Hokusai’s The Ghost of Oiwa depicts an episode from one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, concerned with an unfaithful husband who murders his wife. The night before he is to marry another woman, her face appears upon his bedside lamp, hissing “betrayal!” The treacherous samurai strikes the lamp, which crashes to the floor. On the day of the wedding, the face superimposes itself upon those of his new wife and her grandfather, again hissing “betrayal,” so that he reflexively lashes out and decapitates both. The story ends with the murderer driven over the edge of a cliff by the laughing specter.
The print is one of Hokusai’s series One Hundred Ghost Stories, the title of which refers to a Japanese parlor game wherein a room was filled with one hundred andon (lamps or candles enclosed in paper) accompanied by a mirror resting on a small table. The participants, gathered separately, would take turns telling ghost stories. At the end of each tale the storyteller would enter the room, extinguish one of the andon, and look into the mirror before returning to the group. As the participants approached the one hundredth tale, the room would darken and they would grow ever more fearful of invoking the spirits. Though Hokusai and his publisher presumably envisioned one hundred prints, only five are known to have been produced.