The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Ghost Stories at Yotsuya (1825)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Ghost Stories at Yotsuya (original: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan) was written by Nanboku Tsuruya IV. Nanboku (1755-1829) was the fourth person involved in the world of Japanese theater to bear that name. He was one of the foremost playwrights of kabuki-jôruri, popular plays accompanied by live music played on the shamisen, the three-stringed guitar. Nanboku’s work was so popular and highly regarded that he was known as “Ônanboku,” or “Great Nanboku.” Ghost Stories at Yotsuya is regarded as his “representative work and the preeminent ghost play in the entire kabuki repertoire,”1 as well as the play that paved the way for kabuki to reinvent itself as a national rather than a local genre in early part of the twentieth century.

Ghost Stories at Yotsuya is about Tamiya Iemon and his wife Oiwa. Tamiya is a rōnin, a masterless samurai. He had formerly been in the service of Lord Enya Hangan, but Lord Enya committed suicide. This forced Tamiya to work for a living as an umbrella-maker, and Oiwa is forced to sell her body. The shame of this has driven Tamiya to drink and dissipation, and he and his wife are poor and unhappy. Tamiya secretly quarrels with Oiwa’s father and then kills him, although Oiwa is unaware of this. After Oiwa gives birth to a son, she falls ill, and her neighbor, Itô Kihei, a wealthy doctor, begins sending Oiwa “medicine” to help cure her. However, Itô’s granddaughter Oume is in love with Tamiya, and Itô’s “medicine” is actually poison, which will disfigure Oiwa and, Itô hopes, cause Tamiya to divorce Oiwa. When Itô tells Tamiya this, he is torn–not because he does not want to divorce Oiwa (who he loathes), but because Itô is in service to Lord Kōno Moronao, the enemy of Lord Enya and therefore (in theory at least) the enemy of Tamiya. Tamiya’s greed overwhelms his loyalty to his dead master, and after Itô’s poison warps Oiwa’s face into something loathsome Tamiya agrees to divorce Oiwa and marry Oume. Tamiya brutally dumps Oiwa, telling her that he is leaving her for someone younger and prettier. Tamiya then orders his masseur, Takuetsu, to seduce Oiwa so that Tamiya will have an excuse to divorce Oiwa. Greatly offended by Takuetsu’s advances, Oiwa rebuffs Takuetsu, who then tells her that Itô’s “medicine” was poison and that Oiwa’s face is now ugly, gray, and demonic. Oiwa is furious and speaks of her hatred for Tamiya and the Itô family. Oiwa and Takuetsu quarrel, and Oiwa is accidentally killed. Tamiya discovers Oiwa’s body and then kills one of his servants, Kohei, and arranges his corpse to make it look like Kohei killed Oiwa.

Tamiya moves in with Oume, along with his child, but the first night they spend together goes badly. When Tamiya removes Oume’s bridal veil her face is Oiwa’s and her eyes glare with hatred at Tamiya. Tamiya cuts her head off, only to discover that it was Oume all along. Tamiya runs to Itô and sees Kohei, his mouth bloody from eating Tamiya’s son. Tamiya cuts off Kohei’s head and then discovers that he was Itô all along. In the next scene of the play Tamiya, reduced to fishing for eels, runs into Oume’s mother, Oyumi (who is now an outcast), and kills her. Tamiya sees both Oiwa and Kohei, who haunt and harry Tamiya. Eventually Tamiya is killed by Kohei’s sister and by Yomoshichi, the husband of Oiwa’s sister and a former samurai to Lord Enya.

Ghost Stories at Yotsuya remains well-regarded and popular; the second and third acts, focusing on Tamiya’s crime and punishment, are still performed in the twenty-first century. Nanboku wrote the play as a sequel and response to Chûshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (original: Kanadehon Chûshingura, 1748), the most famous of all kabuki. Chûshingura--better known as The Forty-Seven Samurai–is based on a historical incident. In 1701 Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the daimyō of Akō, was ordered to commit suicide by Kira Yoshinaka (1641-1703). Two years after Asano’s death forty-seven of Asano’s retainers attacked and killed Yoshinaka, following the dictates of the samurai ethos by avenging their lord’s death. The incident was fictionalized as The Forty-Seven Samurai, which is revered as a celebration of the ethics of loyalty and is one of the two most revived kabuki dramas.

