The Peony Lantern (Botan Doro) is one of my erotic Shunga paintings for October, which centers around the classic ghost stories of Japan. Turning them into erotic works of art is at the same time both easy and difficult. Easy because I often equate the erotic with romantic love (of which the melancholy kind often appears in ghost stories) and hard because that very same romanticism and melancholy prevents me from creating overly explicit tableaus. Death is no laughing matter and the driving force behind intimacy between the departed and the living comes out best when it derives its strength from a longing for remaining, for closeness or the idea that love is what often makes us feel alive. It is perhaps love that makes us in a strange and unexpected way immortal?
The story of “Botan Doro” (the Peony Lantern) is one of my favorite ghost stories. It is terrifying yet sensitive and sweet. The hopelessness of impossible romance and how this is overcome defiance of laws of the universe and finally the consequences for having yourselves assumed the position of gods. The two lovers ultimately pays a costly price for their transgressions but at the same time there is something so very human about their longing for each other.
Here is a brief summary of the Kabuki play based on the story;
“A young student named Shinzaburo falls in love with a beautiful woman named Otsuyu, the daughter of his father’s best friend. They meet secretly, and promise to be married. But Saburo falls ill, and is unable to see Otsuyu for a long time.
Later, when Saburo recovers and goes to see his love, he is told that Otsuyu has died. He prays for her spirit during the Obon festival, and is surprised to hear the approaching footsteps of two women. When he sees them, they look remarkably like Otsuyu and her maid. It is revealed that her aunt, who opposed the marriage, spread the rumor that Otsuyu had died and told Otsuyu in turn that Saburo had died.
The two lovers, reunited, begin their relationship again in secret. Each night Otsuyu, accompanied by her maid who carries a peony lantern, spends the night with Saburo.
This continues blissfully until one night a servant peeks through a hole in the wall in Saburo’s bedroom, and sees him having sex with a decaying skeleton, while another skeleton sits in the doorway holding a peony lantern. He reports this to the local Buddhist priest, who locates the graves of Otsuyu and her maid. Taking Saburo there, he convinces him of the truth, and agrees to help Saburo guard his house against the spirits. The priest places ofuda around the house, and prays the nenbutsu every night.
The plan works, and Otsuyu and her maid are unable to enter, although they come every night and call out their love to Saburo. Pining for his sweetheart, Saburo’s health begins to deteriorate. Saburo’s servants, afraid that he will die from heartbreak leaving them without work, remove the ofuda from the house. Otsuyu enters, and again has sex with Saburo.
In the morning, the servants find Saburo dead, his body entwined with Otsuyu’s skeleton. His face is radiant and blissful.”
For a more in depth overview of the “Botan Doro” you can go deeper here
And here is little something from the actual Kabuki playÖ