Edo Gothic: History, Identity and Ideology

Posted by Colette Balmain on May 19, 2008 in Dr Colette Balmain, Guest Blog tagged with

Enter blog entry here

As I have already stated in an earlier posting, the central figure of Edo Gothic is the ronin, or masterless samurai, whose lack of status is the key motivational factor in the narrative of violence and vengeance that defines the genre. The archetypical ronin of Edo Gothic has to be Iyemon in ‘The Ghost Story of Yotsuya’, whose desire to regain his lost status leads to the murder of his beautiful but sickly wife, Oiwa, in order to marry Oume, the daughter of a rich Samurai, and by doing so to regain his position in the [Feudal] social order. As such, the location of the narrative nearly always in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) can elucidate the instability of [masculine] identity and the ideology underlying such representations, which is a fundamental component of Edo Gothic narratives.


Japanese history is divided into periods, the Edo period takes place after Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603) and before the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), which saw the restoration of the Emperor and the capital of Japan moving from the Kyoto to Tokyo heralding the birth of a modern Japan. The first half of the Edo period was relatively stable as Japan prospered under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The major intellectual trend in Japan was neo-Confucianism, which underpinned the class system of the time, formed of four main classes – Samurai, farmers, craftspeople and traders (merchants) (see Charles J. Dunn, Everyday Life in Traditional Japan, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1969). A fifth class was made up of people from impure professions, especially those associated with death, known as outcasts (actors and actresses were also considered members of impure professions). The concept of bushido or way of the Samurai was developed during this period. The four vows of the bushido were 1) ‘Never lag behind in the practice of Bushido; 2) Always be loyal and devoted in the service to your Lord; 3) Do your duty to your parents and 4) Stir up your compassion for all sentient beings in order to devote yourself to the service of others’. (Tsunetomo Yamamota, Bushido: The Way of the Samurai, translated by Minoru Tanaka, edited by Justin F. Stone, Square One Publishers, New York, 2002, page 11).


In terms of gender relationships during the Edo period, a woman’s place was defined in terms of obedience and duty. Davies and Ikeno in The Japanese Mind write that ‘In the Edo period, the upbringing of females was designed to develop “good wives” who would be responsible for the household and produce many children.’ (Tuttle Publishing, 2002, page 179). And Dominique Buisson points out that ‘A respectable woman’s life was governed by ‘three submissions’ – to her father, to her husband and to her eldest son.’ (Japan Unveiled: Understanding Japanese Body Culture, Hachette Illustrated, 2003, page 57). In the Meiji period, woman became responsible for their children’s education and with it the concept of ryôsaikenbo (good wife, wise mother), gained currency as a dominant mechanism for defining female roles in Japan society: remnants of which ideology can still be seen in contemporary Japan.


Towards the end of the Edo period (the late Tokugawa period)  – partly as a result of Japan opening up to trade with the West in 1720 – Japan entered a period of economic and political instability. The rigid class system broke down as peasants revolted against high land taxes and the merchant classes became increasingly a central part of the move towards a capitalist and modern society. The Samurai became obsolete – although the code of honour with which the Samurai was associated would become an integral part of nationalistic narratives of Japaneseness (Nihonjinron) – and many were reduced to working for merchants or doing piece meal work, such as being employed as Umbrella makers. 


The instability of masculine identity as configured through the representation of the ronin, situated against a rapidly changing and modernising society, is encapsulated by Iyemon reduced to making umbrellas in The Ghost Story of Yotsuya and adaptations thereof, and the Samurai in the ‘Black Hair’ segment of Kaidan (Masaki Kobayashi: 1964) who divorces his wife to take up a profitable position with a rich Samurai. However I want to conclude this discussion of masculinity in Edo Gothic through an interrogation of the role of Iyemon in Illusion of Blood (1965), directed by Shiro Toyoda.  In this version of ‘The Ghost Story of Yotsuya’, Iyemon (Tatsuya Nakadai) is depicted unsympathetically and the universe in which he inhabits in one of decay and degeneration. He has already begun his downward journey into brutality when we first meet him as he contemplates selling his Samurai sword in order to bring in much needed money into the household. Oiwa (Mariko Okada) has been forced back to her father’s – Samon’s (Yasushi Nagata) -home as a result of their impoverished circumstances. It is crucial therefore that Iyemon’s pride, comparable to the dramatic concept of hubris, renders him unable to sell his Sword, and precipitates his downfall. At the same time, Samon no more embodies traditional Samurai values – frugality, loyalty, obedience – than Iyemon, in that he prostitutes or attempts to prostitute in the case of Oiwa, both his daughters. When Iyemon visits Samon to insist that Oiwa should return home, we discover that Iyemon stole the money that belonged to the Lord, who died in a grip of some sort of madness. While Iyemon continually attempts to regain his lost status throughout the film, he uses the signifier of his Samurai status – his sword – to strike down all that get in this way including Samon. It is befitting therefore that he dies, falling onto his own sword in the final ‘revenge of the ghosts’ sequence with which the film concludes. And like Samon, Iyemon uses women to his own profit, as mere commodities without the right to self-determination. After he murders Oiwa, in response to Naosuke’s (Kanzaburo Nakamura) comment that Oiwa may be a bitter spirit in the next world, he remarks ‘Even if she is, what can a woman do?’ (Toyoda: 1965). This remark encapsulates the dominant ideology of the time that to be a woman was to have no power, but merely to act in accordance with Confucian guidelines around appropriate femininity as defined merely in opposition to an active but paradoxically servile masculinity. The irony is that although Oiwa can only return to wreck revenge by taking on the form of the living, it is her ‘image’ that functions as a mechanism of revenge deceiving Iyemon into killing his new wife, Oume (Mayumi Ozora) and others in line with the template of the folktale, ‘The Tale of Oiwa’ on which the film and kabuki play is based.


