Horror is typically regarded as the least feminist genre of film; a genre that routinely objectifies, sexualizes, tortures, rapes and murders women and girls. However, if viewed from a different angle, horror films often feature story lines that grant wronged women the power and agency (in death) to respond to the injustices done to them in life.
‘Dead wet girls’ is a term coined by David Kalat in his book J-Horror to describe the unique female ghosts who are so iconic in Japanese horror. While popular Japanese films like RING and JU-ON have made this figure recognizable to Western audience, the wronged woman has been a prominent figure in Japanese ghost stories and mythology for centuries. Of course, the interpretation of these stories is fairly ambivalent; often the presence of malignant ghosts and spirits is connected back to the failure of mothers and wives to perform their womanly duties. In many Japanese folktales, female spirits are connected back to the savage and unpredictable natural world.
TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GHOST TALES
The best example of this connection to nature is the Yuki-onna (snow woman), famously depicted in Kobayashi Masaki’s KWAIDAN (1964). The Yuki-onna is a beautiful woman with long black hair, who typically appears before travelers lost in snow. The Yuki-onna typically kills the unfortunate travelers she meets, though she may also take unsuspecting men as lovers in a succubus-like fashion. She is essentially the manifestation of winter; beautiful and serene yet capable of ruthlessly killing those who are ill-prepared. She is also a reminder of a woman’s fury – like nature, no woman can ever be fully trusted. Kobayashi Masaki’s depiction of the Yuki-onna is captivatingly surreal. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya, the entire segment was filmed in an obviously artificial indoor set with swirling painted backgrounds (featuring an ominous eye).
However, while some deviations of the myth state that the Yuki-onna is the spirit of a person who died in the snow, she is more closely related to yōkai (Japanese supernatural monsters). In contrast, the dead wet girls are a specific type of Japanese yūrei known as onryō. Famously recited in JU-ON, onryō are based on the idea that enraged souls of the dead can return with enough power to exert influence on the living. This typically happens if the person dies suddenly and violently (murder or suicide) or in the grip of strong emotions (revenge, jealously, hatred, love). A few male onryō exist, but they are overwhelmingly female. This can either be linked back to the fact that wrathful vengeance can rise out of any women (no woman can be fully trusted) or the fact that Japanese women finally possess the power and agency in death that they were denied in life.
One of the oldest onryō stories is the folktale about Okiku (also called Banchō Sarayashiki). The samurai Aoyama Tessan becomes enamored with his beautiful and virtuous servant Okiku. After she repeatedly refuses his advances, he tricks her into believing that she lost of the family’s 10 priceless plates. Hysterical, she repeatedly counts the nine plates but cannot find a tenth anywhere (there were only ever nine plates). She tearfully apologizes to Aoyama, who responds that he will overlook the matter if she becomes his lover. She again refuses and the enraged Aoyama throws her down a well to her death. Her spirit then returns to torment Aoyama by counting nine then screaming over and over until her spirit is exorcised.
Undoubtedly, the most famous onryō story is YOTSUYA KAIDAN, which has been adapted into a variety of plays and films (I have previously reviewed Nakagawa Nobuo’s 1959 TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN and Toyoda Shiro’s 1966 ILLUSION OF BLOOD). This story follows the greedy ronin Iyemon, who murders the father of his wife Oiwa and later plots to disfigure her beautiful face and divorce her to marry the daughter of a wealthy samurai family. Iyemon orders his servant Takuetsu to rape Oiwa (grounds for divorce), but Takuetsu cannot follow through with the plot. He shows Oiwa her disfigured face and, enraged, Oiwa grabs and sword a runs for the door. After a struggle, she accidentally stabs her own throat. Bleeding to death, she curses Iyemon’s name. Then, on the night of Iyemon’s wedding to his new bride, Oiwa’s ghost reappears and tricks Iyemon into murdering his wife and father-in-law. Ultimately, Iyemon is also driven insane by Oiwa’s haunting figure.
Other traditional Japanese ghost tales include UGETSU MONOGATARI (dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953) and KURONEKO (dir. Shindo Kaneto, 1968).
