A unique version of the familiar legend
“Yotsuya Kaidan” is unquestionably THE Japanese ghost story, the most famous and most instantly recognizable story from a very haunted culture. There are numerous filmed versions of the tale (about 60 different versions or so, most likely more) and uncountable written versions and translations.
This 1916 version, adapted by James S. De Benneville as the first of his two-part Tales of the Tokugawa, Vol 2, is different from the most familiar versions. In his introduction, De Benneville says that the story he relates was told to him by a storyteller in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, named Shunkintei Ryou. Shunkintei himself claims that this was the true account of the legend, and that it could only be told now some ninety one years after the original performance in 1825 of the play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.Of course, as a professional storyteller who claimed to know the true, secret version of Japan’s most famous ghost story, Shunkintei’s claim should be taken with a grain of salt.
This version of the tale starts not with Oiwa and Iemon, but with their respective parents. The father of Iemon is responsible for the death of Oiwa’s father, leaving their children with the inherited burden of karma. (This piece was clearly lifted by Shunkintei from Sanyutei Encho’s 1859 story “Reckoning at Kasane Swamp” recently filmed as Kaidan.) Oiwa is given in marriage to Iemon, both of them unaware of their connection. Iemon, a rouge and a scoundrel, married Oiwa for her money and estate, but longs for a way to rid himself of his wife so that he may marry the prostitute Ohana with whom he has long been in love. Scheme builds on scheme, allies are recruited and Oiwa’s downfall is plotted. Just when all the conspirators are congratulating each other, however, Oiwa rises again in terrible vengeance.
There are several differences from this translation and the classic “Yotsuya Kaidan.” Aside from the elements added from “Kasane Swamp,” the Oiwa in this story has always been miserably ugly, so much so that her nickname is “the Obake” or “the Goblin.” Although she is rich, she is far to hideous to attract a husband and even the scum Iemon must be lured by trickery. Many of the familiar side-characters are also missing. There is no Naosuke lusting for Oiwa’s sister Osode, and partnering with Iemon in murder. There is no Oume in love with Iemon, and Ito Kehei is only interested in the downfall of the Tamiya house, and not his daughter’s happiness.
Probably the biggest difference is the lack of Oiwa’s vengeful ghost herself. As this was written in 1917, during the Meiji Restoration and not the Edo Period like the original kabuki play, it was a time when Japan was somewhat ashamed of its supernatural past feeling it was primitive and unenlightened as compared to science-minded Western culture. This shows in that Oiwa’s hauntings are almost never played as a straight ghost story, but almost as transference of psychological guilt felt by those who helped in her downfall. Is it the real ghost of Oiwa crying for vengeance, or simply the guilty consciences of those who have done her wrong? Blood is spilled, and it is gory, but the pale face of Oiwa almost never shows her face.
As for the translation, I don’t know how good De Benneville’s grasp of Japanese was, but the translation is rough and in an odd style. The long vowel is handled in a way I have never seen before, putting the extra vowel in brackets such as Encho[u] or To[u]kyo. Until you get used to this style it is distracting to read. Also, several words that De Benneville apparently didn’t know he simply left in Japanese, which is fine if you are a Japanese speaker yourself but might frustrate some without abilities in the language.