According to the way of the bushido, a Samurai should be the personification of self-effacement even going so far as to place his own life at risk in order to abide by its rules. As Yamamota writes ‘If you continually preserve the state of death in everyday life, you will understand the essence of the Bushido, and you will gain freedom in Bushido.’ (page 14). Further in his discussion of ‘Groundless Suffering’, Yamamota writes:


A samurai once said, “Samurais fear becoming ronin because it involves thousands of troubles and miseries. So they become very depressed when they are told to do ronin. But once you actually do ronin, you will not find it as difficult as you expected; quite different from your fearful anticipation. I personally want to do ronin again.” […] You must understand, at all times, that the end for all samurais is either ronin or harakiri [ritual suicide]. (page 28).


For Yamamota, the ronin is the very embodiment of Samurai values, rather than its antithesis. This is perhaps the very essence of the moral message of Edo Gothic narratives, and was without doubt fundamental to the underlying structures of the Japanese feudal or ie system with its series of obligations and debts to the living and the dead. In a society torn between Western individualism and the Japanese concept of the relational self, it is no surprise that Western individualism associated with consumerism and capitalism is inscribed as the cause of all societal ills. In Illusion of Blood, the society depicted is one that captures the new burgeoning mercantile foundation of Japan towards the end of the 19th century.  Signifiers of capitalism and its commodity society abound – the strangely titled ‘Employment Agency’ which seems to function as a front for prostitution, the exchange of money (aligned with women’s body) between the men in the narrative and Iyemon’s callous and brutal theft of his wife’s kimono and son’s mosquito net in the sequence of Oiwa’s murder. Perhaps the mercantile nature of this new society that the Samurai finds himself at odds with is articulated most directly through the figure of Naosuke, who trades items in the bustling Edo marketplace for a living, which places him on an even social scale with the disposed Samurai, Iyemon. As such, it is key that in the final sequence when Naosuke points to their similarities, Iyemon is quick to strike him down. The letter of recommendation that Ito writes for Iyemon when Iyemon marries Oume is a key trope signifying the conflict between Samurai values and capitalist society throughout and it is significant that it crumbles to dust in Iyemon’s hands when at last he manages to get his hands on it. Capitalism wipes away fundamental and traditional values and morals, an upheaval which is constitutive in Edo Gothic of the deceitful and dangerous ronin who puts personal desire first: an act of self individualisation which is seen as undermining the very constitution of Japanese society. As Hamabata comments: ‘The social should take primacy over the emotional, durable form over transient feeling. The uchi (inside) should be sacrificed for the sake of the ie.’ (Matthews M. Hamabata, ‘The Battle to Belong: Self-Sacrifice and Self-Fulfilment in the Japanese Family Enterprise, in Situated Meaning: Inside and Outside in Japanese self, society and language, edited y Jane M. Bachnik and Charles J. Quinn Jr., Princeton University Press, 1994, page 206


The Japanese Gothic: It is worth commenting that Japanese gothic takes a variety of forms of which Edo Gothic is but one sub-genre. The essential characteristics are generally the same, but in its extremes can take the form of the explicit sadomasochistic imagery associated with the stories of Edogawa Rampo, a Japanese mystery writer, whose debt to Edgar Alan Poe is contained within the phonetic sound of his nom-de-plume, yet whose stories take Poe’s grotesque imagery to the extreme and whose work have influenced some of the most imaginative cinematic gothic films based upon his stories including The Watcher in the Attic (Edogawa Rampo ryoki-kan: Yaneura no sanpo sha, Noboru Tanaka: 1976), Blind Beast (Môjû, Yasuzo Masumura: 1969) and the recent Rampo Noir (Rampo jigoku, Akio Jissoji, Atsushi Kaneko et al, 2005) – see Jasper Sharp’s essay ‘Edogawa Rampo: A Hellish Mirror’ in Film International, issue 19, volume 4, no. 1. 2006.




One of my current students, who wrote his dissertation on Anime, argued that the rigid class and gender structures of the Samurai can be found in popular Anime productions, both on television and on the big screen, thus articulating the persistence of nationalist values and attesting to their continued popularity.


Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/38nynj4