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11. お岩 - Oiwa (Japanese Folklore)

In our eleventh episode, we talk about Oiwa, a famous yōkai from the Yotsuya Kaidan!


Yotsuya Kaidan

TōkaidōYotsuya kaidan’s Oiwa: Analysis of a kabuki vengeful ghost

Transcript below:

(Musical intro)

Zoe: Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all around the world. We're your hosts--

Lizzie: I'm Lizzie.

Zoe: And I'm Zoe. And today, Lizzie, who are we talking about?

Lizzie: So today, we are talking about Oiwa, who was a really fascinating female ghost from Japanese folklore.

Zoe: Interesting! Okay.

Lizzie: So, have you ever heard of her?

Zoe: No! I have not heard of her at all.

Lizzie: I think you're really gonna like her.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: So, there's elements today in our story of, like, horror, revenge, and, like, a real-life figure whose story has become folklore--

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: I know you really like all those things--

Zoe: (overlapping) Yes I do.

Lizzie: So I'm excited to tell you this story (laughs).

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So her story appears in the 1825 kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談), which translates to "ghost story of Yotsuya," and it was written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: So, the story is considered to be the most famouse Japanese ghost story of all time, and has over thirty film adaptations.

Zoe: Wow!

Lizzie: Mm hmm. So, before we begin the story, a bit of background.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So the character Oiwa is a Yōkai (妖怪). Yōkai is a class of creature from Japanese folklore that may be a monster or a spirit, or a ghost, or a shape-shifting animal. They take many different forms, and are associated with small villages, old villages, and deserted mountain passes, but they also appear very frequently in popular culture, such as movies, anime, manga, and video games.

Zoe: Cool. Okay.

Lizzie: In the Book of Yōkai, it says that yōkai are beings that we use to justify anything we can’t explain. It states that “Yōkai begin where language ends.” So, yōkai is in a way just a term to describe any sort of supernatural occurrence or being. The term yōkai is pretty complex, but just know that it’s a class of supernatural beings or spirits, and that our lady this week is a yōkai.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So, the story of the Yotsuya Kaidan was first staged in 1825, and since then it’s undergone many alterations. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the text of the full play translated into English, so I’ve had to make do with summaries I found online, but the summary I’m drawing from is from the original 1825 production.

Zoe: Cool.

Lizzie: Not one of the later versions.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Also, I should mention that there is a trigger warning this week for sexual assault, suicide, and disfigurement, and just a general warning that some aspects of this story are pretty horrifying. So--

Zoe: Alrighty.

Lizzie: Proceed with caution.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, to begin our story. Our story begins in the Yotsuya area of Tokyo. There was a masterless ronin samurai called Iemon and he was married to a beautiful woman named Oiwa. But his father-in-law, Samon, disapproved and wanted them to separate.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: There’s also another character called Naosuke, who was obsessed with Oiwa’s sister, Osode, who was already married to another man, called Sato Yomoshichi. So Iemon kills Samon in a fit of rage during a violent argument; and, at the same time, Naosuke murders his former master, Okuda Shozaburo, mistaking him for Osode’s husband, Yomoshichi. So Naosuke believes he has killed Yomoshichi.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, Iemon and Naosuke then conspire together and deceive Oiwa and Osode into believing that they will avenge the deaths of Samon and Yomoshichi. So Iemon reunites with Oiwa, and Naosuke enters into a common law marriage with Osode as part of the price of their agreement to the vendetta.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So all of that was in act one.

Zoe: Okay (laughs).

Lizzie: In act--in act two, we open with Iemon, who is miserable in his marriage to Oiwa. Also, there’s a woman called Oume who is in love with Iemon and wants to marry him, but she feels inferior to Oiwa because she isn’t as beautiful as her.

Zoe: Oh.

Lizzie: So Oume’s family decide to disfigure Oiwa by sending her a poison disguised as a facial cream.

Zoe: Ohhh...

Lizzie: So when Oiwa applies the cream, she becomes scarred, and Iemon is horrified by his wife’s new face.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. So, this next part is, like, pretty horrifying, so just be warned.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Um, so Iemon tells his servant, Takuetsu, to--basically, to assault Oiwa so that he’ll be able to divorce her.

Zoe: Gotcha.

Lizzie: Yeah. So--but Takuetsu can’t bring himself to do this, so instead he just shows Oiwa her own face in a mirror.

