Wednesday 11 October 2023

Japan's Vengeful Spirits, Part I: Botan Doro and Bancho Sarayashiki

Amongst the popular and enduring ghost stories in Japanese culture are those of Onryo, The vengeful spirit. Predominately these spirits are women scorned in love, and they have echoed through history, being revived in such films as The Ring and The Grudge. Through them the West has inherited the particular image of the creepy woman in white with stringy black hair hanging over their frightening visage. The three most popular of these Kaidan (ghost stories) are Yotsuya Kaidan, Bancho Sarayashiki, and Botan Doro, also known at The Tale of the Peony Lantern.

Three major versions of this story exist, the first of which was adapted in 1666 from Chinese antecedents. In this version, a widowed samurai spies a beautiful woman and her retainer, who is holding a peony lantern, pass by his house on the first night of Obon, the Buddhist festival to remember the dead. She returns on subsequent evenings and a romance sparks between them. A curious neighbour wonders why this aged warrior is constantly up at night and sneaks over to peer through the cracks in his ricepaper screen. What he sees drives him to madness: inside, the samurai is making love to a decaying skeleton. A Buddhist priest is sought, who protects the house with ofuda talismans (strips of paper inscribed with protective charms). The woman returns but cannot enter. In saddness she calls from outside and, eventually, the resistance of the samurai breaks down. Come morning his body is found in a grave in a nearby temple, entwined with the skeleton of the woman buried there.

This version, part of the Edo Era's obsession with ghost stories, was later rewritten for theatre. Rakugo and Kabuki versions altered and extended the storyline significantly. This version was then translated by Lafcadio Hearn for his 1899 book In Ghostly Japan. It is considered the most common version today, and can be read here.

Along with Yotsuya Kaidan and Botan Doro, Bancho Sarayashiki is one of Japan's great folk stories of love, betrayal and unrelenting horror. The tale enters history and the theatre in 1741 and has been a constant source of inspiration ever since, rebounding between traditional Bunraku puppet theatre and Kabuki, and on to television and theatrical film. Ripe for such reinterpretations, it invites analysis as a psychological drama, a story of class divisions, a romance and a supernatural tale of revenge.

In the oldest versions of the story, Okiku is the comely servant of the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Part of her duty is the preservation of a set of ten heirloom plates, the punishment for failing being death. Lustful and immoral, Aoyama tricks Okiku into believing that she had lost one of the plates so that he might “forgive” her on the condition that she become his lover. Caught between death and her integrity, she chooses integrity and is beaten to death by the spurned Aoyama himself. Rather than a respectful burial, her body is simply discarded down a well.

Of course, such a nefarious plot begets a grudge from beyond the grave. Nightly the ghost of Okiku ascends from the well and counts to nine before shrieking and descending again. Has this unquiet spirit returned to torment Aoyama with his misdeeds, or is it tormented itself, forever searching for that missing plate that cost it's life? The only solution was to count the plate, shouting “ten!” at the end of Okiku's count, causing her to return to the well relieved.

The well has traditionally been identified as Okiku-Ido - “Okiku's Well” - at Himeji Castle, Japan's largest and most-visited castle. Dating to 1346, on the base of a castle originally built in 1333, Himeji Castle was constantly remodelled and enlarged as it passed through the hands of subsequent shogun and retainers. Miraculously it avoided destruction at the hands of extensive Allied firebombing during World War II and is preserved today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Popular legend insists that her ghost still rises from the well every night after the castle closes to the public.

The association of Okiku with Himeji Castle dates to the 1741 Bunraku puppet play version of Bancho Sarayashiki. The castle becomes the background to a tale of court intrigue that swallows up the hapless lady-in-waiting when Lord Hosokawa Katsumoto lies on his deathbed. With the help of his retainer Funase Sampei Taketsune and Taketsune's fiance Okiku, Katsumoto's heir Tomonosuke plans to make a gift of ten beautiful plates to the shogun to secure his inheritance. This does not sit well with the chief retainer Asayama Tetsuzan, who sees this as his opportunity to seize power.

