It was the most scandalous media event of its day – rehearsals plagued by arguments, a big-name star determined to rewrite the script, and a story ripped from gory urban myths. Even the marketing provoked controversy, with a giant kite-shaped billboard, depicting a woman’s severed head, holding the edges of a kimono in its mouth. But audiences loved it, and it became the most famous story of its kind. It was remade eight times with different casts, then turned into over a dozen movies, several TV series, and, of course, an anime. This month, it is 179 years old.
Tokaido Ghost Stories, or Yotsuya Kaidan, began as a series of lurid headlines and apocryphal stories. Eel fisherman told tall tales about the guy who found a pair of corpses in his nets – lovers, entwined in a grotesque suicide. Peasants gossiped about the angry husband who killed his wife and her lover, nailing them to opposite sides of a wooden plank, and throwing it in the river. Writer Tsuruya Nanboku IV collected the stories and hammered them into a coherent whole. Since horror was traditionally performed at the height of summer to chill the blood, it had its premier in July 1825.
Down-at-heel samurai Iemon (Ichikawa Danjuro VII) becomes an umbrella-maker to support his wife Oiwa (Onoe Kikugoro III) and new-born child. But girl-next-door Osode (Iwai Kumesaburo II) wants Iemon for herself, and convinces Oiwa that a vial of poison is really a medicine to cure post-natal depression. Iemon cannot bear the sight of Oiwa, who is disfigured by the poison, and hounds her into an early grave, claiming that it is her punishment an alleged infidelity. But when he marries Osode soon after, she throws back her veil to reveal Oiwa’s face! A terrified Iemon hacks off the apparition’s head, only to discover that he was hallucinating, and that he has just murdered his second wife. It is a tragedy that captured the Japanese imagination, and the haunting, unstoppable ghost of Oiwa has been cited by author Koji Suzuki as an inspiration for the character of Sadako in his world-famous Ring.
The story of Iemon and Oiwa brings together many popular strands in Japanese story-telling. In TV drama today, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a few cheating couples, an stalker saga of fatal attraction, or a couple of samurai vendettas. Tokaido Ghost Stories even incorporates the token disabled character so beloved of modern screenwriters, with a blind servant who dutifully brushes Oiwa’s hair, initially unaware that his comb is tearing it out in bloody clumps.
Inevitably, there is also a manga connection. Artist Hideshi Hino, whose most famous works include Panorama of Hell, Mermaid in a Manhole, Red Snake and Flower of Flesh and Blood, also wrote his own version of the Tokaido Ghost Stories, incorporating the bug-eyed, ghoulish character designs to be found in his other works. Hino has become manga’s master of the macabre, publishing over 400 in his long career, many of which are now available in English translation. Hino’s version of the Tokaido Ghost Stories also made it into the hybrid ‘manga video’ format in 1999 – a picture book narrated by famous actors over still images. It is perhaps the lowest-tech form of ‘animation’ around, but was nonetheless released on a 70-minute video in 2000. The voices were provided by Masaki Kyomoto, star of the Sword for Truth remake Legend of the Devil, and his sometime co-star Kyoko Togawa, who also appeared in Mask of Glass.
At the turn of the 21st century, the tale was still going strong, with its incorporation into the 2002 Fuji TV chiller show 100 Ghost Stories. Lifting ideas from Japanese literature, horror and legend, this anthology series united some of the top stars of Japanese cinema in a selection designed to send shivers through the spine. And for its inaugural episode, broadcast at the height of summer, the producers chose the tragic story of Iemon and Oiwa.
The play continues to be staged in theaters today, but kabuki is something for which most modern audiences have little time. Contemporary performances tend to drop much of the plot and concentrate instead on the gore – Iemon’s haunting by skeletons, and the eerie moment when the dead Oiwa calls out to him as he spears eels in a deep, forbidding pool of dark water…
However, kabuki does still form a vital part of Japanese media, training many performers for TV, particularly in the world of samurai adventure. Modern kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro IX moved into movies and musicals, become one of Japan’s foremost performers in shows such as The King and I and Man of La Mancha. His daughter, who took the stage-name Takako Matsu, followed in his footsteps with screen career, and is one of the top stars of the modern media. The true inheritors of the ghoulish summer chill tradition can be found on Japanese TV, late at night…
(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, July 2004)