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: Oiwa then realizes what has happened to her, and that she has been deceived, and she’s horrified.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: She becomes hysterical, and picks up a sword and runs toward the door. Takuetsu moves to stop her from leaving and Oiwa tries to evade him, but accidentally cuts her throat with the sword.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Not quite sure how that would have happened, but we're rolling with it.

Lizzie: (overlapping) I'm sure it makes sense within the play (laughs).

Zoe: Yeah, I'm sure if I saw it staged it would make a lot more sense.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: Mm hmm (laughs).

Lizzie: But, um, anyway, so. Oiwa dies cursing her husband.

Zoe: Fair.

Lizzie: Yes. So then, after her death, Iemon, uh, becomes engaged to Oume.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Iemon also decides to murder another servant called Kohei--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --for stealing medicine, and frames his and Oiwa’s dead bodies in such a way that it will look like they were having an affair.

Zoe: Ohh.

Lizzie: Uh, yeah, so basically, like, to justify his--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --very quick marriage.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Okay.

Lizzie: And to, like, dishonor--

Zoe: Yeah. Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --Oiwa. So, as Act 2 closes, Oiwa’s ghost tricks Iemon into killing Oume and her grandfather on the night of the wedding.

Zoe: Oh! And is that the end?

Lizzie: It is not, there's three more acts.

Zoe: (laughing) Okay, I was wondering if this is--if this is more than a two-act sort of thing.

Lizzie: Yeah. And the thing--the funny thing is, the night that it premiered, it was, like, a double-feature with another very long play--

Zoe: Wow!

Lizzie: So, I feel like people were, like, there, like, all night.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Or, like, all day.

Zoe: Probably.

Lizzie: So that's kind of interesting.

Zoe: I mean, I'm just thinking about how long a lot of operas are, and, you know, it's probably like a sort of similar thing.

Lizzie: Yeah, I hope they had, like, intermissions, (Zoe laughs) I don't know. So, act three. The remaining members of Oume’s family are killed. This is still under the influence of Oiwa and Kohei's ghosts.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: So, Iemon kicks Oume’s mother into a canal, and her servant drowns by accident.

Zoe: Hmm!!

Lizzie: Also Naosuke arrives in disguise and blackmails Iemon into handing over a valuable document. I don’t know what the document is honestly, it doesn't say, but anyway.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: While Iemon is fishing in the canal, he spots the corpses of Oiwa and Kohei drifting along, and then there’s a scene where they briefly come back to life and reproach him.

Zoe: Oh! That's fun.

Lizzie: Very.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, in act four--

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: Naosuke pressures Osode into consummating their marriage, and after a love scene, Yomoshichi appears and berates Osode for adultery.

Zoe: Right. Because he wasn't actually dead, right?

Lizzie: No, he was never dead.

Zoe: Okay, yes.

Lizzie: They just--they just believed him to be dead.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: (sighs) But Osode thought that he was dead. So, she didn't know.

Zoe: Yes, yeah.

Lizzie: But she--she then resigns herself to-to death--

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: --and tricks Naosuke and Yomoshichi into killing her.

Zoe: Mmm...

Lizzie: And, uh, she leaves a farewell note in which she reveals to Naosuke that they were actually siblings.

Zoe: (laughing) What?

Lizzie: Right? I thought--

Zoe: Plot twist!

Lizzie: I know! So, Naosuke also learns that he killed his former master instead of Yomoshichi. So Naosuke then kills himself out of shame and guilt.

Zoe: (overlapping) Mm hmm. Yeah, that makes sense.

Lizzie: I know you're thinking of something in particular. Oedipus.

Zoe: Oh! I actually wasn't thinking about that, that-that makes a lot of sense.

Lizzie: Yeah! Cause it's so similar, cause it's like--

Zoe: Oh, yeah!

Lizzie: Oh, he learns that he married his sister and killed his master.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: So he kills himself.

Zoe: That makes a lot of sense!

Lizzie: Super similar.

Zoe: Yeah! Yeah.

Lizzie: I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but--(laughs) Pretty interesting.

Zoe: (overlapping) Yeah! Well, I was just thinking about, like, my understanding of Samurai culture and how, like--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: --if you fail to protect your master, then you have to kill yourself, so, like--

Lizzie: That was--

Zoe: This was probably the greatest-the greatest shame he could have ever committed.

