Wednesday 25 October 2023

Japan's Vengeful Spirits, Part II: Yotsuya Kaidan

She has become one of the most recognizable archetypes of modern horror: the creepy, pale girl with long, stringy black hair who is pursuing her relentless quest for revenge. Her main introduction to the West has been through Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films, like The Ring and The Grudge. Her pedigree goes back much further, to the Kabuki stage of the Edo Period. Now known by other names, her original form was Oiwa, the vengeful spirit of Yotsuya Kaidan.

Tsuruya Nanboku IV crafted this violent tale of infidelity and revenge in 1825 and rarely has it strayed from the Japanese popular consciousness. It is one of the oft-most retold and refilmed kaidan, or ghost stories, in the Japanese cultural repertoire, having worked its way through the zeitgeist to echo through other stories and characters. It's so potent that whenever the Kabuki drama is performed, actors attend the shrine of the historical Oiwa to appease her spirit so that it does not curse them.

This historical Oiwa, who died in 1636 and is buried at Myogyo-ji Temple in the Yotsuya district of Tokyo, is regarded as an exemplar of fidelity. Such prominence was given to her first because her father Tamiya Iemon was the vassal of the mighty shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Secondly, she was renowned for her religious devotion, locals believing that it was this devotion that brought success to her family. Thirdly, she was a loyal and true wife to Iemon's adopted son Isaemon. Besides actors set to perform Yotsuya Kaidan, many people patronize Myogyo-ji and the adjacent Oiwa Inari Shrine to receive blessings for a long and happy marriage or success in business and entertainment ventures.

Nanboku combined the legends of Oiwa with a pair of grisly murders that etched themselves into the memories of Edo's populist classes. One involved a pair of servants who killed their masters, and the second a man's concubine who was caught with her own lover. Both were nailed to a wooden door. In addition to drawing from such lurid sources, his next move was to take the ghost story out of the temples and homes of the aristocrats, placing it in the same working class districts as kabuki's patrons. It marked a new generation of horror story in the Land of the Rising Sun.

This new play was grafted into perhaps the most popular kabuki play of all time: the Chushingura, or 47 Ronin. In the Chushingura, a group of samurai take on the dishonour of becoming ronin - or masterless, wandering samurai - in order to act out a lengthy revenge on the man who orchestrated their master's unjust dishonouring and subsequent suicide. It is widely regarded as something of Japan's national epic. Performed simultaneously as a double-feature, Yotsuya Kaidan assigns to one of the ronin the identity of Tamiya Iemon, and unlike his compatriots or his real life counterpart, he is most definitely a disreputable character.

In the play, Iemon is married to Oiwa, much to the chagrin of her father. Enraged by his constant belittling and demands that the two separate, Iemon secretly murders him. At the same time, a snivelling miscreant named Naosuke murders a man that he believes is the samurai husband of Oiwa's sister Osode. Oiwa's family has fallen on hard times and Osode has been engaged in prostitution to carry them through. Nevertheless, she continually rebuffed Naosuke, who became obsessed. Catching each other, Iemon and Naosuke pledge confidence. Their plan is to tell the two sisters that they will stop at nothing to find the killers, and in so doing gain their affection.

Iemon is a man of unruly passions and no sooner does he marry and have a child with Oiwa than his heart begins to turn. It helps that the new object of his lust is the daughter of a wealthy merchant and that she reciprocates his interest. They hatch a plan to disfigure Oiwa with a poison administered as a medicine to her postpartum illness. Iemon can no longer look upon her and arranges to have her raped so that he can appear to have justifiable cause for divorce. The plot backfires when the rapist confesses and an enraged Oiwa pursues him with a sword. In the scuffle, Oiwa ends up slicing open her own neck. Her hair disheveled and falling out, her right eye grotesquely inflamed, betrayed by her husband and dying in a pool of her own blood, Oiwa curses Iemon with a grudge.