Nanboku wrote Ghost Stories at Yotsuya to portray the negative side of the world of the Forty-Seven Samurai. Ghost Stories is about samurai who have become members of the underclass; Forty-Seven Samurai is about members of the upper class. In Ghost Stories Lord Asano Naganori has become Enya Hangan, and Kira Yoshinaka has become Lord Kōno Moronao. Tamiya is one of Lord Enya’s retainers, but he is too self-indulgent and self-destructive to take part in the revenge scheme and become one of the moral exemplars of Forty-Seven Samurai. Forty-Seven Samurai extols faithfulness, obligation and self-sacrifice, while Ghost Stories is full of betrayal and murder for sex and money. Like Ghost Stories, Nanboku’s other plays focus on a world in which the traditional moral order is crumbling and being replace with a sense of decay and emptiness. Tamiya was one of the first iroaku, “erotic evil villain,” a protagonist in kabuki who is not stalwart and heroic but is handsome and evil, attractive and contemptible. The iroaku is a Japanese version of the Byronic homme fatale (see: The Fatal Woman).

Nanboku’s plays, including Ghost Stories, are respected for their realistic portrayal of the lower end of city life; despite its supernatural elements Ghost Stories is thought of as one of the better early nineteenth century kizewamono, or “raw domestic plays.” Ghost Stories was also one of the first successful modern kaidan mono, “ghost story” plays. Before Nanboku, Edo kabuki was

a cultural form particular to that came to serve as a powerful vehicle for promoting a sense of community. By the time Nanboku started creating his plays, many of the characteristics that figured in this discussion—the theater-affiliation system, with its annual contracts tying the actors to a single theater; the practice of announcing newly contracted casts in the eleventh month; and, indeed, the entire kabuki calendar—were waning in importance. Even the formerly crucial practice of “presenting the past,” fusing urban settings and characters with familiar stories derived from samurai history and doing so in a manner that allowed ordinary Edoites to feel connected to the shogunal lineage and the culture it spawned, was losing its significance.2 

Nanboku and Ghost Stories accelerated the departure of the Edo kabuki form, as embodied by the Forty-Seven Samurai, and brought something new: departed from the “cyclic imagination” in which revenge was achieved, a household was restored, or the peaceful perpetuation of a domain was assured, and instead enacted a hollowing out of these values. In this particular production, as we will see, this dismantling was carried out in gendered terms...rather than concentrate on male samurai and their demonstration of their samurai morality through a communal, public mission to avenge the death of their lord, Nanboku tells potential theatergoers, this play will turn its attention to the female characters—the women whose bodies are often at the disposal of their fathers and husbands in conventional plays based on military sekai, of which The Treasury of Loyal Retainers is a representative example. Indeed, Yotsuya kaidan does not simply focus on female characters but also borrows more specifically from images and beliefs associated with the female body and with the possibilities unleashed when women die and become ghosts— powers of the disembodied that are socially inscribed in the female body...this shift in interest from male to female, from the social community of the household to smaller-scale marital relationships, and from living to dead was part of the process by which Edo kabuki reoriented itself to meet the needs and tastes of its urban audience during the nineteenth century.

Reading plays is always a different experience from watching them. There are partisans who swear that plays should only be seen live, but many people also enjoy reading plays. But not all plays are felicitous reading experiences. Shakespeare’s plays require a greater level of effort from their readers than twentieth century plays, as do plays originally written in foreign languages. Plays centuries-old, written in a language other than English, present that much more of a challenge to most modern readers.

This is not the case for Ghost Stories at Yotsuya. The modern translations are excellent, both entertaining and frightening. The dialogue is naturalistic and easy to read; it is not at all stagy or dated and is far more modern in feel than dialogue in English and American plays from 1825. The subject material will be comprehensible to Western audiences even with the obvious cultural barriers; some editions of the play have annotations, which help but are not necessary.

As a stage experience Ghost Stories must be striking. The play has ample stage directions for the canny use of music, props and make-up, all of Nanboku was famous for and which combine in Ghost Stories to create a spooky work. Rats try to drag off Oiwa’s baby. Frightening ghosts appear where they are least expected, even by the audience. The music alters to reflect the mood of the play and to anticipate plot changes. The moment when Tamiya, expecting to see Itô, instead sees the spirit of Kohei, his mouth bloody from having eaten Oiwa’s baby, is jolting in print; on stage it must be terrifying. The play also has an unexpected sense of humor, a morbid wit which raises a smile when read and no doubt provokes laughter during performances.

Ghost Stories at Yotsuya is historically important and a fine play to read. On stage it must be spectacular. 

Recommended Edition

Print: James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter, Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.


1 Satoko Shimazaki, Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost (New York: Columbia University, 2016), 111.

2 Shimazaki, Edo Kabuki in Transition, 97.

3 Shimazaki, Edo Kabuki in Transition, 112-113.