Lizzie: (overlapping) Yeah, it was a huge dishonor. Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: For sure.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Yeah. So, next act, the final act, act five, um, Iemon is taking refuge at Snake Mountain Hermitage from Oiwa’s ghost.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, Iemon encounters a young and beautiful maiden in a summer pavilion during a hunting trip and falls in love with her--

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: --failing to realize that she is actually Oiwa.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: So at this time, Iemon also had a companion called Chobe, who he then dismisses for this new woman. But Chobe returns and sees a hideous face, the face of Oiwa, so she flees and, it says that the ghost of Oiwa grabbes Iemon and drags him down to hell. But he doesn't die so I don't quite know what that means, but it's a very nice description.

Zoe: Mm hmm! Sounds fun.

Lizzie: (laughs) So after this, Iemon is basically on the verge of madness and has been given sanctuary at the hermitage. Then it says that the master of the sanctuary’s followers “pray for Iemon with a spectacular lack of success"--

Zoe: (laughs)

Lizzie: --which I found, like, a really funny phrasing.

Zoe: (still laughing) Yeah.

Lizzie: So, uh, Oiwa kills Chobe, then both of Iemon’s parents. And Iemon then flees the hermitage in despair during a snowstorm--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and then runs right into Yomoshichi, who kills him.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: Both out of vengeance for his enemy, and also out of compassion.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: And that’s where the play ends.

Zoe: Gotcha. Wow.

Lizzie: So before we continue, what are your overall thoughts?

Zoe: Um...wow.

Lizzie: (laughing) Yeah.

Zoe: That's a very entertaining show. Um--

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: I think it's int--I think it's sad that, you know, we don't see more of Oiwa at the end. Um, I wish I knew more about what happened to her. And also more of what happened to Osode, after--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Oh, I guess she died, right?

Lizzie: Yeah, she died. It's really sad.

Zoe: Okay, so, I guess we do know what happened to her, but--well, um, there's twists and turns--

Lizzie: Keeps you on your toes (laughs).

Zoe: Yeah, I think that, um--so the facial stuff reminds me a lot of a modern urban legend--I don't know if you're gonna talk about that, so I don't wanna steal your thunder?

Lizzie: No, actually, what were you thinking?

Zoe: Um, so there's, like, a modern Japanese urban legend. This woman, who's, like, wearing a face mask, and--which is, uh, before wearing a mask was, like, a thing everyone did, or should do--(Lizzie laughs) um, but still relatively common in Japan, to my understanding. And she's, like, wearing a face mask, and she asks people if they think she's beautiful, and they'll say, like, yes or no, and then she takes it off and reveals that her mouth has been slit from ear to ear.

Lizzie: (overlapping) Oh, yes! Wait, wait, wait!

Zoe: And then she's like, how bout now? And then regardless of if you say yes or no, she'll, like, kill you.

Lizzie: Mm.

Zoe: And so that--like, the disfigurement of her face made me think of that a lot.

Lizzie: Do you remember what her name was? Cause that sounds kind of familiar.

Zoe: No, I could try to look it up really quick, but it's, um--I don't think she has a name, I think it's like, you know, this-faced woman.

Lizzie: (overlapping) Oh, yeah. A lot of urban legends are, like, nameless.

Zoe: Yeah, um, but that really reminded me of that--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: So I thought that was interesting, and I was wondering if there was, like, a direct link that you'd found, or if not, but still.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. And no. Yeah. But we will go more into depth about her story, though.

Zoe: Mm hmm. I also--the disfigurement reminded me of the goddess you talked about, who's the wife of Maui? And how he switched their faces.

Lizzie: Mm, Rohe.

Zoe: Rohe, yeah. And...so that she was ugly, and he was beautiful, and that made me think of it because she was so beautiful and they made her ugly in order to take away her, like, power or whatever.

Lizzie: Her goodness--

Zoe: Her goodness.

Lizzie: --her virtue.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: For sure. And I will talk about that a little bit later--

Zoe: Yeah-yeah.

Lizzie: --but we've talked about that before on this podcast--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --about, like, very similar themes.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So--

Zoe: And then she becomes super vengeful and, like, Rohe was super vengeful as well, if I recall correctly.

Lizzie: Yeah. I mean yeah, she, like, trapped the spirits of men, or whatever.

Zoe: Mm hmm. But yeah! So those are my main thoughts.

Lizzie: Connection!

Zoe: Woo!

