Sifa 2021: Vengeful Japanese ghost wife takes the stage

SINGAPORE - Playwright Chong Tze Chien was on a research trip in Tokyo seven years ago when a local told him about Oiwa, one of Japan's most famous ghosts.

Oiwa, as legend has it, was the beautiful wife of a samurai in the Edo period. After she was disfigured and murdered by her husband, she appeared as a ghost to avenge herself.

The Oiwa-Inari Tamiya shrine in the Yotsuya neighbourhood of Shinjuku is dedicated to her.

"I said, 'You've got to take me there, you can't just leave me hanging'. It was like the Macbeth of Japanese culture," says Chong, 46.

"If that was really what happened to her back in the Edo period - and even today, people have to appease that anger by dedicating a shrine to her - that speaks to the depth and scale of her grief and trauma."

This tale of betrayal and vengeance has reverberated through the ages - and will continue to do so in a new play by The Finger Players.

Oiwa - The Ghost Of Yotsuya, written and directed by Chong, premieres at Sifa from May 28 to 30 after a four-year gestation. It will be performed in Japanese with English surtitles.

Inspired by the 19th-century kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, it will run at the Victoria Theatre with a cast of 10 Singapore and Japanese actors, told from the points of view of Oiwa and her husband.

Some actors will simulate the movements of puppets, manipulated by shadowy puppeteers, combining techniques from Bunraku and Ningyo Buri traditions.

"The first thing we had to do was recondition the actors' bodies," says Chong, who is a core member of The Finger Players.

"They had to learn how to work and behave like puppets. There was the process of moving as though they were puppets, but also trying to look human-like at the same time."

It also required a lot of intuition and hard work, he adds. Since the puppeteers are only pretending to manipulate the human puppets, actors need to pay close attention to each other's breath and speech patterns to sync their movements.

Chong is excited to bring horror to the stage.

"How you pull off that illusion, and have people suspend their disbelief? Because it's not like film. How do we do 'special effects' on a live stage? Those were the challenges I had to work around."

The production will be highly stylised and almost all the actors will be wearing masks - allowing multiple Oiwas to be on stage.

The legend of Oiwa has had a lasting influence on the Japanese horror psyche - inspiring, for instance, the figure of Sadako Yamamura, the long-haired, white-garbed woman in 1998 horror film Ring.

Staging a play about Oiwa, some might say, comes with its risks.

"It's almost a cursed play. You need to get her blessings before you can stage any story that revolves around her," Chong adds.

In 2018, he and the Singapore cast met with the five actors in Japan, rehearsing together and visiting the shrine for a ritual where they sought Oiwa's blessing with the help of a priest.

"We also have a plaque, from the ceremony, and we will have it with us at every rehearsal."