Irohagana Yotsuya kaidan (Alias syllabary for the Yotsuya ghost story: いろは仮名四谷怪談) was an adaptation specifically rewritten in kamigata style for Onoe Kikugorô III (尾上 菊五郎 1784-1849), an Edo-kabuki superstar who performed while on tour in Osaka in 1826. It was based on an 1825 masterpiece by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北 1755-1829), titled Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談). The main theme in this most popular of all kabuki ghost plays involves Tamiya Iemon (民谷伊右衛門), Oiwa's husband and a down-on-his-luck rônin reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas. Iemon despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Oiwa (お岩), who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Itô Oume (伊藤お梅), and is persuaded by her grandfather Itô Kihei (伊藤喜兵衛) 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. In Act II, having seen her disfigured face in a mirror, she tries to push past a former brothel owner and now Iemon's servant Takuetsu (宅悦), but accidentally cuts her throat with a sword, dying as she curses Iemon. When Kobotoke Kohei (小佛小平), Iemon's former servant, steals the traditional medicine of the Tamiya family, Iemon catches Kohei and murders him. Then he has his men nail the bodies of Oiwa and Kohei to the opposite sides of a door and throw them into a river, attempting to link Oiwa and Kohei as lovers. At the close of Act 2, on the night of his wedding, Iemon kills Oume and Itô Kihei when he is driven to distraction by devious tricks played by the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei. Oiwa's ghost continues to haunt Iemon relentlessly. In Act V, she tracks him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama (Snake Mountain: 蛇山) where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by a rônin (a "wave man" or " floating man," i.e., masterless samurai: 浪人) named Satô Yomoshichi (佐藤与茂七) along with the sister of a servant he has murdered. Yomoshichi was once a vassal of Lord Enya Hangan (塩谷判官), a samurai who was forced to commit seppuku in the great katakiuchi-mono (revenge-killing play: 敵討物 or adauchi-mono: 仇打ち物) titled Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵), from which Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan was adapted. Yomoshichi, who in Chûshingura is betrothed to Oiwa's sister, the prostitute Osode (おそで), a part-time pleasure woman, joined the rônin vendetta against Kô no Moronao, the nemesis of their deceased master Hangan.
Ghost prints (obake-e) are relatively uncommon in Osaka printmaking. The drawing and printing of Oiwa's specter
appears as if painted in washes of monochrome ink. The spirit flame, ethereal form of Oiwa (including the absence of
feet), and the blue bands of face makeup all combine to evoke death and the supernatural.
The inscription was written by the actor Kikugorô, who says that his father's interpretation of the role was
quite popular, and so he has been asked to perform it. He signs himself as Baikô (his haimyô).
There are at least three editions of this well-known design. The first can be identified by the metallic pigment for the
inscription, the cartouches of the block cutter (horikô Kasuke] and two printers (surikô Matsumura
and dô Hanji), and the dark area of the gradated background extending below the actor's waist. The second edition
[as in our impression] retains the metallic pigments but with the cutter/printer cartouche omitted and the dark band in the
background running along the top. The third edition, possibly late, shows evidence of lackluster printing and has the inscription
printed in black.
The original design included a right-hand sheet printed only with the gradated background, suggesting an eerie night scene at
Snake Mountain. It is rarely found, with or without the left sheet. Our right sheet is a later replacement on twentieth-century paper. We include it to provide some idea
of the original diptych while acknowledging that the sheet was added later. Furthermore, we are aware of speculation regarding
a third (far-right) sheet, but none has ever surfaced, and we remain unconvinced that the composition was ever published as a
References: IKBYS-I, no. 165; WAS I-4 , nos. 278-279; TWOP, pl. 34; KUN, no. 78; IKB-I, no. 1-444; KNP-6, p. 136; NKE, p. 651