Lizzie: Yeah. Okay, so, I only found a little bit of etymology, unfortunately. So Oiwa’s name consists of the character for “O” (お), and then the Kanji “Iwa” (岩), which--kanji is an ideographic writing system borrowed from Chinese characters, and “iwa” means rock or boulder.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: That’s all I can really tell about the etymology of her name, but as far as I can tell, Oiwa was based off of a real woman, also named Oiwa, which was just a girl’s name at the time.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And supposedly the real Oiwa died on February 22, 1636.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: And her resting place is a temple in Sugamo, a neighborhood of Tokyo. They say that if you visit her grave only out of curiosity, your right eye will become swollen just like hers was.

Zoe: Hmm!

Lizzie: Like she--she has not rested in peace, you know? And she really, like, demands respect, which I feel is very fair.

Zoe: Yeah! Absolutely.

Lizzie: Like, they don't--she doesn't want to be a tourist attraction.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Lizzie: Okay, so to be more specific, the real Oiwa’s story was supposedly gathered in a collection of stories from Yotsuya. The author of these stories and the year they were published is unknown, but it was somewhere between 1716 and 1736.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And according to this collection, there was once a woman named Oiwa, and she was the only daughter of a low-rank samurai. But she was extremely wicked and unpleasant (Zoe laughs) as well as ugly--

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: --which was a result of her contracting smallpox at 21.

Zoe: Okay! That makes sense.

Lizzie: And so after her father died, she married Iemon, who was a good man but never grew to love his wife because of her bad personality and ugly looks.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And eventually he fell in love with another woman named Ohana. So Iemon and Ohana’s father, Ito Kihei, tricked Oiwa into divorcing her husband so he could marry Ohana. When she finds out that she’s been tricked, she runs off into the streets of Yotsuya in a furious rage and disappears without a trace. So no one knew if she was dead or alive until she returned many years later as a vengeful spirit that caused the deaths of 18 people, including Iemon’s children.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: So that was the supposed real story that it was based on.

Zoe: (overlapping) Okay. Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, we can see the differences between this and the story from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The biggest difference is that Oiwa in the original urban legend was meant to be quite cruel and ugly--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --whereas the Oiwa of the Yotsuya Kaidan was meant to be kinder and originally quite beautiful.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So this is like a way to transform her into a much more sympathetic character and a heroine of the story--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but it also turns it into more of a revenge play, since now we’re sympathizing more with Oiwa and less with Iemon.

Zoe: Yeah, definitely.

Lizzie: So, Oiwa is also an onryō (怨霊), or a vengeful spirit.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So a ghost that’s believed to be able to cause harm in the world of the living, often out of vengeance.

Zoe: Awesome.

Lizzie: Her strong desire for revenge also allows her to bridge the gap back to earth. So she can cause real harm, and has.

Zoe: Okay! That's very interesting.

Lizzie: Very.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, several productions of Yotsuya Kaidan, including plays and also movie productions, have undergone mysterious accidents, injuries, and deaths.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: That's fun. I mean, not fun--

Lizzie: So--

Zoe: But it's interesting (both laugh).

Lizzie: It's--yeah, it's interesting. So now it’s tradition for the main characters and the director to visit Oiwa’s grave, and pay tribute to her and ask her to bless their production.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: This is especially important for the actor playing Oiwa.

Zoe: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense, considering what you said earlier about how she doesn't want to be a tourist attraction.

Lizzie: Yeah! Like, it's good to be respectful and pay her tribute.

Zoe: Yeah. So, like, she doesn't want to be sensationalized into, like, a blockbuster, or whatever.

Lizzie: Yeah! I think it's quite fair that she wants them to pay tribute to her.

Zoe: Yeah, for sure.

Lizzie: Okay, so going back a little bit to the play. Um, Oiwa and her sister Osode had been working as sex workers prior to the death of their father Samon. Basically Samon’s master had passed, and so the family was destitute.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But Oiwa had mixed feelings about her work because she thought that no matter how poor they were, the daughter of a samurai shouldn’t debase herself like that.

Zoe: Meh.

Lizzie: Like, she thought it was unfilial of her and that it was dishonoring her father.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Even though it was in a way necessary because of their situation.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: So this is important to understand because after Samon’s death, Oiwa’s main thing is that she has to avenge her father.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: She was ready to commit suicide and follow Samon into the grave, but Iemon talks her out of it, because, as he says, suicide is a selfish act and Oiwa’s duty is actually to avenge him instead.

Zoe: Hmm. Okay. Now that's really interesting.

Lizzie: Yes. This was in 1825, remember (laughs).

Zoe: I mean, yeah! But, like, I mean, suicide is, like, considered honorable, not selfish.

