A-Yokai-A-Day: Otsuyu (The Tale of the Peony Lantern)

During the Edo period, a ghost story telling tradition called hyakumonogatari kaidankai, or “a gathering of one hundred supernatural tales,” was a popular aristocratic game. In this game, 100 candles or lanterns would be lit, and each participating member would tell one ghost story, or kaidan, after which they would snuff a candle out. A number of the ghost stories survived to become famous legends, many of them being adapted into paintings, illustrated books, kabuki plays, and of course eventually movies. Today’s ghost comes from one of these stories.

Otsuyu (The Tale of the Peony Lantern)

One of Japan’s most famous ghost stories is called Kaidan Botan Doro, or the Tale of the Peony Lantern. It’s a tale of, well… necrophilia, to be quite honest. The story was adapted in Japanese folklore from a Chinese legend during the 17th century. There are two main versions of this story, the first being the original adapted version, and the second one being a kabuki play adapted from the first adaption. The kabuki version changes the main characters a bit and rounds out the story to include a bit more romance, and is probably the better known of the two versions.

In this story, a young man named Saburo falls in love with a beautiful woman named Otsuyu. They see each other in secret for some time, and eventually decide to get married. Before they can, however, Saburo falls very ill and cannot see Otsuyu for some time. When he finally recovers, he hears news that his beloved Otsuyu has died.

During the Obon festival, Saburo prays for Otsuyu’s spirit and, while doing so, he is approached by two women who look just like Otsuyu and her maid. It is revealed that Otsuyu’s aunt spread the rumor that Otsuyu had died — and she had also told Otsuyu that Saburo had died.

Reunited, the lovers renew their relationship, and once again begin to see each other in secret. Every night, Otsuyu, accompanied by her maid carrying a peony lantern, would steal away to Saburo’s house and spend the night there.

One night, however, a servant passes by the room and, alerted by the *ahem* commotion, he peeks in to see what is going on. He is horrified to see his master Saburo making passionate love to a decayed corpse, while another corpse lies rotting in the corner of the room, carrying a peony lantern.

The servent rushes away to fetch a priest, and the next day the priest shows Saburo the graves of Otsuyu and her maid, and wards Saburo’s house against the undead with paper prayer scrolls (like bug spray but for the undead — very handy). He also prays at Saburo’s house every night to keep the evil pair away.

This works for some time, and every night, the two ghosts come to Saburo’s house and beg to be let in. The prayer strips keep them at bay, but gradually it begins to tug at poor Saburo’s heart strings, as he cannot bear to see and hear his beloved in such sadness. Saburo’s health again begins to deteriorate, and finally his servants, fearing their master will die of a broken heart, remove the magic wards from the house. Otsuyu and her maid once again enter, and Saburo and Otsuyu sleep together one more time. In the morning, the servants discover Saburo’s dead body in his bed, entwined around a fetid corpse, with another skeleton slumped over in the corner carrying a peony lantern. But on Saburo’s face is a look of pure bliss.

I love this story, but I have to admit that I think the ending for the non-kabuki version is a little more interesting. In this version, the main character (a man named Ogiwara, not Saburo) eventually relents to Otsuyu’s pleading night after night and comes out to meet with her. The next morning, Ogiwara is nowhere to be found. Eventually, the search for Ogiwara brings his servants to a nearby temple, where Otsuyu’s grave is located. In Otsuyu’s grave they find their master’s corpse embracing the rotten skeleton of a woman…

For today’s painting I decided to go with Otsuyu and her maid, rather than painting a man having sex with a corpse. There aren’t any famous paintings of that, so while it would be an interesting first, I think I would need more than a single day to do a painting that grotesque. Lots of flecks of skin and fluids to paint and whatnot… Maybe someday when I do a book of illustrated ghost stories.

Otsuyu (Kaidan Botan Doro)
Otsuyu, from the Tale of the Peony Lantern

Hoping to have this tale of necrophilia immortalized in a frameable, wall-friendly version? Have no fear, fine art prints of Otsuyu will be available shortly on my Etsy store! In the meantime, go ahead and browse the other yokai prints that are ready to purchase right now. The rest will be available in the beginning of November.

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