Tetsuzan sends a spy to steal one the plates, after which he summons Okiku to deliver them to him. In private he attempts to seduce her, and failing this he has her count the plates. One is missing, and she is responsible for it. Once more Tetsuzan tries to seduce her, this time with the offer of protecting her. Out of loyalty to her fiance and lord she refuses again, and is beaten by Tetsuzan. Suspended over a well, the villain drops her into it repeatedly. Each time he brings her up he commands her to become his lover and help him murder Tomonosuke. Steadfastly she refuses and Tetsuzan cuts the rope.

The grudge is forged and a ghostly voice rises from the well. Counting to nine, Okiku herself appears... But Tetsuzan is such a miscreant that not even the ghost can phase him. He is entirely unmoved.

The most popular version of the story was a kabuki play first performed in 1916. Written by Okamoto Kidu, this version is reputed to have been influenced by Western dramas and is the most romantic of retellings. It is also one of the most impenetrable to Western minds, as it involves some ideas that might run counter to ideals of equality and responsibility.

In this version, a shogun named Aoyama Harima has fallen in love and pledged his hand to a comely servant girl named Okiku. Unfortunately, an aunt of Aoyama's has come by and, in aristocratic fashion, courted her nephew for marriage. True to his word, Aoyama resists his aunt and reaffirms his commitment to Okiku. Servant girls are unaccustomed to such generosity from their masters and she is plagued by doubts. How can a powerful man resist the prestige of a powerful woman?

To assuage her fears, she conducts the ultimate test of love. The most valued possession of Aoyama's family are ten heirloom plates. So valued are these plates that punishment for losing even one is death. To see which loyalty is stronger, Okiku deliberately breaks one of the plates. Aoyama's family cries for blood, but the shogun himself believes it to have been an accident and spares the life of his love. Relieved, Okiku reveals the truth: this was a test of love which Aoyama has passed!

So naturally, an enraged Aoyama murders the girl and has her body thrown down the well. Inevitably Okiku's spirit rises from the well and counts out the remaining plates. Pursuing her into the garden, Aoyama sees that she is serene in death. This is not a ghost of revenge, but rather, one of otherworldly grace and peace. Taken by this, he commits ritual suicide and joins her in the next life.

Bancho Sarayashiki was first adapted into film in 1914, with subsequent versions in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1928, 1929 (entitled Isetsu Bancho Sarayashiki, “Another Version of...”), 1937 and 1954. The most easily accessible film version today is a 45-minute 1957 short entitled Ghost in the Well. This version hews close to the latter romantic rendition, in which Aoyama is a retainer whose master is forced to commit ritual suicide. The crisis forces Aoyama's uncle to arrange an influential marriage to the daughter of a magistrate, using the ten heirloom plates as a gift in exchange. Okiku, shattered by the thought of being nothing more than Aoyama's mistress, inadvertently shatters one of the plates. Aoyama spares her until, in her anger, she deliberately shatters another one. His sword is drawn, her body falls down the well, and Ayoama realizes that everything is now lost: the family, his status, and the woman he truly loved.

As one of the three great traditional ghost stories of Japanese culture, the echoes of Bancho Sarayashiki can be heard throughout history to the modern day. For example, in the first game of the Super Nintendo series Goemon - released in the West as Legend of the Mystical Ninja - the boss of the first level is a ghost who spins and throws plates. Though not exact, the connection is self-evident. So is the story's influence on one of the most internationally famous Japanese horror films, The Ring. Unable to let things rest, Bancho Sarayashiki was adapated for television in 1970, 1981, and 2002.

Unable to let things rest... Except for Okiku herself. To appease her spirit - which was thought to have extended its curse to command a species of worm invading wells throughout the countryside - she was honoured at Himeji's Junisho Shrine. Urban legend conflicts with the official religion, as the shrine maintains that she has not been heard since.

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