Lizzie: Well, I guess it depends--it depends on the context.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: I don't--I'm not an expert, obviously. This was in feudal Japan.

Zoe: Yeah. Like, my understanding is that, like, suicide was considered, like, an honorable way to die--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: --if you failed in your duties.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And so therefore, if, like, for Iemon to say, like, this is selfish, is, like, very interesting and odd.

Lizzie: Yeah, I do feel like-like, cause she was the oldest child, so--

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: It was sort of--it was her duty to-to seek revenge.

Zoe: Oh! Okay, so he said to-to seek revenge instead--for her father, instead.

Lizzie: Yes!

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: However, she was a woman, so she couldn't do it herself, so it had to sort of--

Zoe: (overlapping) So--yeah, okay.

Lizzie: --be Iemon's duty.

Zoe: Gotcha. That makes sense, that makes more sense.

Lizzie: So I feel like there's two ways to look at that. Like on the one hand, Oiwa’s life is controlled by the men around her--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --both explicitly and implicitly. Kinda makes sense for the time, but, anyway. At the same time, it’s like Samon died as a sacrifice that was pivotal in transforming Oiwa into the figure that she becomes.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Which in a way sort of subverts the really common trope in mythology and folklore where it’s like women have to die to further men’s stories.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Because Samon died to further Oiwa’s story.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: But then again, her main drive in life is again to honor her father and husband, and her story is pretty tragic, which is once again due to her proximity to the men in her life.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So two ways to look at it.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: But anyway. Also, we've kind of mentioned this before, but there's also this theme of a beautiful woman who becomes ugly--

Zoe: Yup.

Lizzie: And is transformed into a horrifying monster because of it.

Zoe: Yeah...

Lizzie: Like, she--before she’s poisoned by the face cream, she’s a good wife and mother, and a good daughter who’s entrusted her father’s revenge to her husband, as she wasn’t allowed to avenge him herself since she was a woman.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So she’s a loyal wife and daughter, and she’s also done her wifely duties of bearing a son to Iemon, who honestly doesn’t treat either her or the son particularly well.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And she’s punished due to the jealousy and greed of Iemon and Oume, and then she’s transformed into the vengeful spirit we know her as now.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Which, there’s this theme of beautiful woman is pure and virtuous, and ugly woman is evil and terrifying, which is a theme we see a lot in mythology and folklore.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like, her transformation isn’t even from good to bad, it’s from good to ugly to bad.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like, the catalyst of her becoming a vengeful spirit was her losing her looks.

Zoe: Yeah. Um, I think that it's, like--you could almost say there's, like, commentary in this story. Because what happens is she loses her looks, so he loses interest in her as his wife and as someone he respects.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And that sort of becomes the catalyst for her becoming evil, or cruel.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure.

Zoe: So, like--I mean, you could possibly say argue, or at least make, like, an interpretation, like, it's really because of him that she becomes evil, um, and because of how he treats her based on her looks that makes her evil. So it's more, like, meta than just, like, oh she's ugly so now she's evil. But then, of course--

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: --the symbolism and the imagery is there, so it's like, I don't know how intentional that was, um, exactly, but you could definitely, like, make that argument or, like, have a more, um, like, feminist, I guess, interpretation of the story in that way.

Lizzie: Definitely. Uh, I do feel like, um, in this version of Oiwa's story there is sort of more sympathy towards Oiwa than there is towards Iemon--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: That's my read, which I'll go into a bit more later, but--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But I do think that Iemon is more the villain here.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: But uh--anyway.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: There’s also this theme I find interesting, which is, like, knowledge being the thing that destroys you.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: She-she only finds out what happened to her when Takuetsu decides to pity her and hands her a mirror so she can learn about how she was deceived.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And then later on there’s the scene where Naosuke learns that he married his sister and killed his master--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --so he kills himself.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like, before they had that knowledge, they were pretty content. Then when they find out the truth, it’s a huge catalyst for the shame, guilt and dishonor that leads to their deaths.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: So knowledge is the direct link to their downfall. There’s this sort of idea that ignorance is bliss.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Definitely. And then that's also interesting, thinking about it compared to, like, the--you know, the physical appearance question, um, and how, like, when her husband starts mistreating her, she might not, like, really understand what's happening cause she doesn't know how she looks now.

Lizzie: Yeah. She doesn't know until she's, like, forcibly--

Zoe: Shown.

Lizzie: Pushed into a mirror, you know.

