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Japan's scariest ghost story - Kit Brooks

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Oiwa’s only hope for ending her marriage to the cruel and dishonorable samurai, Iemon, was her father. But after he tried to end the union, Iemon murdered him in cold blood. With plans to marry another, Iemon conspired to poison his wife and left her for dead. But unfortunately for Iemon, it wouldn’t be the last of Oiwa. Kit Brooks shares the chilling tale of Oiwa’s ghostly revenge.

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The story of Oiwa was written by the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku, who created many infamous ghost characters. Oiwa's play, Yotsuya Kaidan, occurs within the same "cinematic universe" as one of the most famous kabuki plays, Chushingura (better known in English as The Forty-Seven Samurai). This means that the setting of Yotsuya Kaidan was already familiar to audiences when the play debuted. In addition, Chushingura was based on historical events, which by extension, also would have made Oiwa's story seem more plausible to audiences at the time. Other elements of the play would also have resonated more deeply with Japanese audiences—for example, Oiwa's transformation from a large lantern. In Japan, the mid-August festival known as "Obon" is a time to venerate our ancestors. Departed spirits are temporarily welcomed back, before returning to the afterlife on floating lanterns cast into rivers or the sea. In this context, Oiwa's transformation is especially horrific, as the burning lantern suggests that her journey to the afterlife has been interrupted. 

Kabuki actors work hard to bring these supernatural sequences to life on stage. Kabuki was an immensely popular theatrical form between the 17th and 19th centuries and is still performed today. Although kabuki began with a female leader, by the mid-19th century, all kabuki actors were male, meaning that all female roles—including that of Oiwa—are played by male actors. Actors who play supernatural characters, like ghosts or magical animals, are usually from acting families that specialize in these types of roles, with training in stage tricks, quick costume changes, and acrobatics. One of the most popular effects in Yotsuya Kaidan is the "raindoor flip." For this trick to work, the same actor—playing both Oiwa and the servant Kohei—must appear to be nailed on either side of a door, when Iemon pulls their bodies out of a river. The actor is hidden in a compartment in the embankment and puts their head and hands through purpose-built holes in the door. Initially, the actor appears as Oiwa. After removing their facial prosthetics, the actor emerges again a few moments later as Kohei. At the end of the scene, the actor appears stage right in their third role in the play, as Oiwa's brother-in-law Yomoshichi. These sequences highlighted the actor's skills in quick costume changes and were a big hit with audiences.

The worlds of kabuki and traditional Japanese woodblock printing were inseparable. Publishers, artists, block carvers, and printers collaborated to produce woodblock prints that were released at the same time as new plays were performed. This allowed fans to acquire images of their favorite stars in their new roles. In the case of Oiwa, a rare type of print was occasionally produced to simulate the raindoor flip in printed form. For these prints, known as shikake-e or "trick pictures," a small piece of printed paper was glued along one edge and pasted over the top of one area of the print to create a flap. When the flap was lifted, a new part of the image was revealed, a technique that allowed both Oiwa and Kohei to appear on either side of the raindoor. 

Oiwa's story also transcended the kabuki stage, and some artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai, represented Oiwa in ways that did not aim to replicate theatrical productions. In Hokusai's version of Oiwa's transformation, he does not depict her emerging from the lantern, but rather, the lantern itself transforms into Oiwa's twisted face, with a burning hole for her gaping mouth. Depictions like these speak to Oiwa's powerful hold in the cultural imagination, as she remains the most well-known ghost in Japanese pop culture. This status is a stark contrast to the level of influence Oiwa would have had as a real woman when she was alive. Women did not have much power in premodern Japanese society, and it was only after Oiwa’s death that she was able to act in a way that fulfilled her desires. 

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Kit Brooks
  • Director Adriana Monteforte Lahera
  • Narrator Susan Zimmerman
  • Composer Luis Solís
  • Sound Designer Luis Solís
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Produced by Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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