Edo Gothic – A definition

Posted by Colette Balmain on March 03, 2008 in Dr Colette Balmain, Guest Blog tagged with
The term ‘Edo Gothic’ is one that I adopted in my forthcoming book, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (EUP: 2008) to describe a sub-genre of the Japanese film, which was at its height from the late 1950s until the early 1970s. Key films are Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchi: 1953), Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, Nobuo Nakagawa: 1959) and Hellish Love (Seidan botan-dôrô, Chusei Sone: 1972). In my book, I define ‘Edo Gothic’ in the following terms: ‘Edo Gothic films were traditional and tended to reinforce conservative values, with their helpless victims, trapped in nightmarish gothic landscapes, articulated through the expressionistic surfaces of a subjective rather than objective reality’ (Balmain: 2008). In a country torn between democratic capitalism (enforced in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War 2 and the subsequent Allied Occupation) and traditional values – as articulated within the ie system – Edo Gothic’s main theme was ‘the examination of morality in an age of rampant materialism’ (Standish 2005: 204), as ‘embodied within the physical scars of the vengeful ghosts, through which individual and historical trauma becomes displaced from the ‘Self’ onto the ‘Other’’ (Balmain: 2008).
The Edo period (1600-1868) was a time of civil unrest and discord in Japan, especially during the Tokugawa shogunate. It is no surprise therefore that this period in particular would give rise to phantoms and demons that still can be found in Japanese popular culture, or that it would have particular resonance at a time of transformation in Japan’s socio-political structures in the late 1950s and early 1960s.. One of the most notable examples of Edo Gothic is The Ghost Story of Yotsuya, based upon the kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV and first performed in 1821. Nobuo directed other gothic dramas including The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (Kaii Utsunomiya tsuritenjo: 1956) and The Mansion of the Ghost Cat (Borei kaibyo yashiki: 1957). His vivid depiction of Buddhist hell in Hell (Jigoku: 1960), remains one of the defining films of the genre, although it nearly bankrupted him and ended his career.
There were similar gothic narratives being made elsewhere, for example Hammer films in the UK and Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations in the USA. Yet although Edo Gothic shared attributes, for example the use of painterly canvasses and an obsession with madness and death, with the aforementioned films, it also significantly diverges from them in its outlook and emphasis on the ontological materiality of the supernatural. In her discussion of Japanese fairy-tales, Kawai argues that a fundamental characteristic of fairy tales in Japan is the pervasive atmosphere of ‘mono-no-aware’. Central to Kawai’s definition of ‘mono-no-aware’ is the figure of the suffering or wronged woman, whose death is a necessity in order to ‘complete our sense of beauty’ (Kawai, 1996: 58).

This is also the case in Edo Gothic, which as Hughes points out, is defined by its Buddhist sensibility and focus on the negation rather than the affirmation of self (Hughes: 2000). In his discussion of the gothic tales of Izumi Kyoka, Inouye argues that gothic is driven by a sense of fear and awe, and it is the centrality of awe to Japanese gothic, that marks out its difference from Western forms. Inouye writes that Kyoka’s writings articulate ‘a profound reverence for the “two great supernatural forces in this world … the Power of Kannon (Kannon ryoku) and the Power of the Evil Gods (Kishin ryoku) … before which human beings are utterly helpless”’ (1996: 2) This needs to be understood in terms of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, in which it is believed that all animate and inanimate objects have the potential to be inhabited by deities (kami) as well as by reference to Shinto’s matriarchal foundational myth. In brief, attributes of Edo Gothic include a pervasive sense of the supernatural, a painterly aesthetics, permeated by a fatalism and sense of mono-no-aware and populated by dispossed Samurais (ronin) and wronged/suffering women.

These attributes of ‘Edo Gothic’ will be explored in more detail in subsequent blogs.

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