Zoe: Yeah. And so, like, until she's, like, physically shown what's happening, like, she doesn't even know how she looks, and that's when she starts to be reacting to how she's being treated, in a way, possibly.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: If you think that makes sense.

Lizzie: Yeah, and there's also this self-actualization moment for Oiwa. There’s the scene where she’s handed the mirror and she sees her face, and at first she’s confused. She says, “That horrifying face startled me, who is behind me?”

Zoe: Ohh.

Lizzie: And after she realizes that it’s her own face, she says “My face is the same color as my clothes. Is this me? Is this really my face?” Which--she would have been wearing white, I assume, for mourning.

Zoe: Uh huh.

Lizzie: Anyway, so then she has these moments of intense, passionate grief where she tries to blacken her teeth and she combs her hair, only for it to fall out in large bloody clumps.

Zoe: Oh...

Lizzie: Yes. Yeah (laughs). And-and then before her death, this is the moment, in my opinion, where she becomes a yōkai. Like, where she becomes a horrifying being.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: There's also this really interesting thing I was reading about. So, in most stories about onryo, their motive has to do with jealousy, and often unrequited love.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But this doesn’t apply to Oiwa. Jealousy didn’t shape her identity as a vengeful spirit, and it wasn’t her main motive. Up until the Meiji Period of Japan, which was from 1868 to 1912, jealousy was conceived as exclusively a “female malady latent in every woman’s blood, capable of consuming even the most faithful wife or lover without even being aware of it.”

Zoe: Okay (laughs).

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs). So, a Neo-Confucian scholar called Kaibara Ekken stated that jealousy was one of the five female shortcomings that justify women’s inferiority to men--

Zoe: Mm!

Lizzie: --and one of the seven reasons why a man could divorce his wife.

Zoe: Gotcha.

Lizzie: Yeah! To give you a bit of context on the period--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --this took place in. This is pretty important to understand the context of her characterization and her motives.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Cause more accurately, she isn’t jealous. She doesn’t love Iemon, so she isn’t upset that he wants to marry someone else. She’s upset because of how badly she’s been deceived and betrayed.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But her being a woman, the de facto interpretation is that she was jealous.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Yeah. Like, she was, by, like, Japanese scholars, called a, like, a jealous spirit, you know.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: But the way I read it, she’s much more in grief--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --than she is anything else.

Zoe: Definitely. Yeah, I'd say she's a lot more, like, upset at being betrayed than, like, angry about, like, her husband loving someone besides her.

Lizzie: Exactly. And, um, when I put onryo into Google Translate to get a pronunciation, one translation it gave me was “grief”.

Zoe: Mm!

Lizzie: There’s a chance that that’s quite inaccurate, cause it’s google translate--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but still I found that interesting.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Onryo, the ones who are jealous and the ones who aren’t, they’re grieving women. Like they’re grieving their old lives and they’re grieving, at least in my mind, the lives they dreamed for themselves, and the place they took up in society.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: They’re betrayed.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: I do think that, from what I can gather, not having been able to read the play myself but seeing quotes from it, that Oiwa was actually treated quite sympathetically. She has a moment where she says to herself, “A moment ago, I joined my hands in gratitude for the poison delivered from the wetnurse. Now each time I think of it, how shameful it is. They must laugh and laugh at me."

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: "Bitter, oh how bitter, is this humiliation.”

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So here she isn’t even grieving the inevitable loss of her husband, she doesn’t even think about him. She can’t cope with the humiliation she was suffering, having been betrayed by those she trusted.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So her principal emotion So her principal emotion here is shame. Which, shame was deeply tied to the idea of honor that was the core of samurai identity.

Zoe: Yeah. Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And we already saw before how important it was to Oiwa to maintain her honor as the daughter of a samurai, and now she’s lost all her honor and all that’s left is deep shame.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: So after this transformation, Oiwa isn’t just a vengeful spirit seeking revenge and justice, but she’s also a woman who wants to restore her damaged honor.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: And this is her motivation for the rest of the play, where she appears as a ghost.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And Nanboku, the author of Yotsuya Kaidan, really subverts stereotypes here. The female ghost is motivated by honor rather than by jealousy.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Which is really interesting.

