A chilling rendition of an age-old horror story where it is humans, not ghosts, that are the true villains.
“The Ghost of Yotsuya” is one of Japan’s most beloved and frequently performed ghost stories. As a timeless tale of tragedy and revenge, the classic has gone on to receive countless adaptations, from kabuki theatre to films and television series. With so many versions that already exist, it seems a gargantuan task for a Singaporean theatre company to stage a new production of it, respecting its longstanding history while making it distinctly their own.
That’s a task writer/director Chong Tze Chien dedicated himself to over the last few years, spending time and resources researching the story’s origins, alongside working closely with counterparts in Japan to produce The Finger Players’ (TFP) new show OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya. Presented as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), TFP’s production is a haunting production driven by the company’s expertise in puppetry, capturing the violence and pain of the original story while highlighting the horror of human vice and how greed can sow the seeds of tragedy.
In Tze Chien’s script, the story recounts how the cripple Tamiya (Futoshi Moriyama) falls in love with the local village chief’s daughter. But tempted by greed, his pure intentions are corrupted and he hatches a devious plan to marry into the family and inherit their gold. A series of tragedies leads him to instead enter into a loveless marriage with younger daughter Oiwa, where his greed leads him to leave behind a trail of lies, bloodshed and dead bodies. It’s not long before something supernatural comes for revenge, and begins to systematically punish him for all the crimes he’s committed.
Throughout the play, Tamiya’s evolution into a traitor is terrifying to watch, paranoid to the point he would begin to doubt his own friends, and cruel enough to separate wife from son, beating her down when she’s already disfigured and in pain. As its title suggests, Tze Chien’s writing also evokes sympathy for lady Oiwa, humanising her rather than reducing her to just a vengeful ghost, and showcasing her as a victim to Tamiya’s plots, making her fearsome nature as a malevolent spirit an understandable response to the hurt and violence she’s endured over the years.
Over the last 22 years in the local theatre scene, TFP have shown themselves as masters of puppetry. With OIWA, they’ve used these unique skills to bring out a new dimension to this age old tale, using life-sized Japanese bunraku puppets as their medium. Using puppets allows the cast to perform a full range of movements for each character, whether shuffling out onstage, or transforming from doll to hovering ghost in a flash. Moreover, the puppets themselves are key to bringing out the horror of OIWA. With their pupil-less eyes, unchanging expressions and uncanny movements, we feel uneasy watching them, as if these are inanimate objects possessed by something supernatural, and pretending to be human.
Across its many iterations, The Ghost of Yotsuya has always been known for its ability to use stage techniques and special effects to heighten the sense of fear and send chills into the audience. Under Tze Chien’s direction, the world of OIWA makes us believe in the presence of ghosts thanks to its surreal, dreamy presentation. Take for example red streamers pouring forth from puppets’ bodies to replace blood, or the way skeletons on ‘fire’ levitate across the stage in a bamboo forest, and the goriness of the play becomes macabrely beautiful. While the cast’s facial expressions are rarely seen, their onstage chemistry, coordination and vocal work is so strong, that the puppets feel distinctly alive.
The homage to Japanese culture does not end with the use of bunraku puppets. Throughout OIWA, there are nods to its origins as a kabuki play, such as how the play opens traditionally with rhythmic drumbeats and a shout offstage, typical of traditional Japanese theatre. There are explicit references to Shinto beliefs, such as altars as a means to ward off evil and exorcist monks, while even the dark humour seems to reference ‘kyogen’ style comedy, with the puppets performing exaggerated movements and poses to bring out the nervous laughs.
Wong Chee Wai’s set design uses simple set pieces to maximum effect; when Tamiya first enters their labyrinthine house, Oiwa consistently pops out from behind a single sliding door that shifts from one location to another, establishing it as a massive, unpredictable house full of secrets and surprises without having to literally showcase its size. Large wooden beams flank either side of the stage, resembling traditional Japanese structures, while long bamboo poles descending from the ceiling create the illusion of a forest.
Lim Woan Wen’s lighting is key to elevating each scene, showcasing her mastery over light and shadow. Pale blue lighting is used to highlight a malevolent mist is creeping in, while ominous red light indicates violence and bloodshed. At other times, her lighting is simply effective at obscuring actors just enough to allow them to manipulate puppets without us noticing them. Darren Ng’s soundscapes, inspired by traditional Japanese music, takes us right to the Edo period, and raises the tension during supernatural scenes, amplifying the mystery and fear felt by the audience.
Meanwhile, MAX.TAN’s costumes utilise intricate prints and designs that toe the line between historical Japanese costume and contemporary fashion, from polka-dotted hakama pants, to more elaborate, structured kamishomo and kimonos, adding to the already visual feast OIWA provides. The plot may seem simple, but Tze Chien has woven in an intricate tenderness and vulnerability into his script that allows both cast and designers to showcase their craft. With deft movements in their puppetry and evocative storytelling, set in an immersive, supernatural world filled with savage beauty and stark environments, OIWA proves it is the epic production that matches TFP’s equally epic ambitions.
TFP are without a doubt, the local authority when it comes to puppetry, and a company that has constantly elevated it to new heights with every production. With its technical brilliance and deft handling of puppets, OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya shows why they’re so deserving of that reputation, and that puppetry, when done right, can bring even the dead to life. Respectful of its Japanese heritage, eerily atmospheric, and timeless in its message, OIWA is a triumph of creative execution in live theatre, and makes for a hauntingly powerful production to end off SIFA 2021.
Photo Credit: The Finger Players
OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya played from 28th to 30th May 2021 at Victoria Theatre as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will also be available as video-on-demand. Tickets and more information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021. Shows will be available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here