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Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni I (初代歌川豊国)

Print: Onoe Matsusuke I (尾上松助) as both the ghost of Kohada Koheiji
(小鰭小平次) and Koheiji's wife - from the play Iroiri Otogi Zōshi

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Dates: created,1808
Dimensions: 9.5 in,15.0 in,Overall dimensions
Medium: Japanese color woodblock print
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Signed: Toyokuni ga (豊国画)
Publisher: According to Marks 328 (seal 16-011) Miyakawaya Seiemon is known elsewhere as Shimizu

Related links: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - without full text; British Museum - without full text; Waseda University - without full text; Ritsumeikan University - in black and white - without full text;

Physical description:

The Background Story

Below is a passage from Hiroko Yoda and Matthew Alt's Yurei Attack: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, 2012.

Claim to fame

You'll be forgiven for not knowing his name, but you just happen to be looking at one of the most famous ghosts of a bygone era. In the early 1800s Koheiji was a superstar. In fact, kabuki actors believed he was such a force of nature that they even shied away from discussing him unnecessarily - a nineteenth century "He who must not be named." Kohada Koheiji is the protagonist of an 1803 book called Fukushu kidan Asaka no Numa (“Asaka Swamp: a Strange Tale of Revenge”) by Santo Kyoden, a man some consider to be Japan's first modern novelist. Supposedly based on the life and violent murder of a real-life kabuki actor, it proved so popular that Santo penned a sequel several years later, called “Asaka Swamp: The Next Day's Vengeance." As you can probably tell from the titles, this was exploitation fare par excellence, custom-tailored to hook the reader with an outrageous betrayal and then satisfy with bloody revenge. The public ate them up,while the critics decried them as “mishmash” and “ludicrous."

These were the equivalent of modern-day bestsellers, and it wasn't long before famed playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV penned an adaptation for the kabuki stage. His 1808 drama, disarmingly named Iroiri Otogi-zoshi (“The Colorful Storybook”), proved as popular as the books. Woodblock print artists one-upped each other with increasingly gruesome portrayals of the ghost. The Edo-era equivalent of a Freddy or Jason, Koheiji began making unofficial cameos in productions by other playwrights,giving rise to the term Koheiji-mono - basically, "the Koheiji-verse" - to describe the growing list in works he appeared.

The Story

Koheiji wants nothing more than to be a star of the Kabuki stage, but there's only one problem: he isn't very good. He practices constantly but simply can't land a part. His teacher resorts to bribing producers in an unsuccessful attempt to get the fledgling actor on stage.

But Koheiji's luck is finally about to change. One day, he's approached for a major role in an upcoming production.
“You've got the perfect face!” enthuses the director.
“For what?” asks Koheiji, hardly able to contain his excitement.
“A ghost!”
A backhanded compliment to be sure. And a ghost ...! This was a superstitious era, and ghost roles were a double-edged sword, often believed to invite danger and misfortune for the actors who played them. But Koheiji was hardly in a position to say no.

As things turned out, Koheiji did so well that he landed another ghost role, and another, and another. Before long he'd become Edo's go-to guy for playing dead people. Koheiji had found his niche.

Koheiji may have earned his spot in the limelight, but it didn't change the fact that he'd never been a particularly sharp tack. He didn't even notice that his wife Otsuka was carrying on a torrid affair with his pal, a kabuki orchestra drummer named Sakuro. Wanting Otsuka for himself, Sakuro hatched a scheme to kill Koheiji on a fishing trip. When Koheiji cast his line, it was caught by one of Sakuro's confederates, who dragged the hapless actor from the boat to his death in the murky waters.

After fishing the body out of the water, Sakuro, frisked it for money and valuables he could use to pay his accomplices. When he reached into Koheiji's sopping kimono, the dead man's right hand streaked out and griped his wrist. Sakuro screamed. One of the accomplices lashed out with his sword, severing the corpse's limb mid-forearm.

Shaken but resolved, Sakuro headed back home to tell Otsuka the good news.