Zoe: Yeah, that's super interesting to think about. And it makes a lot of sense.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. So, all in all, I find Oiwa such a fascinating character. On the surface, and if you see pictures and iconography of her, I mean, she’s horrifying (Zoe laughs). But when you really analyze her story, and you-you can see her as really sympathetic and honorable.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like, she’s a woman in grief who’s been horribly betrayed who, in her death, wants to be respected and honored. And that’s really understandable.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: And to be honest, I think her revenge plot is really fair and deserved. Like Iemon did such horrible things and deceived her.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Like even though he’s the main character, I think he’s the true villain of the story because he acted so horribly.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So I think Oiwa was pretty justified, and her story is much more tragic than it is anything else, in my opinion.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Definitely. Yeah. I-I just really love the idea of her becoming a ghost and going throughout revenge as a way to restore her honor. Because that, like, makes a lot of sense and that's something that we see for so many different, like, stories with, like, male characters.

Lizzie: For sure.

Zoe: You know. Like--I mean, it's very common in Viking sagas, uh, to have someone, like, you know, return--like, pay blood for blood, basically, um, in order to restore family honor. And so to interpret her story as that, I think, is really cool.

Lizzie: I agree.

Zoe: And it's interesting to see, like, a female character be like that. And I also--you know, I wonder, like, have--do you know anything about, like, modern interpretations of the story at all? Like--

Lizzie: I know that she's in a lot of movies.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And that's--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --the main thing that I know, honestly. Like, she's, even now, still quite well-known and popular as a ghost story--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but I don't know really the details.

Zoe: Yeah. I'm just, like, wondering if there's been, like, an effort to sort of, like, reclaim or recapture her story by, like, any, um, feminist movements in Japan.

Lizzie: Yeah, I don't know. Not to my knowledge, but I didn't see anything about that, so.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Um, yeah, and something else I found interesting was that, like--like I was talking about how she wants to, like, reclaim her honor, she wants to, like, avenge her, like, lost honor, and then there's this sort of whole thing about, like, in death, like, as an urban legend she wants be respected and honored as, like--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: By people, like, playing her in the shows--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and movies, and, like, she wants people not to visit her grave and, like, as a spectacle--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Like, there's this whole thing about her, even after death, like, trying to restore her honor, in a way.

Zoe: Yeah. That's just so true. And thinking about Osode, um, and her experience, and how she sort of basically goes through, like, losing all honor, and her humiliation, and has to die because of--

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Her experience of, you know, unknowingly committing adultery for--on her husband, and I just sort of think that, like, it would be interesting to see, like, her having a similar story as Oiwa and, like, getting to, sort of, work to reclaim her own honor. Especially because she was also betrayed and she was--like, you know, she didn't know what she was doing. She didn't know that her husband was still alive. And if she had known her husband was still alive, she wouldn't have done--you know, she wouldn't have remarried again, so.

Lizzie: It's also, like, the whole thing about, like, her knowing that she married her brother.

Zoe: Yeah. Okay.

Lizzie: And her being, like, really reluctant to consummate their marriage, you know?

Zoe: Uh huh.Yeah.

Lizzie: Like, I think--like, she must have been horrified.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Having to--having to do that, but she kind of had to because, like, he had vowed to, like, avenge--

Zoe: Yeah! Her husband.

Lizzie: Yomoshichi. Yeah. Yeah exactly. So I kind of--I mean, she's also really interesting. Not a lot of focus is paid to her, but she's definitely also--you can definitely analyze it a lot as well, like--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: This woman who had, like, this horrifying knowledge of, like--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: You know, she married her brother.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And--who, like--I mean, there's also something really compelling about her being, like, oh no, I have to die now.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And being, like, I'm going to trick them into killing me because it's what I deserve.

Zoe: Yeah. And so, like, in a way she has power over what's happening. And she sort of takes the power over her fate away from the men in her life by tricking them into killing her.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Like, even though it's not the end that I would want for her.

Lizzie: No, it's pretty, like, horrifying that she's, like, I have to die now. Even though she didn't do anything intentionally wrong.

Zoe: Yeah. I'd like to see some justice for her.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure.

Zoe: Cause--yeah, I mean, it--just, like, looking at her compared to Oiwa. They were both deceived, whether intentionally or not, cause it seems like, um, Iemon and Naosuke also didn't realize that Yomoshichi was still alive? Like they didn't know that?

Lizzie: Yeah, no.

Zoe: But, um, they still, like--she was confused, she didn't realize what was happening, and so her being like, I have to die now is very sad and tragic to me.

Lizzie: Yeah, it definitely is. Also, something I find quite interesting with, like Iemon, like the very end of his life--like, he is so desperate. He's, like, running away from the ghost of Oiwa, and, like, all the horrible things happening because of her ghost, and then he's in the end killed out of pity.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Like--that's not even--that's not an honorable death, I feel like.

