Tôkaidô [Azumakaidô] Yotsuya kaidan (Ghost story along the eastern sea road at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) is the most popular of all kabuki ghost plays, an 1825 masterpiece by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV. (An alternate reading of Tôkaidô would be Azumakaidô.) It is one of many kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) in kabuki, and a very popular theme in popular literature and song.
Oiwa's husband Iemon — a down-on-his-luck rônin (lit., "wave man" or masterless samurai: 浪人) reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas — despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Oiwa, who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Oume, and is persuaded by her grandfather to give Oiwa a "medicinal potion" — actually a poison — meant to disfigure her so that Iemon will divorce her. Oiwa drinks the potion and her face takes on a monstrous countenance. Soon after, she dies in an accident brought on by jealousy and rage. Her ghost relentlessly haunts Iemon, tracking him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama ("Snake Mountain") where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by another rônin helped by the sister of a servant he has murdered.
In this scene, Oiwa's ghost returns to haunt and take revenge on Iemon, but the ghost is decapitated. Even so, her severed head, positioned eerily between the antagonists, still manipulates Iemon's companions into attacking him.
Obake-e (lit., "transformed thing," in this instance ghost prints: お化け絵) are relatively uncommon in Osaka printmaking, compared with Edo prints. Hokuei's diptych distills the essence of what kabuki audiences looked for in their kaidan mono: A mood of terror (note that the actors are set against a pitch-black sky), a gruesome stage prop (Oiwa's head), and an otherwise lack of contextual detail so as to concentrate on the figures and the otherwordly shinka (spirit flame: 神火), symbolic of a supernatural presence. Altogether, this is a fine ghost print by Hokuei.
References: IKB-I, 5-14, p. 150; KAM, p. 233; IBYKS-III, no. 563