TRANSLATION: none; this is his name
APPEARANCE: Kohada Koheiji is a famous ghost from Edo Period with strong connections to the theater. The real-life events that inspired his ghost story supposedly took place around the year 1700. Over the years, rumor mixed with folklore and fantasy, until his story was finally written down a hundred years later, in 1803’s Fukushū kidan Asaka no numa (“The Strange Tale of Revenge from Asaka Swamp”). His story was adapted into the kabuki play Iroeiri otogizōshi (“Colorful Fairy Tales”) shortly after that. He remained a popular figure throughout the Edo period.
The ghost of Kohada Koheiji is said to jealously guard its status as the best ghost actor. To this day, actors who perform Iroeiri otogizōshi or other adaptations of his story are haunted by strange occurrences, suspicious accidents, and even injuries.
LEGENDS: During the time when Ichikawa Danjūrō II commanded the stage there lived a third-rate actor named Kohada Koheiji. He was part of the Morita-za theater troupe and studied under master Unagi Tarōbē. Koheiji was a terrible actor. On top of that he was unattractive; he had pale, languid skin, sunken, flat eyes, and disheveled hair. He was unable to land even the smallest roles in any of Edo’s kabuki productions. Koheiji’s manager felt sorry for him, and resorted to bribing and begging to find something—anything—for the struggling actor to perform. Finally, he landed a part for Koheiji with a traveling show in the countryside, where the audiences were far less demanding than they were in Edo. Because his poor appearance allowed the producers to save money on makeup, Koheiji was cast as a ghost.
Koheiji believed this to be his last chance to make it as an actor, and so he did everything he could to make his role believable. He studied the faces of dead, making note of the way their muscles fell limp and eyes stared blankly. He copied their rigid, lifeless poses. He practiced speaking in a haunting voice, and walking with an eerie gracefulness. His hard work paid off. His acting was widely acclaimed. He was suddenly the talk of the countryside. The other actors in his troupe admitted finally that Koheiji was good at one thing: being a ghost.
Koheiji’s was married to a woman named Otsuka. Otsukda had been the widow of the disgraced Ikushima Hanroku, an actor who was executed for stabbing and killing the great Ichikawa Danjūrō I publicly on stage. Koheiji loved Otsuka deeply, but she was embarrassed by her husband and thought him a fool. She fell out of love with Koheiji, and into the arms of another performer in the Morita-za: a taiko player named Adachi Sakurō. While Koheiji was away acting in the countryside, Sakurō lived in Koheiji’s house in Edo with Otsuka, pretending to be the master of the house. Eventually, Otsuka asked Sakurō to get rid of Koheiji so that they could be together forever.
At the time, Koheiji was performing in rural Asaka (in present-day Fukushima Prefecture). Sakurō’s brother, a bandit named Unpei, lived nearby, and Sakurō would acquire his help in getting rid of Koheiji. Sakurō traveled to Asaka. Koheiji was surprised and delighted that his troupemate had come to join his performance. Sakurō played the drums while Koheiji played a ghost, and the audience was highly entertained. Among them was the local magistrate, who awarded Koheiji a sum of five golden ryō (a very gracious sum) for his performance. Between shows, Sakurō and Unpei planned the murder.
One day, the performance was canceled due to rain. Sakurō invited Koheiji out to the swamp to go fishing. Once they were far away from any observers, Sakurō struck Koheiji with his fishing rod and knocked him off the boat and into the swamp. Then he thrust his head down into the water and held him there until Koheiji drowned. His body sank to the bottom of the swamp.
Sakurō fled the swamp and went to Unpei’s secret hideout. Unpei was there, and he told Sakurō that his “guest” had already arrived. He took Sakurō into the next room, where Koheiji’s waterlogged body lay on the floor. Sakurō was shocked. “How did that get here?” he asked. Unpei said that it was already there when he arrived. Sakurō opened up Koheiji’s sleeve and took out the five golden ryō which had been paid to Koheiji. “Hah! Now his money and his wife are mine!”
Suddenly, Koheiji’s body rattled and rolled over. With hands as cold as ice and strong as iron, he grabbed Sakurō’s wrist. Sakurō screamed and tried to get free, but the corpse was locked onto his arm. He tugged and yanked his wrist harder and harder until the corpse flopped on top of his own body. Koheiji’s eyes popped open, and he locked his gaze upon Sakurō.