Zoe: That's very true.

Lizzie: It's like, oh, you're, like, pathetic.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: I'm just gonna, like, end your suffering.

Zoe: And that actually--he reminds me of King Creon from Antigone, in that he's basically the cause of all this pain and suffering by choice and by, like, his pride, or whatever. And in the end, he's the one who suffers the most. He loses everything and he's being tormented by guilt or grief, or the actual ghost of the woman he murdered, or had murdered.

Lizzie: Or he caused the death of.

Zoe: Yeah, he caused the death of and was trying to, like, torment. And, like, obviously--and he's still, like, a bad person, but, like, he gets this--he basically is, like, the catharsis point of the tragedy, where he's, like, why am I suffering so, or, like, I've lost everything, and stuff. And--

Lizzie: It's a really compelling end, he definitely has to suffer a lot.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Which he deserves.

Zoe: (laughing) Yeah. Um, and yeah, like, in the case of Creon it's like, well, you caused all this to happen by, like, refusing to step down from your decree, but then in the end, like, his wife's dead, his son's dead, like, it still sucks (laughs), you know?

Lizzie: And he really, like--he's the one who started the entire thing that led to his death, honestly, cause he killed Samon.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Which led to, like, a million other things happening, which led to him being, like, tormented.

Zoe: Yeah. So, I think in the end the fact that he gets killed out of pity--like, you said, I think is very interesting. And I think it is especially significant that it's not an honorable death, it's just like, well, there's nowhere else for you to go at this point, so you may as well die.

Lizzie: Yeah. I do feel like his life is kind of aimless, like when we even start the play he's a masterless samurai--

Zoe: Mmm!

Lizzie: --I assume because his master has passed away--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --somehow.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So he just--he doesn't really have much of a purpose, I feel like.

Zoe: Yeah, that's a good point.

Lizzie: And so he just, like--and he has, like, four different love interests, I feel like.

Zoe: Yeah, and he, like, kind of messes up with all of them.

Lizzie: He finds ways to, like, spend his time.

Zoe: Yeah. But then he also is, like, he's very, like, flawed, you know, he gets tricked into, like, falling back into Oiwa's clutches because she's like, I'm gonna appear as a pretty lady! But plot twist, it's actually me and I'm gonna torment you again because screw you. You know, like--

Lizzie: Yeah. Which is a really compelling arc, just right there.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: We didn't get to see, like, super in-depth, but that's, yeah, good plan.

Zoe: Mm hmm!

Lizzie: Really interesting.

Zoe: Yeah, and it shows that he, like, doesn't learn, I think, in a way.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Because he's, like, I'm being tormented by my wife, who-who I, like, tricked and abused, and so now I'm on the run, but oh, there's a pretty lady here, so, like, I may as well have a good time while I'm at it. And it's like, no, you're stupid, like--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: You need to start, like, rethinking your life and your choices, but you're not doing it. And now you're falling into the same trap as before.

Lizzie: Yes. I do think his death is very deserved.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: I think I said that, but, like, it's true.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And yeah, it just comes very full circle that it ends with his death.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And I don't know what becomes of Yomoschichi, but I think it's quite cool that he gets to, like, kill--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --Iemon.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: (overlapping) I feel like, that's quite fair.

Zoe: Yeah. Yeah. I think he's sort of like the main he--like, the ultimate hero of the story, in a way.

Lizzie: Yeah! The-the way he gets to kill Iemon--

Zoe: Yeah. And he's the only one left standing, which kind of, like--

Lizzie: And he was wronged, rather than wronging anyone else.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Yeah, and you're right, he was left standing as well.

Zoe: Which kind of puts him as the default, like, hero of the story.

Lizzie: True (both laugh).

Zoe: Alright, so that was really interesting. A really cool lady who hopefully doesn't haunt us now, um.

Lizzie: Yeah, we--I mean, I wasn't able to go to Tokyo and just, like--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --ask for her blessing, so.

Zoe: Yeah. Hopefully she understands.

Lizzie: I hope so.

Zoe: Alright, well, thanks for listening. Make sure to subscribe, and also leave us a review if you so desire. And we'll see you back here again next week with another episode!

Lizzie: Thank you!

Zoe: Good-bye.

Outro, underscored by music:

Zoe: Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today’s episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @mytholadies, and visit us on our website at Mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening! See you next week.