A Closer Look: Moon of the Lonely House

From vengeful ghosts to mythical creatures, Japanese folklore teems with spine-chilling tales of the supernatural. Yet, sometimes it is horrors enacted by humans that prove to be the most terrifying. This Halloween, we’ll take a look at one such story through Yoshitoshi's Moon of the Lonely House.

The old woman lunges forward, thrusting a small torch into the dilapidated house. The moonlight accentuates each shadow in her withered form. As her brows furrow, her eyes locked on something beyond the image, Yoshitoshi captures a terrifying determination in his portrait of the villain.
Yoshitoshi. Moon of the Lonely House from One Hundred Views of the Moon. 1890. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

Known alternatively as the story of the Lonely House on Adachi Moor or Kurozuka (Black Mound), this tale of a murderous old woman has captured the imagination of artists and audiences since the late Nara Period (710-784). The figure behind the tale is said to be Iwate, the wet nurse to an aristocratic household. While the story branches into distinct versions of her horrific deeds, each version revolves around illness in her masters’ family, cold-blooded murder, and a haunting that continues to intrigue contemporary audiences. A popular telling of the tale goes as follows:

One day, while Iwate was working in an aristocratic household, her mistress fell ill with a mysterious sickness. With no cure in sight, the loyal Iwate consulted a seer. The seer revealed that the only remedy was the consumption of the liver of a pregnant woman. Despite the horror entwined in this task, Iwate set off into the countryside to procure such a liver, leaving her young daughter behind. Days turned to years and Iwate grew old, settling into a small home on the lonely moor, patiently waiting for her opportunity.

One night, a young couple came across Iwate’s home during their travel and sought shelter with the old woman. The young woman was pregnant and soon went into labor. As the young man rushed from the house to procure medicine for his wife, Iwate’s years of waiting came to a culmination–she drove her knife into the woman’s abdomen. As she reached to remove the liver, the young woman revealed her identity and purpose of travel: she was the daughter of Iwate and searching for her mother who had disappeared into the wilderness when she was young. Just then, Iwate noticed the talisman that she had gifted to her daughter so many years ago and she knew that the young woman spoke the truth. Here the tale forks into two distinct outcomes: In the first, the horror of her actions broke Iwate, sending her spiraling into a madness marked by murder and cannibalism for years to come. In this take, her humanity slips away and she becomes an onibaba, or "demon old woman." In the second far more optimistic outcome, the old woman is so horrified by her actions, that she reforms her behavior for good.

In the print Moon of the Lonely House from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, Yoshitoshi adheres to the darker interpretation of the tale. Yoshitoshi focuses on the height of tension rather than the culmination of violence in this print. The old woman lunges forward, thrusting a small torch into the dilapidated house. The moonlight accentuates each shadow in her withered form. As her brows furrow, her eyes locked on something beyond the image, Yoshitoshi captures a terrifying determination in his portrait of the villain. For those who know of the gruesome tale, this design stirs anxiety in its audience–the viewer knows what's coming as the murderous old woman sneaks up on her unsuspecting victim.

Today, the legend lives on through local folklore in Nihonmatsu, located in Fukushima prefecture. In 2012, The Japan Times sent a reporter to feel out the space in the spirit of Halloween. The legend places her grave, the “black mound,” beneath a lone cypress tree on the bank of the Abukuma River. Just beyond the pine, one can remember onibaba’s victims at Kanzeji Temple. The temple grounds and the onibaba's stomping grounds blur together. Here, one can see Iwaya overhang, where the lonely house that titles Yoshitoshi’s print stood, as well as the deba-arai (knife washing pond). The main temple building doubles as a museum to the legend, with artifacts such as the alleged knife used in her murders and the shovel used to bury her victims' remains. In the midst of this gruesome legacy, there is also some frivolity around the legend: the horrific onibaba has become a cute mascot known as Bappy-chan.

Looking for another moonlit tale this Halloween? Explore more works from Yoshitoshi's series 100 Views of the Moon here.

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