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The Ghost of Oiwa

Painting, 1832, 26.3×18.9 cm

Description of the artwork «The Ghost of Oiwa»

One of the sheets in Hokusai’s 100 Ghost Stories series is dedicated to Oiwa, Japan’s most famous onryō ghost. In Japanese mythology, onryō is an “offended and vengeful spirit”, the restless soul of a person whose goal is to punish the offender who insulted it during its lifetime.

The Japanese are very fond of kaidans — traditional horror stories with the participation of onryō. They were often staged in the kabuki theatre, where ghosts were usually played by women in white burial clothes, with long flowing hair and a deathly pale make-up. This image smoothly migrated into movies: first Japanese, and then the world films. Perhaps the most famous onryō ghost in the movies is the killer videotape girl from The Ring movie.

There is no sadder story in the world

Oiwa’s story is based on true events and is immortalized with a kabuki play by Tsuruya Namboku IV. The first performance of The Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya took place in 1825, after which the play gained incredible popularity, and with the advent of cinema it went through dozens of adaptations.

Most often, women who died due to the fault of their husbands became onryōs. And the subject of Hokusai’s engraving is no exception. Oiwa was married to a ronin, a masterless samurai. Iyemon had to make umbrellas to support his wife and newborn son. It was so humiliating for him that he hated his young wife, in whom he saw the source of his troubles, and committed a whole series of murders.

Even before the wedding, the bride’s father became a victim of Iyemon, because he was aware of the ronin’s atrocities he had committed earlier. Then their neighbour, the grandfather of the girl who loved Iyemon, persuaded him to treat his wife to a “tonic”, which was actually a poison that caused painful death.

Soon the ronin had to get rid of his servant, who saw the crime. During the wedding ceremony, he mistakenly chopped off the head of his new bride, since he saw the face of his deceased wife disfigured by torment instead of her. Later, trying to defend himself against the ghost of the servant he had killed with his sword, he accidentally killed the old neighbour.

The ghost of Oiwa continued to follow the vile husband throughout the play. Wherever he went, her ominous face appeared to him. In one scene, a paper lantern caught fire and suddenly turned into Oiwa, and the body of the ghost appeared from the smoke of the fire. It is this image of Oiwa in the form of a burning lantern that is captured on the woodcut by Hokusai.

The curse of Oiwa’s ghost

In Japan, they make up stories about the curse that persecutes everyone who is involved in the production of the play about Oiwa, just as many superstitions and mysterious events are associated with attempts to make movie after Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

In 1976, a series of accidents used to interfere with the measured course of life at the Iwanami Hall Theatre in Tokyo. Diseases overtook the actors and their relatives, props became unusable, rehearsals were postponed. In the end, the whole troupe arrived at the burial place of Oiwa to serve a litia service. Moreover, they left a seat in the first row unoccupied at the play first night, and since then it has become an enduring tradition.

As well as the custom of holding memorial services at the grave of Oiwa before each new performance. The actresses who are going to play the vengeful ghost must visit the temple dedicated to Oiwa, because it is believed that they should be wary of her intrigues most of all.

Although she is regarded as a particularly vicious onryō, Hokusai’s engraving depicts Oiwa more sad than angry. The corners of her piercing eyes are lowered down, the toothless mouth of the lantern ghost is open in impotent anger. The image created by the artist is strikingly different from the ghosts of Oiwa on the engravings by other authors, where she appears as a terrifying character making blood freeze in veins only with her appearance.

Written by Natalia Azarenko
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Genre scene, Fantasy

Style of art: Ukiyo-e

Technique: Engraving

Materials: Wood

Date of creation: 1832

Size: 26.3×18.9 cm

Artwork in selections: 38 selections