Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) is masterful kaidan mono (ghost play: 怪談物) written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北 1755-1829), whose kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) are among the masterpieces of the kabuki repertoire. In Act 5 of the inaugural production, the ghost of Ôiwa, played by Onoe Kikugorô III (尾上菊五郎 1784–1849), emerged from a consecration cloth with an infant cradled in her arms. Ôiwa was thus figured as an ubume (literally, "a woman giving birth": 産女), a ghost of a particular dramatic type associated with pregnancy and childbirth that had deep psychological resonances for the audience of Nanboku's day, especially in regard to stories about communal interests and family crises. In fact, ghosts in the theater and literature of the early nineteenth century were associated pervasively with pregnancy, and were widely popular as a motif, particularly in the first three decades of the century (see Shimazaki ref. below).
The main theme in this most popular of all kabuki ghost plays involves Tamiya Iemon (民谷伊右衛門), Ôiwa's husband and a down-on-his-luck rônin reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas. Iemon despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Ôiwa (お岩), who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Itô Oume (伊藤お梅) and is persuaded by her grandfather Itô Kihei (伊藤喜兵衛) to give Ôiwa a "medicinal potion" — actually a poison — meant to disfigure her so that Iemon will divorce her. Ôiwa drinks the potion and her face takes on a monstrous countenance. In Act II, having seen her disfigured face in a mirror, she tries to push past a former brothel owner and now Iemon's servant Takuetsu (宅悦), but accidentally cuts her throat with a sword, dying as she curses Iemon. (In other versions of the tale, Ôiwa intentionally slashes her throat.) When Kobotoke Kohei (小佛小平), Iemon's former servant, steals the traditional medicine of the Tamiya family, Iemon catches Kohei and murders him. Then he has his men nail the bodies of Ôiwa and Kohei to the opposite sides of a door and throw them into a river, attempting to link Ôiwa and Kohei as lovers. At the close of Act 2, on the night of his wedding, Iemon kills Ôume and Itô Kihei when he is driven to distraction by devious tricks played by the ghosts of Ôiwa and Kohei. Ôiwa's ghost continues to haunt Iemon relentlessly. In Act V, she tracks him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama (Snake Mountain: 蛇山) where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by a rônin (a "wave man" or "floating man," i.e., masterless samurai: 浪人) named Satô Yomoshichi (佐藤与茂七) along with the sister of a servant he has murdered. Yomoshichi was once a vassal of Lord Enya Hangan (塩谷判官), a samurai who was forced to commit seppuku in the great katakiuchi-mono (revenge-killing play: 敵討物 or adauchi-mono: 仇打ち物) titled Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵), from which Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan was adapted. Yomoshichi, who in Chûshingura is betrothed to Ôiwa's sister, the prostitute Osode (おそで), a part-time pleasure woman, joined the rônin vendetta against Kô no Moronao, the nemesis of their deceased master Hangan.
In Munehiro's woodcut, the ghost of Ôiwa (note the kitsunebi 狐火 or spirit fire), dressed in funereal robes of gray and blue, gestures toward Iemon. Her face, disfigured by the potion given to her by Iemon, is sadly on view here. Ubume ghosts, who generally appear holding babies, embody both the sufferings of women who died during pregnancy or childbirth and the love and concern of the dead mothers for the babies they left behind or took with them. Shockingly, however, Ôiwa is responsible for her son's death. In this scene, the ghost of Ôiwa hands the spirit of her dead child to Tamiya Iemon in whose arms it turns into a statue of Jizô, for instead of trying to preserve the life of the male heir, she has sworn to destroy Iemon's family line. This represents a break with most traditional depictions of ubume, for Ôiwa is not a protagonist caught in a conventional household crisis, but rather an enraged figure seeking personal revenge, here appearing as an ubume only to flaunt her lack of concern for her son. Indeed, as we see in Munehiro's diptych, she causes the baby to turn into a stone statue of the Bodhisattva Jizô (地蔵 Kṣitigarbha in Sanskrit and Dìzàng 地藏 in Chinese) at the moment she hands it to Iemon — a cruelly ironic twist, as Jizô is considered the savior of parentless children who protects them from suffering in hell (again, see Shimazaki ref. below).
Obake-e ("pictures of transformed things" or ghost prints: お化け絵) are relatively uncommon in Osaka printmaking. Moreover, this particular moment in the play is rarely ever depicted in ukiyo-e printmaking, especially in Osaka. Note that the blood on Ôiwa's face and hands is of a different red hue than the red used in the cartouches. This slightly purplish, distinctive red was often used for blood in ukiyo-e prints. Note, as well, the light printing of the keyblock and gray color block in the lower area of Ôiwa's figure, an effect that reminds the viewer that the insubstantial apparition is conventionally understood to not have feet.
The dark-gray cartouche at the far right reads "Yotsuya kaidan" (Ghost story at Yotsuya: 四谷怪談). A bazuri chôchin (hanging paper lantern: 場刷り提灯) just to the left of this title is painted with hasu no hana (lotus flowers: 蓮の花), a symbol of death.
Our impression of Munehiro's woodblock diptych is excellent, being an early printing with little or no block wear.
- Ikeda Bunko Library, nos. M-161, M-162 for another impression of this diptych.
- Shimazaki, Satoko: "The End of the 'World': Tsuruya Nanboku IV's Female Ghosts and Late-Tokugawa Kabuki," in: Monumenta Nipponica, 2011, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 209-246.