To dispose of her body, Iemon has her and the corpse of a servant he killed nailed to a door and sent down the river. His alibi is that he caught them together and slayed them both, as was his right. The horrific deeds done, Iemon goes to wed the young mistress. However, in the midst of passion, Oiwa's grudge begins. Mistaking her for Oiwa, Iemon slays his bride and proceeds to slaughter her family. All he sees is the ghostly image of Oiwa mocking him. Fleeing, he takes to the countryside. As he fishes for eel along the riverbanks, the very same door washes ashore to torment him.

Iemon escapes to a temple retreat high in the snowy mountains. Meanwhile, Naosuke finally pressures Osode to consummate their marriage. No sooner is the deed done than Osode's husband tracks them down... It was not him that Naosuke killed on that poorly lit night, but his former master! Furthermore, it is revealed that Osode is actually the younger sister of Naosuke who was adopted into Oiwa's family. The shame is too great for her to bear and she kills herself. Likewise is the weight of all this evil too much for Naosuke and he follows her, but not before confessing to everything done by him and Iemon. Now it is Osode's husband who pledges a living grudge against the ronin.

The mountain retreat offers no security for Iemon. The hauntings intensify, causing his mind to snap. His most loyal accomplices who came with him begin to die off in mysterious ways. A lantern burns brightly until it is transformed into Oiwa herself. He is a sweating, panicked, unhinged shadow of his former self when Osode's husband finds him. They duel and Iemon loses... Cut down as much out of pity as of vengeance.

A lengthy excerpt of a 1956 televised performance of the kabuki play
dramatizing the death of Oiwa and her first appearances as a ghost.

Yotsuya Kaidan was a smash success that not only captured the anxieties of its age, but has lent itself to numerous interpretations that have allowed it to endure to the present. It is still one of the most popular plays in the kabuki repertoire, due to the story but also in no small part to the special effects. Kabuki theatre was at such a stage of sophistication in the Edo Period that elaborate effects with trapdoors and special props gave life to this story of the dead. When a poisoned Oiwa is combing out her hair, extra hair was pushed up through the floorboards to simulate its loss. Oiwa literally pops out of a lantern in the final act with a quick release harness system. One of the most virtuoso performances is the scene on the riverbank with the door. The same actor portrays both Oiwa and the murdered servant, and he must quickly alternate between roles as the door is flipped back and forth. These effects also account for much of the infamous “curse” befalling actors who do not properly propitiate the spirit at her shrine. Such complex effects leave plenty of opportunity for accidents to happen.

The door scene, excerpted from a more recent kabuki performance.

The play was quickly translated to film, demonstrating it durability and aptitude for reinterpretation. The first version was in 1912, with another three versions made during the silent era. By 1937 that number was up to 18. The 1949 version turned Oiwa into a psychological phenomenon, a manifestation of Iemon's guilty conscience. Another version was made in 1956, and the first colour version in 1959 by Shintoho Studios. The latter is widely considered to be the finest film version of the story. Daiei Studios also released their own version of Yotsuya Kaidan in 1959. 

Shintoho's 1959 adaptation in full.

Trailer for Daiei's 1959 verison.

Shintoho was a breakaway from Toho Studios, most renowned for their Godzilla franchise. Yet Toho began their life producing jidaigeki (historical dramas) and continued to produce them during the heyday of giant monster movies. in 1962, Toho released their version of Chushingura, followed in 1965 by Yotsuya Kaidan (released internationally as Illusion of Blood). The most recent theatrical version was 1994's Crest of Betrayal, which more consciously blended Yotsuya Kaidan and Chushingura together. 

After a 1981 episode of the anime series Kao Meijin TheaterYotsuya Kaidan was also adapted into anime form as the first four episodes of the series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. This rendition is particularly interesting (in addition to being highly accessible) because it frames the story with a narration by the play's writer, Tsuruya Nanboku IV, who wonders if his writing made the curse real.

Clip from the 1982 version produced by Fuji TV.

Real or not, Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the most potent and enduring stories of modern Japanese culture. This story of blood and betrayal reaches beyond itself to permeate the iconography of Japanese horror and has even curled it tendrils across the oceans.

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