Here's a little tale for you this fine All Hallow's Eve, a combined ghost story and history lesson from which many a modern made-up dead chick draws her scarier attributes: it's the Toukaidou Yotsuya Kaidan, "Ghost Story of Yotsuya," a kabuki play first written and performed back in 1825. It's been adapted a bazillion times, wherein the quantity "bazillion" = "about 30," including a gorgeously Yoshitaka Amano-designed stint in an anime horror series, Ayakashi. Gather 'round and hit the lights after the jump.
Like most good stories, this one had its basis in real life, as author Tsuruya Nanboku nabbed elements from two servants' murdering each of their masters, getting caught, and their executions, all in one day; and a samurai who found out his concubine and a servant were messing around, then had them nailed to a board and chunked into the Kanda River. In the Yotsuya Kaidan, our story begins with a ronin and unemployed samurai, Iemon (sometimes romanized as a more old-fashioned Iyemon), who's married to a beautiful but fragile woman named Oiwa. The first thing we learn is that Oiwa's father had accused Iemon of lots of bad things he'd done before the marriage; it was all true, so Iemon quickly killed him to shut him up. Problem solved!
Unfortunately for him, Iemon and his wife soon have a son, and Iemon has to make umbrellas to maintain their dirt-poor lifestyle. This isn't much fun, and while Oiwa's happy to have a good-looking husband and their kid to take care of, Iemon is clearly fed up. It thus comes as a pleasant surprise that their rich neighbor's granddaughter has a huge thing for him; the old man offers Iemon a job and his granddaughter's hand in marriage--provided he gets that pesky "wife" of his out of the way. They come up with a sure-fire poison to give her, which manages not to kill her, but to disfigure her horribly: her right eye bulges and droops, and chunks of her hair fall out at a touch. (In kabuki performances, Oiwa frantically combs out more and more hair, piling it higher and higher as a stage hand beneath pushes more hair onstage from below.) When she sees herself in a mirror and realizes her husband did this to her, Oiwa dies of heartbroken despair.
The only thing standing between Iemon and an easy new life is Kobote Kohei, a servant who is decidedly not okay with his discovery of the body. Iemon accuses him of theft, has him killed, and supervises the crucifixion of both corpses to either side of a wooden board, which is then thrown into the river. (No one mentions what happens to his poor kid at this point. Personally, I'm happy to pretend he went to Neverland and leave it at that.)
Iemon's new wedding day goes smoothly--until he's alone with his new bride and lifts the veil to reveal Oiwa's grotesque face. He beheads her in reflexive horror, only to see that he's just murdered his second wife. In a rare display of remorse, he runs to confess to her father, only to see Kohei leering at him from his board. He slashes desperately at the ghost, but his father-in-law is the one who falls; Iemon has no choice but to flee.
Nowhere he goes is safe from Oiwa's haunting. When Iemon stops to rest, Oiwa's face appears in hanging lanterns; no matter where he tries to fish, Iemon only brings up the two corpses on their board; a mountain cabin's walls turn to snakes and the fire's smoke to Oiwa's hair, their voices always calling after him. It's not until Iemon runs from the cabin, happens upon his brother-in-law, and is recognized and killed in turn, that the murders are avenged.
Japanese audiences loved this story. It was a microcosmic Star Wars of its time, except without a George Lucas to screw it up: the performers had to schedule extra sessions in order to keep up with the demand. The Bunsei era saw more-than-usual civil unrest and rigid repression of women's rights, so a violent, graphic tale of a wife and a servant getting revenge on a total dickhead of the upper class was just what everyone wanted. The idea of ghosts being wronged females in life was nothing new - they're called onryou - but unlike more sissy ghosts, such as O-kiku, Oiwa went right after her man and didn't quit till he was killed. That was the kind of murderous dedication people were coming to expect of their dead heroines, right up to Sadako, Kayako, and other creepy ghosts in modern horror movies. Her face was even put on netsuke, carved accessories people used to hold pouches and the like on their obis. (Those of you wondering what the hell the "Pheasant Netsuke" in FFXII was need only be grateful it wasn't a "Really Scary Netsuke.")
As mentioned, Ayakashi features an expanded version of this story in its first arc (it consists of three stories total; I only saw this one, and it wasn't as interesting as you'd expect of good horror), though I haven't seen any film versions. No one's sure how many adaptations have been made, as the Allies destroyed a lot of Japanese movies in the Occupation. It's also worth noting that kabuki depictions of onryou were the basis for most j-horror costume design: white clothes, white makeup, long hair, so on, but that Sadako'y freaky eye-thing was right out of Oiwa's book. So the next time you see Ringu, Ju-on, or similar, drone on at great length about the history and myth behind that creepy, crush-throated lady under the covers. Fewer nightmares or your money back!
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