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.

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.