MODERN GHOST STORIES
Obviously, the onryō has been prevalent figures in Japanese horror stories for centuries. However, previous representations of these women have limited their vengeance to those directly responsible or connected to the injustice placed upon them. In contrast, modern versions of onryō are much more virulent and pit themselves against the entire patriarchal society responsible for the environment that allowed their mistreatment. Additionally, the women in traditional Japanese ghost stories are consistently depicted as pure victims; they have always fulfilled their societal duties as women and are the victims of injustice precisely because they are TOO virtuous and TOO beautiful. On the other hand, modern Japanese ghost stories depict women (both the onryō and the victims of the curses) as figures who, while wronged, have deviated for their societal roles in some fashion. Thus, while these female figures do return to exact revenge for the injustice they suffered, their deviation makes them partially responsible for their fates. This makes a purely pro-feminist interpretation problematic.
Nakata Hideo’s film THE RING (RINGU, 1998) was initially responsible for the boom in Japanese horror and ‘dead wet girls’ in the West. In THE RING, there exists a haunted videotape that will kill you seven days after you watch it. Asakawa – a young reporter and single mother – finds herself cursed by the tape and must try and solve the mystery of its origins before her time runs out. Along the way she teams up with her ex-husband, who seems to possess some psychic ability himself, and accidentally exposes her young son to the curse as well. This is a departure from the plotline of the Suzuki Koji’s novel, in which Asakawa is actually a man who is fighting to protect his wife and daughter from the curse.
Suzuki Koji, the author, states that this was a conscious choice made to highlight what he calls the ‘gendering’ of Japanese society. He feels that within modern Japanese society, the responsibility of raising the children is placed solely on the shoulders of women and that fathers play a very distant and uninvolved role. According to Suzuki, “My position is that there is no preexisting paternal instinct. Under the traditional patriarchal system, fathers never assumed any true responsibly for their families – they were basically just symbolic figures. So what I am trying to stress is the notion that fatherhood is a concept – this idea of paternal instinct – is something novel. Throughout Japanese literature, the men are forever telling their wives to take care of everything while they stumble out into the outside world, blindly accepting what they see as the natural family order. Japanese society is an overwhelmingly maternal society where men are indulged.”
This runs very close to the concept of ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) which was developed during the Meiji period. This ideal placed the responsibility of raising the children solely in the hands of mothers and was promoted as a way of ‘empowering’ women with the opportunity to positively influence the development ofJapan. However, by ‘empowering’ women with the important task of raising virtuous and productive Japanese citizens, the government was able to rob women of responsibilities and privileges that they had traditionally possessed within society and confine them solely within the Japanese household. During the Meiji period, this was an effective way to ban women from participating in or influencing politics and this trend has continued into modern society. In Japanese literature, if an author wants to allude to a problem within Japanese society he can easily do so by depicting mothers who have failed to fulfill their role as a ‘good wife and wise mother.’ Whether explicitly or implicitly, the problems within Japanese society depicted in the novel can be traced back to this failure. For example, Murakami Ryuu’s 1980 novel Coin Locker Babies portrays the decay and corruption of modernTokyo. Unsurprisingly, the two main characters were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers as babies – the epitome of failed motherhood. By making the main character of his novel so concerned with protecting his family, Suzuki says that he wanted to portray a Japanese man positively fulfilling his role as a parent.
Nakata Hideo, the director (who ironically got his start making Roman Porno, or Romantic Pornography) states that he decided to change the character of Asakawa into a woman, “Because I like women!” Whatever the reason, this alternation actually highlights the themes of the story better than the original novel. The Asakawa in the novel infantilizes his wife, treating her like a piece of fragile glass that can break at any moment. This is not a very positive image of how men should be treating women in Japan. In contrast, the film portrays Asakawa as a strong independent woman who is working hard to raise her child on her own, despite the negative connotations that has within Japanese society.
However, while Asakawa is represented as a strong and independent female, her deviation from the ryosai kenbo ideal is obviously the reason that her son is exposed to the curse (due to both her career and negligence as a mother, her son is able to get his hands on the videotape and watch it.) In both versions of the story, the primary theme is women who in some way have defied their traditional gender roles and the repercussions of that defiance. This is a common theme throughout the entire J-horror drama and is a very powerful piece of social commentary. Furthermore, the viral nature of many of the ghosts and curses within Japanese horror implies that even though your own family might not suffer from these problems, disharmony has an ability to spread into everything it encounters. Thus, a problem within some Japanese families is a problem for Japanese society as a whole.
