Till death us do part – or not?
The highlight of most wedding ceremonies is two people making their vows to each other by promising to be true to each other ‘for better, for worse … till death us do part’. But what happens when they die? Where does all the eternal love sworn by innumerable couples go? We first explored the subject in East Asian ghoulish images & stories last year; this year we concentrate on one particular story to investigage the possibilities of love after death.
A lover heading for an assignation escorted by a maid holding a peony lantern. Taisō, Yoshitoshi 大蘇芳年. “Botandōrō ほたむとうろう” from the series Shinkei Sanjūrokkaisen 新形三十六怪撰 Tōkyō: Matsuki Heikichi東京 : 松木平吉, 1889 - 1898. Nishikie print. National Diet Library
Otogibōko 伽婢子 (1666) by Asai Ryōi 浅井了意 , a pioneering early modern Japanese work of terror and wonder, contains 68 stories mainly inspired by ghost and supernatural stories from the Asian mainland. Not only did the author translate the story lines into Japanese, but he localised situations to meet the expectations of Japanese popular fiction readers in the early Edo era. Although a number of episodes in Otogibōko fired the imaginations of later authors, perhaps the most loved story is ‘The Peony Lantern’ (Botandōrō 牡丹灯籠), which originated in China as Mudan deng ji牡丹燈記as a part of ‘New stories told while trimming the wick’(Jian deng xin hua 剪燈新話).
Volumes 1-3 of a 16-volume set of Otogibōko. Asai Ryōi 浅井了意. Otogibōko 伽婢子. Kyōto: Nishizawa Tahē 京都：西澤太兵衛, 1666. British Library, 16107.c.45
This is the story of a young widower, Shinnojō新之丞, who re-encounters his beautiful beloved without realising that she has in fact already died. His neighbour hears the young couple cheerfully chatting and laughing, and accidentally sees that Shinnojō is with a skeleton. He warns Shinnojō that he is in danger, and strongly urges him to find out the true identity of the woman he believes to be his newfound love. In the end, Shinnojō finds the grave of his lover and faces the shocking truth that she is indeed a ghost, and realises that he must not contact her any more.
Shinnojō and his lover, who is actually a skeleton. Otogibōko. British Library, 16107.c.45, vol. 3, f. 16r
Shinnojō is given a talisman (ofuda お札) by a Buddhist monk in order to protect his house from the dead. After about fifty quiet nights have passed, Shinnojō goes to see the monk to thank him for his protection. He thinks he is safe, but on his way back home he passes close by the woman’s grave and starts thinking of her again. Suddenly she appears and captures the unprotected Shinnojō whom she blames for betraying all her devotion and true love. Later his body is found with the skeleton in her grave.
His ghost lover captures Shinnojō. Otogibōko. British Library, 16107.c.45, vol. 3, f. 21r
San'yūtei Enchō I 三遊亭 圓朝 (1839-1900) wrote a rakugo 落語 version of this story and titled it Kaidan Botandōrō 怪談牡丹燈籠. Rakugo is a highly distinctive genre of comic monologue performed by professional storytellers, rakugo-ka 落語家. Enchō I added more episodes which extended the story lines of the Botandōrō , renaming the hero as Shinzaburō新三郎 and the ghost heroine as Otsuyu お露 and relocating the setting from Kyōto to Edo. Enchō I’s adaptation was later translated by Lafcadio Hearn as ‘A Passion of Karma’ in his book In Ghostly Japan.
One of the added highlights of Enchō I’s version is ‘The scene of removing the protective charms’, ofuda-hagashi お札はがし. After Otsuyu’s true identity as a dead woman is revealed, Shinzaburō barricades his house with the talisman or ofuda and constantly keeps his protective golden statue of the Buddha close to him. Otsuyu continues grieving over her separation from Shinzaburō because of the ofuda and becomes very angry. Otsuyu plots against Shinzaburō by bribing a pair of his servants to swap his golden statue of the Buddha for a copper one, and removing the ofuda from his house. As soon as all Shinzaburō’s protections were removed, Otsuyu merrily slips into the house and takes Shinzaburō to the world where they will never be separated again – by ending his life.
The ofuda is removed by the servant (seen in his right hand), and the ghosts of Otsuyu and her maid slip into the house to embrace her lover, Shinzaburō. San'yūtei, Enchō三遊亭円朝, and Suzuki Kōzō 鈴木行三 (eds.). Enchō Zenshū: 2 円朝全集 : 第2巻. Tōkyō: Shun'yōdō 東京 : 春陽堂, 1928. National Diet Library
An interesting difference between the two versions is the way in which the hero is captured by the ghostly woman. In the earlier version, the ofuda is not removed, and as long as the hero stays inside his house with the protection of the talisman, he is safe. In the later version however, the talisman is secretly removed by someone else, allowing the ghost to slip into the house.
Ofuda of Tsuno Daishi角大師, one of a collection of approximately 300 Japanese ofuda in 5 albums. Early Meiji period (ca. 19th century). British Library, 16007.d.1
Shown above is an example of a famous talisman or ofuda to protect people within a house by sticking it on the outside of the entrance door, and thus preventing all evil spirits from entering the house. This figure, called Tsuno Daishi角大師, meaning the Horned Master, is an avatar of Ryōgen 良源. Ryōgen was a high-ranking Buddhist monk in the 10th century. In the legend of Tsuno Daishi, Ryōgen dared to transform himself into a powerful demon in order to defeat evil spirits by scaring them off. Tsuno Daishi protects people as if he is fighting in the front line in the war between Good and Evil. Therefore the ofuda used in the Shinzaburō’s house could well have been of Tsuno Daishi.
It is said that true love never dies. However, it could cost the lover’s own life as well….
The graves of Otsuyu and her maid with their peony lantern. Lafcadio Hearn, In Ghostly Japan. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1899. British Library, 08631.f.6.
General information on Rakugo:
Shinji, N. "Rakugo: Japan's Talking Art." Japan Echo, 31 (2004): 51-56.
How to place ofuda:
Gofu 護符 Kawagoe Daishi Kitain 川越大師 喜多院
About Ryōgen & Tsuno Daishi:
Hazama, Jikō 硲慈弘. Densetsu no Hieizan 伝説の比叡山. Kyōto: Ōmiya Shoten 京都: 近江屋書店, 1928, pp 67-69. National Diet Library
Yasuyo Ohtsuka, curator for Japanese