One of Tsuruya Namboku IV’s typical works and more commonly known as “Yotsuya Kaidan,” this play unfolds as a ghost tale revolving around two sisters, Oiwa and Osode, daughters of Yotsuya Samon (a masterless samurai formerly of the Enya clan). The story advances mainly by the villainous and cruel actions of Tamiya Iemon, Oiwa’s husband.
The ‘Moto no Iemon rotaku’ (Iemon’s house) scene in which Oiwa’s looks are destroyed by the poison prepared by Ito Kihe, who wants to have her husband Iemon marry his granddaughter, and in which Oiwa dies cursing Iemon, is particularly famous.
After this the ghost of Oiwa torments Iemon in various scenes, and Oiwa leads Iemon’s mother and other people connected with Iemon to their deaths one after another. In the end, Iemon is killed by Sato Yomoshichi, Osode's husband.
Iemon is described as a nimaime (role of a handsome man with his face painted white), although he is an evil man who killed both Yotsuya Samon and Kobotoke Kohei, who had been hired as a servant, and is also involved in the plan to kill Oiwa. Iemon’s character is also known as a typical role called ‘iroaku’ (handsome bad man).
Also, because the background of this work is “Kanadehon Chushingura,” it has some connection to the world of “Kanadehon Chushingura” (The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers). Iemon and Oiwa’s father Yotsuya Samon are both depicted as ronin, masterless samurai, who used to be employed by the former Enya clan.
In the ‘Moto no Iemon Rotaku’ scene, the poison has badly disfigured Oiwa’s face. She blackens her teeth with kane (ohaguro [tooth-black]) and combs her hair. During this heartbreaking sequence, each time Oiwa moves the comb more of her hair falls out as the geza (off-stage musical accompaniment and sound effects) music plays.The music expresses her bitter feelings and deep sorrow at Iemon’s betrayal. This scene known as ‘kamisuki’ is the major highlight in this play.
This work employs various mechanisms designed to show Oiwa who has become a ghost. The prop mechanism called toitagaeshi is used in the ‘Ombobori’ (Deadman’s Ditch) scene.
A wooden door floats down in front of Iemon who is fishing in the Ombobori moat. The corpse of Kohei, whom Iemon murdered, and the corpse of Oiwa, are nailed onto the front and back sides of the door. The mechanism allows a single actor to portray both corpses. The costumes for the two characters are attached to the front and back of the door, and a hole is made in the door so that only the actor's face shows. Therefore, an instantaneous change of roles can be done when the door is flipped back.
Many other mechanisms such as chochin-nuke in which the ghost of Oiwa appears from a burning chochin (paper lantern) and butsudan-gaeshi, pulling someone into a butsudan (Buddhist altar) are used in the ‘Hebiyama anjitsu’ (The Hebiyama Hermitage in Honjo) scene.
Near the end of act of the ‘Ombobori’ scene, Iemon, Naosuke Gombei and Yomoshichi are silently groping about in the dark, trying to grab each other. During the action, Naosuke picks up a message Yomoshichi drops, while an eel rake Naosuke brought ends up in Yomoshichi’s hands.
This distinctive type of Kabuki scene, in which actors fumble around in the darkness, is known as danmari.