“I killed Koheiji.”
“Are you drunk?” she laughed. “Koheiji got home a little while ago. He is in the other room."

The Attack

An apprehensive Sakuro finds the sliding fusuma door into the adjoining room stuck. Unbeknownst to him, a rotting hand is clamping it shut from behind. He forces the fusuma open with a shove, sending the hand's fingers flying and filling the house with an atrocious stink. This convinces Otsuka that her husband really is dead, but she tells Sakuro to suck it up — “after all, he's just a ghost.”

Bad move. Things only get stranger. A man materializes in bed between Sakuro and Otsuka as they sleep one night. Later, a water-logged corpse peers in through the mosquito netting. The pair start seeing Koheji [sic] everywhere, even during the day. Returning from the local tavern one night, Sakuro spies a man running into the bedroom. Infuriated , he rushes after with sword drawn. But there is no man; the woman had been sound asleep. Shocked awake by the commotion, she instinctively reaches out to block the blade— losing the fingers on her hand in the process. (Are you sensing a motif here?)

Gangrene sets in.As Otsuka wastes away, Sakuro casts about desperately for help in ridding his home of Koheiji's unforgiving spirit. He hears a scream from the bedroom; when he rushes in to check, he finds Otsuka missing, the walls and ceiling splattered with blood and chunks of scalp. Eventually Sakuro loses everything, laying in bed dreaming of swamp-water filling his lungs — a nightmare from which he never awakes.

How to Survive

Koheiji is a classic example of a ghost hell-bent on revenge. Unlike his counterpart and spiritual successor Oiwa-san, however,he isn't known to stalk victims in the modern day.

That is,unless,you happen to be a kabuki actor.That's a different story. At the peak of Koheiji's popularity, rumors of accidents, illnesses, and other troubles befalling those actors who portrayed him swirled through the kabuki scene. As such, actors kept discussions of him to a minimum. Perhaps following suit wouldn't be a bad idea. In fact, maybe you should just go ahead and turn the page now,

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In the description of this print in part III of the sale from the Henri Vever collection in 1977 it describes "Onoe Matsusuke in his celebrated 'ghost' performance..."

The print in the Lyon Collection differs from the one from the Vever sale and those in the British Museum and in that of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. None of those have the additional text below the ghost image nor that below the text with the actor's name and role in the upper right. However, all of these editions cut off the top of the ghost's head indicating that it was originally printed that way and is not trimmed there.

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The Iroiri Otogi Zōshi (彩入御伽草) was written in 1808 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV specifically as a vehicle for Matsusuke I. In it the story of the ghost of Kobata Koheiji is mixed with the story of Tenjiku Tokubei.

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In Revenge Drama in European Renaissance and Japanese Theatre: From Hamlet to Madame Butterfly by Kevin J. Wetmore, the title of this play is translated as: A Colorful Tale to Pass the Night.

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The curatorial files at the British Museum say: "The kabuki actor Onoe Matsusuke I as the ghost of Kohada Koheiji appearing from out of a standing lantern with the head of his wife, also played by the same actor, in his mouth; in the play 'Iroiri otogi zoshi' (alternative title 'Eiri otogo zoshi') by Katsu Hyozo I, performed at the Ichimura-za in the 6th month of 1808." The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also call it Eiri otogo zoshi (彩入御伽草).

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Illustrated in color in Chimi moryō no sekai : Ukiyoe : Edo no gekiga--reikai, makai no shujinkō-tachi (浮世絵魑魅魍魎の世界: 江戶の劇画 : 霊界魔界の主人公たち) by 中右瑛 (Nakau Ei), Ribun Shuppan, Tokyo, 1987, p. 22. [The text is entirely in Japanese. Also, this is a different printing that the one in the Lyon Collection.]

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There is another (partial) copy of this print in the Real Academia Nacional de Farmacia in Spain. It has been trimmed and is one of 116 Japanese prints given to that institution by a private collector.