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  • The End of the "World":Tsuruya Nanboku IV's Female Ghosts and Late-Tokugawa Kabuki
  • Satoko Shimazaki (bio)

Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan 東海道四谷怪談 (Tōkaidō, Ghost Stories at Yotsuya) is the most famous of Tsuruya Nanboku's 鶴屋南北 IV (1755-1829) plays and indeed the preeminent ghost play in the kabuki repertoire. In it, Oiwa お岩 is poisoned and disfigured by her neighbor and betrayed by her husband, Iemon 伊右 衛門, who agrees to abandon her and marry the neighbor's granddaughter, Oume お梅. After a truly horrific scene in which she accidentally slits her throat with a sword, Oiwa returns repeatedly as a ghost to drive Iemon and others responsible for her suffering to their deaths. Oiwa has lingered in Japan's cultural memory for almost two centuries now, reimagined again and again in any number of theatrical productions, movies, playbills, posters, and photographs.

Yotsuya kaidan was first staged in 1825 at the Nakamura-za 中村座, a theater in Edo. In act 5 of that production, the ghost of Oiwa, played by Onoe Kikugorō 尾上菊五郎 III (1784-1849), emerged from a consecration cloth with an infant cradled in her arms. Oiwa was thus figured as an ubume 産女 (literally, "a woman giving birth"), a particular type of ghost associated with pregnancy and childbirth that would have had deep psychological resonances for the audience of Nanboku's day. Nanboku employs the ubume in a number of earlier plays—indeed, it appears in almost all of his major ghost plays. Ubume were ubiquitous in the theater and literature of this period, appearing again and again not only in Nanboku's works but also in the fiction of major writers such as Shikitei Sanba 式亭三馬 (1776-1822), Santō Kyōden 山東京伝 (1761-1816), and Kyokutei Bakin 曲亭馬琴 (1767-1848). Our interpretation of the meaning of this scene in Yotsuya kaidan must be tied, then, to a larger understanding of Nanboku's and the kabuki theater's mobilization of the ubume as a dramatic trope and of the [End Page 209] roles the ubume played in the broader context of nineteenth-century cultural production. In other words, we must ask why ghosts in the theater and literature of the early nineteenth century were associated so pervasively with pregnancy, and also why the ubume became so popular as a motif, particularly in the first three decades of the century.

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Figure 1.

Nagori no hana Yotsuya kaidan, vol. 2, pp. 26 ura-27 omote. Onoe Kikugorō III as Oiwa (left) and Ichikawa Danjūrō VII as Iemon (right). Private collection.

Nagori no hana Yotsuya kaidan 名残花四谷怪談 (The Flowers of Kikugorō's Farewell Performance: Ghost Stories at Yotsuya, 1826), an illustrated digest of the play published by Hanagasa Bunkyō 花笠文京 I (1785-1860) and Keisai Eisen 渓斎英泉 (1790-1848) immediately after the production, gives a sense of how the scene in act 5 might have looked (figure 1). On the right we see Ichikawa Danjūrō 市川団十郎 VII (1791-1859) as Iemon, coming through a temple gate to pour water on a consecration cloth hung between four bamboo poles—an object known by the name of the ritual in which it is used: nagare kanjō 流灌頂 (literally, "flowing consecration"). Iemon is offering a prayer for the repose of the spirits of Oiwa and their son, even as he shudders with fear at the prospect of his dead wife's revenge. The water in the ladle has turned into fire—a "soul flame," a common visual representation of a spirit that either accompanies or stands in for the ghost itself. On the left-hand page, Oiwa's ghost rises from the cloth, hugging the baby to her breast. [End Page 210]

Although Yotsuya kaidan was staged approximately twenty times during the last forty years of the Tokugawa period in both Edo and Osaka, this scene was dropped after the first production in 1825 and replaced with a special effect in which Oiwa emerges from a burning lantern. With the exception of a few modern revivals it played no part in the play's subsequent performative or cinematic reception. The meaning of the ubume and the nagare kanjō was so particular to its time that there was no reason to revert back to the original staging, especially since...


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