Bookiyo-e: The Ghost of Oiwa

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Katsushika Hokusai, The Ghost of Oiwa, 1831


This print comes from the story of Yotsuya Kaidan. Originally a Kabuki play, Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories. The play starts with a young woman named Oiwa. Oiwa’s father wants her and her partner, Iemon, to separate. But Iemon brutally kills her father out of anger. Without Oiwa knowing that her father’s killer is her own partner, Oiwa then marries Iemon. Shortly after, another woman named Oume falls madly in love with Iemon but feels she is much uglier than Oiwa. So Oume and her grandfather made a plan to disguise a topical poison as a skin cream. Unbknowest to Oiwa, she applies the poison, and her skin begins to scar. Iemon sees her horrifying appearance, and asks his friend to rape Oiwa so he has an excuse to divorce her. Iemon’s friend couldn't carry through with it, so instead he showed Oiwa her own reflection in a mirror. Upon seeing her reflection, Oiwa grabbed a knife and ran towards the door. Iemon’s friend tried to grab her but she falls and the tip of the knife pierces her throat. As Oiwa bleeds out, she curses Iemon. After her death, Iemon marries Oume, and on their wedding night, Oiwa’s ghost appears and tricks Iemon into slaying both Oume and her grandfather. 

Oiwa’s body is said to be buried at the Myogyo-ji Temple in Tokyo. Since this ghost story has accumulated so much fame since its Kabuki debut in 1825, there have been many different adaptations, in the form of television shows and films. Reports of mysterious accidents and even deaths have occurred on the set of these modern works, leading to the now ritual trip to Oiwa’s burial site at Myogyo-ji Temple, to ask permission for their production. The permission from Oiwa is thought to be paramount for the actor who portrays her. Oiwa’s spirit is known as a onryō, or a ghost who seeks vengeance. The way Oiwa is able to bridge her way back to Earth is her undying zeal for revenge. Usually Oiwa would be depicted as wearing a white burial kimono, long unkempt hair with patches missing from the poison, and her eye at a drooping slanted angle due to the burns of the poison. 

The story of Oiwa carries a powerful message. "What comes around goes around." In the end of the play, Iemon tries to find solace in a remote island off the coast. Instead of finding tranquility, Oiwa follows him and merges Iemon’s dream world with reality. He quickly spirals out of control and into a vortex of insanity. Iemon’s friend comes looking and finds him in the forests, and recognizes his insanity. Out of disgust and compassion, his friend kills Iemon with his sword. Oiwa’s strength after death greatly surpasses her power in her past life. Not only does she get her revenge on Iemon, she transforms him from the tormentor into the tormented.

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