Yotsuya Ghost Story


Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan

Kabuki Plus

by Oshima Yukihisa

Prayer for success

Just as Chushingura is known as a surefire hit for any troupe, this takeoff on the show is known as a surefire ghost hit. It is always expected to attract a full house and considered a “secret potion” for a theater. Nevertheless, whenever the show is performed, the cast goes to shrine to pray for a safe delivery. This is because of a legend that Oiwa has cursed the show: an actor suddenly gets sick, a scroll falls in the dressing room, actors get injured. During the Edo Period, one book claimed that actors who play Iemon have all succumbed to illness. Thus, the actors and creative staff go to three associated temples in Tokyo’s Yotsuya and Sugamo areas to offer a special prayer for success.

Hair combing

After taking the poison, Oiwa combs her beautiful black hair in the play’s climactic moment. Her face swells, her figure becomes frail, and blood drips from her scalp as her hair comes out in clumps. She becomes a monster. The actor wears a wig that allows the hair to come loose, and a stage assistant helps a quick transformation of the face. This embodies the unique super tricks of Kabuki.

Stage effects and tricks


One of the great attractions of this drama is its abundance of stage effects, including the combing of Oiwa’s hair, the broken fingers of Kohei turning into snakes, a rat stealing a baby, the instant transformation of Oiwa into Yomoshichi, and the flopping panel of corpses. In the mountain hut in Act V, a ghost flies through a burning lantern, and a baby is transformed into a stone Buddha statue. Furthermore, there is the butsudan-gaeshi, where a character is sucked up into a Buddhist altar. In the famed trick of the flopping panel door, Iemon picks up an object from the river and discovers Oiwa’s corpse on a wooden panel. When he turns it over, he finds Kohei’s corpse. The eye-catching tricks and directorial effects have been a big draw since the show’s debut.


【Photo】Oiwa(Nakamura Kantaro) August 2010 Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre

Cocoon Kabuki

The late Kanzaburo XVIII, who passed away in December 2012, attempted an unusual experiment when he staged this play at the mid-sized Theater Cocoon in Tokyo in June 1994. Seeking to recreate the atmosphere of Edo Kabuki, he removed many of the seats to have audiences sit on the floor as in traditional theaters, and had actors venture out into the audience at times to bring them closer to the viewers. On the stage was 25 tons of real water in which actors would splash around. In the scene of the flopping panel, the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei appear from the water, and Kanzaburo (then named Kankuro) dropped into the water, only to reappear almost instantly from another point on the stage. In the lantern-breaking scene, Oiwa smashes through the lantern and flies nearly 10 meters. The success of this venture led to a Cocoon Kabuki series. In an earlier variation of the show, Udanji I (1843-1916), known as a master of stage effects, turned the entire hanamichi into a tank and performed the panel-flopping scene there. Yotsuya Kaidan has long tempted actors to come up with new and fresh staging ideas.