Irohagana Yotsuya kaidan (Alias syllabary for the Yotsuya ghost story: いろは仮名西谷怪談) was an adaptation specifically rewritten in kamigata style for Onoe Kikugorô III, an Edo-kabuki superstar who visited Osaka in 1826. It was based on an 1825 masterpiece by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, titled Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Ghost Story at Yotsuya on the Tôkaidô: 東海道四谷怪談). Iemon, Oiwa's husband and a down-on-his-luck rônin 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 and the sister of a servant he has murdered.
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 haigô (literary name: 俳号).
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 printed much later, shows evidence of lackluster printing and has the inscription printed in black.
Our impression has the hand-stamped seals of two publishers, Toshin 利新 (Toshikuraya Shinbei: 利倉屋新兵衛) and Kakuseidô (Tsuruseidô: 鶴勢堂), on the back of the sheet, a most unusual placement for kamigata-e seals of this period — see images at right.
The original design included a right-hand sheet printed only with the gradated background. Nevertheless, this design is rarely found, with or without the right sheet. 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 triptych.
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