Sakurō screamed. Unpei heard this and rushed into the room. The corpse was lying on top of his brother, eyes locked in a vengeful stare. Sakurō was paralyzed with fear. Unpei tried to pull the corpse off of his brother, but it wouldn’t budge. Unpei drew his sword. He lopped off Koheiji’s head in a single stroke. The head rolled across the room, but the rest of him still gripped Sakurō’s wrist tightly. Finally, Unpei cut each of the hand’s fingers off individually. Sakurō was freed. Without a moment’s delay Sakurō fled out the door. He didn’t stop until he reached Edo.
When Sakurō arrived at to the Kohada residence, he called out for Otsuka. In a panic he rapidly told her everything that happened: the murder, the ghost, the icy cold grip of the corpse and its hateful eyes. Otsuka was confused. “Koheiji just got home a little while ago. He was tired, so he’s resting in the back room.” Sakurō couldn’t believe it. He took Otsuka’s hand and timidly crept into the house, towards the room where Koheiji was sleeping.
When Sakurō entered the bedroom, he saw someone sleeping behind a folding screen. He tried to pull the screen away, but a pale, blue-tinged hand grabbed the end of it and held it fast. Sakurō did not give up. He pulled as hard as he could. There was a popping sound. The folding screen crashed to the floor along with Sakurō. Five severed fingers rolled around on the floor and instantly began to rot. The sickening smell of death filled the room. But there was no body behind the folding screen. A tiny flame floated up into the air and flew out the window. Sakurō was terrified, however Otsuka was undisturbed. If anything, she seemed relieved that Koheiji was finally dead. She soon arranged for a funeral, and then for a wedding.
Sakurō and Otsuka lived as husband and wife. Half a year passed without any further disturbances. They forgot about Koheiji altogether. Then, one night Sakurō awoke to find another man in the bed between himself and Otsuka. He leaped to his feet in a rage, but there was no one there. From that moment, Sakurō began to doubt Otsuka’s fidelity.
One night, while returning home from drinking late at night, Sakurō saw a figure climb into his bedroom window. When he peeked in, he saw another man in bed with Otsuka. In a drunken rage, he ran into the house and drew his sword. Otsuka awoke in a panic and without thinking, she raised her hand in defense. In doing so, she grabbed the sword’s blade. All five of her fingers were severed. The fingers fell to the floor and rotted away, filling the room with the smell of death. The mysterious stranger was nowhere to be seen. A cackling laugh could be heard from above them. It was Koheiji’s voice! Otsuka lost her mind, and fell to the floor in shock.
Every night, the ghost returned to haunt them. As the haunting continued, Sakurō began to lose his mind too. In life, Kohada Koheiji the had so perfected his ghost act that it was indistinguishable from the real thing. In death, Koheiji’s performance was terrifying and sublime. Otsuka never recovered from her madness, and died soon after.
Otsuka’s treatments had cost Sakurō nearly everything he owned, including the five golden ryō he had stolen from Koheiji. Sakurō gave up his few remaining coins to hold a funeral for Otsuka. However, the priest he hired was a con artist, and ran off with the last of Sakurō’s money.
Penniless and insane, Sakurō was forced to live as a beggar. One day, he thought he saw the priest who had tricked him and stolen his money. Sakurō chased after him, but the priest swung his staff and beat Sakurō severely, knocking him off the road and into a pond. Then the bruised, soaked Sakurō realized that it was not the same priest after all. He crawled out of the pond and apologized, but the priest struck Sakurō over and over, beating him nearly to death. Some strangers broke up the fight.
They took Sakurō back to his house to rest, but his wounds were severe and he fell into a fevered insanity. All night his neighbors could hear him crying in delirium. He never woke up. When they found him the next day, Sakurō’s was bloated and discolored—just like that of a drowned corpse.
Some time later, the great Ichikawa Danjūrō II heard of the story of the famous ghost actor Kohada Koheiji’s tragic murder. He pitied him, and offered prayers in his honor. As he prayed, the drowned ghost of Koheiji appeared behind him.
“Koheiji. You were only ever good at being a ghost,” said Danjūrō.
With that final recognition, Koheiji’s ghost seemed content, and vanished.