempt for a brief summary, without revealing too much (and depending on which version you read), lemon and Oiwa are married.  lemon is unsatisfied with his life with Oiwa and their baby.  Oume, another woman, is in love with lemon.  lemon desires the wealth of Oume and wants to marry her instead. To get Oiwa out of the picture, she (or lemon depending on the version) sends a disfigurement cream to Oiwa, which disfigures half of her face and makes her hair fall out.  lemon decides to leave Oiwa and forces a masseur named Takuetsu to rape Oiwa so that he has a legal reason to divorce Oiwa and marry Oume.  Oiwa tries to fend Takuetsu off with a sword and accidentally punctures her own throat and dies, cursing lemon’s name.  In other versions, lemon gives the posion to Oiwa, but not enough to kill her and the poison slowly kills Oiwa in a violently gruesome way.  Her face becomes disfigured, her hair falls out, her eye droops and in her madness, falls on one of lemon’s swords.  lemon returns home, and dumps his wife’s body in the river and the death is deemed a suicide.

lemon and Oume marry.  Oiwa comes back and haunts lemon and makes him lose his mind and a lot of people are brutally murdered.  Throughout the rest of the play, Oiwa haunts lemon with her demonic laugh.  In life, Oiwa was a model woman of nobility, humility and virtue.  But in death, she is a vengeful spirit known as an onryō.  Why is this story still so popular today? At the time of its production, the Bunsei period of a time of repressed women and there was tension all around.  Oiwa was a character that the audience could relate to in terms of being out of control and unable to have any power in their circumstances.  Also, the play consisted of special affects that audiences had never seen before.  Disfiguring makeup and hair falling out along with violence was a good combination for a well attended play.  Even after Nanboku died, Yotsuya Kaidan remains popular today with numerous adaptations, including film.  There is even a curse associated with this story.  And the curse is what attracts me to this impending project I have brought upon myself.  This story also brings me to think of the Greek tragedy, Medea, which is one of my favorite pieces of classical work.

The curse is associated with bad luck, injuries and death.  Much like the curse of Macbeth, the curse Yotsuya Kaidan was blamed for the death of an actress, stage lights falling and injuring actors, deaths of directors, etc.  In order to avoid the curse, one must visit Oiwa’s grave and pay their respects.  I know what you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, this is a true story?”  To answer simply; yes and no.  Yotsuya Kaidan is based on two murders that took place in the 1600’s.  There is a grave that is believed to hold the remains of Oiwa, whose death is marked as February 22, 1636.  If you visit her grave out of curiosity, it is said that your right eye will begin to droop just like Oiwa’s did from the poison.  

Now, Nanboku has a knowledge of paranormal folklore in Japanese culture.  He wrote Oiwa as an onryō.  An onryō is a spirit that seeks vengeance.  Onryō spirits mainly consist of women (especially in kabuki theatre) who are powerless in the physical living world, but after they die, they become powerful.  Onryōs are revenge spirits to right the wrongs that happened while they were alive.  The traditional of the Japanese spirit world consists of the world of the living and the world of the dead.  I’m still fresh in my research, but from my understanding thus far; when you die, you go to Yomi, which is an underworld guarded by horrifying spirits and you rot for eternity.  In contrast to Yomi, Takamagahara is the shinto view of heaven.  I’ll elaborate more on another posting more dedicated to Japanese mythology because now I’m starting to ramble.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  An onryō becomes so powerful that they can cross the boundaries between the two worlds.  

What will my adaptation be like?  As of right now, I’m just writing.  I’m currently looking for the earlier translation of this piece that I can find since I don’t speak Japanese and reading the original would be a moot point.  It’s still in the baby stages.  Hopefully I will have a tangible piece of work ready for readings by spring 2012.

I will close this blog with an anime adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan that explains the curse in full detail and presents the conclusion of the story as well.  It’s a bit graphic and might scare you in the end.  The reason why I’m including this video is because it makes two strong statements.  Nanboku begs Oiwa to stop the curse and instead put the curse upon him since he is the one who created the story.  And finally, Nanboku states the Yotsuya Kaidan is cursed because people want it to be cursed.  It’s amazing how powerful thought and beliefs can be.  Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Yotsuya Kaidan and Japanese Ghosts”

  1. I would like to thnkx for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I am hoping the same high-grade blog post from you in the upcoming as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own blog now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a good example of it.


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