In both the film and the novel, Sadako (the ghost) is the product of a deviation from the traditional family structure and the roles of women. In the novel, Sadako was born with Testicular Feminization Syndrome, meaning she has both male and female genitalia. Unable to bear children, she lives a life of hurt and disappointment. She is then raped by a man with smallpox and drowned in a well. According to Suzuki’s version, the curse of the THE RING is the product of the rapists’ smallpox and Sadako’s psychic ability, made all the more powerful by the intense pain she suffered before her death. This is how the curse obtained its viral effect and the ability to travel from person to person, spreading Sadako’s suffering and rage with it. In the film, Sadako is the product of a scandalous affair between her mother and the scientist who was studying her psychic ability. However, Nakata implies that Sadako might not even have a human father at all and has much sinister origins. In any case, Sadako’s psychic abilities are exponentially greater than her mother and this disturbing ability alienates everyone around her. Ultimately, her father knocks her into a well and covers it up, leaving her to die alone and making her into one particularly pissed-off ghost. The theme of dysfunctional families is reinforced in the film by making the Asakawa character female and turning Ryuji into the detached ex-husband. In fact, the only victims we see attacked by the ghostly Sadako are those that deviate from traditional Japanese society. Furthermore, by making Ryuji into Asakawa’s ex-husband, Nakata Hideo has only improved upon Suzuki Koji’s theme of fathers failing to fulfill their parental responsibilities.
JU-ON (dir. Shimizu Takashi, 2000) presents the same microcosm of Japanese society found in THE RING. Here, the onryō is the product of a domestic crime so terrible that it leaves a deadly stain on the house in which it occurred. Much like Sadako, Kayako is a woman who denies her traditional role within society. However, Kayako’s deviation is much more negative than Sadako, who is clearly a victim of the unfortunate circumstances of her life. Kayako betrays her family and fails to fulfill her duties as a mother due to an unhealthy obsession with her son’s homeroom teacher. This betrayal leads to her brutal murder at the hands of her enraged husband, Takeo. The man also drowns his own son and the pet cat before hanging himself. Their brutal murders lead to a curse that spreads the pain and rage of their death onto everybody.
In comparison to the awful husband Iyemon in the Japanese classic YOTSUYA KAIDAN who killed his unoffending wife for no reason other than he was tired of her, Kayako is definitely guilty of some marital infidelity. However, her transgressions hardly merits the awful punishment exacted upon her by her husband. The curse in JU-ON not only represents the awful consequences of deviations from the family structure for both the individual and the society as a whole but also demonstrates the tragic consequences that Japanese society will face if it cannot adapt to the changes that are occurring within the modern family structure.
When asked about the prevalence of vengeful female onryō, director Shimizu Takashi has been quoted saying, “I think that men physically are very strong and women are weak, but inside, like a mother’s instinct, women are really strong inside. Psychologically and mentally, women are a lot stronger than men, so when it’s a serial-killer-type violent movie it may make the audience more scared [to have a male villain], but with a woman as a ghost it’s scarier, because she looks like us physically but inside she has lots of strength, and that’s what makes it really scary subconsciously.” Whatever the reason,ShimizuTakashi has created some of the most terrifying apparitions in all of horror cinema, be it Japanese or American.
Other modern Japanese onryō stories: CARVED (aka KUCHISAKE-ONNA, dir. Shiraishi Koji, 2007) and DARK WATER (dir. Nakata Hideo, 2002)
The representation of women in modern Japanese onryō is, of course, problematic on a few levels:
1) The dominant message is not ‘Don’t mistreat women or children because it is wrong’ but rather ‘Beware of mistreating women and children because they will return to kill you.’
2) Though there is the suggestion that society should be changed, these women (though sympathetic) are ultimately terrifying villains. While they have been wronged by society and people, they are also represented as somehow deviant from the ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ Japanese woman.
While different onryō stories often connect the vengeful female ghosts back to the wrongs society and people inflicted on them, the women are still overwhelmingly vilified. The true villain, however, is really the society that continues to perpetuate and allow these injustices to occur. It is unfortunate that vengeful female ghosts are only granted the power and agency to avenge the injustices done to them after death. More importantly, connecting the ‘proper’ behavior of women to the overall wellbeing of society – and all of these modern stories connect the misbehavior of women to dire consequences – is very unfeminist indeed. The next step forward should be to grant women the agency to protect themselves and right wrongs without sacrificing their lives or being transformed into terrifying, unrelenting monsters. And the ability to deviate from gender roles without facing murder, rape, or torture.
What are your thoughts on this, readers?
Tags: constantine in tokyo, constantineintokyo, critical essay, film, film review, Film Reviews, ghosts, horror, J-horror, Japan, japanese film, JU-ON, Kwaidan, Nakata Heideo, Oiwa, Okiku, onryo, Shimizu Takashi, The Grudge, The Ring, yokai, yotsuya kaidan, yurei