Bookiyo-e: Okiku the Ghost Emerging from the Well

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Katsushika Hokusai, Okiku the Well Ghost, 1830
Bookiyo-e
By TROY WORKMAN

Okiku's story has quite a long history but its origins are unknown. The story first became popular in 1741, due to the ningyō jōruri, or puppet show, adaption. Later on in the mid-19th century, it became a well known play in Kabuki theaters all over Japan. The most popular adaptation of Okiku's story follows the roots of the original puppet show. It begins in Himeji Castle, with the reigning lord Hosokawa Katsumoto falling dangerously ill. Katsumoto's heir to the throne, Tomonosuke, plans to win the Shogun's favor in order to ensure his accession to power by sending a set of 10 priceless plates. However, Tomonosuke's chief retainer, Tetsuzan, wants to assume control by eliminating Tomonosuke. On top of that, Tomonosuke's lower retainer, Taketsune, is preparing to marry Okiku, then a lady in waiting. Tetsuzan successfully steals one of the precious plates, and orders Okiku to bring him the box of plates in his private quarters. There he attempts to seduce Okiku, but she refuses due to her love for Taketsune. 

After Okiku rejects him, he tells her to count the plates and she only counts nine. Tetsuzan then blames her of theft, and traditionally the punishment for stealing those rare plates was execution. He then tries to offer to lie for her if she becomes his mistress, but again she refuses. Tetsuzan then begins beating her with a wooden sword. He binds her up and suspends her above the well. Enjoying her torture, he lowers her into the water and hoists her back up and continues to beat her with the wooden sword. On the final try, Tetsuzan commands Okiku to assist in the murder of Tomonosuke and to become his mistress. Okiku refuses and then Tetsuzan then strikes her with his actual sword which sends her body plummeting down into the well. As Tetsuzan is wiping the blood from his sword, he hears counting from one to nine coming for the well. Okiku's ghost rises out of the well as Tetsuzan stares at her with scorn.

Okiku's body in this print consists of the nine plates that sealed her fate. In other adaptations, Okiku's ghost torments her killer by wandering the house and counting to nine, then letting out a horrifying scream on ten to represent the missing plate. Some people believe she cried out in agony because she was looking for the last plate but could never find it. In other versions, an exorcist came to get rid of Okiku's ghost, and when she began count to nine, the exorcist shouted ten before she screamed, and vanquished her. Her spirit was happy that someone found the tenth plate and she could move to the afterlife in peace. But many people also believe Okiku is still in the well at Himeji castle, and since it is closed at night, she may come back out and count to nine.

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