The Wronged Woman Continued

Posted by Colette Balmain on March 28, 2008 in Dr Colette Balmain, Guest Blog tagged with


Last time I mentioned the two most archetypical stories, embedded within popular mythology and folklore that are representative of the wronged/suffering woman who is the central character in Edo Gothic. We saw a permutation on the first, that of Oiwa, in my discussion of The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. I argued that her suffering, like the suffering of all female protagonists in Edo Gothic, functions to complete the story within the concept of mono-no-aware as identified by Kawaii in her discussion of Japanese fairy tales. These tales are therefore inherently tragedies, based around traditional Japanese concepts of narrative, and infused with a Buddhist sensibility. Further, I would suggest that the films that I identify as Edo Gothic, coming soon after the Allied Occupation, and the perceived shame of surrender that marks Japan’s perception of itself in the aftermath of World War Two, work within a discourse of victimisation that pervades Japanese cinema post World War Two as embedded within the discourse of hibakusha. This discourse is centred on the form of  ‘a tragic young heroine suffering from atomic-related illness’ (Lowenstein 2005: 86) through which ‘the figure of woman enables a historical narrative of forgetting, where victimization replaces responsibility for aggression’ (2005: 85). In my soon to be published book on Japanese horror cinema, I argue that ‘The active forgetting of both Japan’s colonial past and the attack on Pearl Harbour which initiated war in the Pacific is rendered invisible through this myth of victimology which dominated post War Japanese cinema’ (Balmain, 2008). With her scarred face, signifying the persistence of historical trauma mapped onto the personal, Oiwa is the predecessor of vengeful Japanese ghosts such as Sadako (Ring, Nakata: 1998) and Kayako in Shimizu’s Ju-On (2003).


It must be remembered that during the Occupation, Japanese filmmakers were regulated by SCAP, which dictated the type of films that could and could not be made. Tucker details the type of films which were not allowed in the following terms: ‘[A]nything infused with militarism, revenge, nationalism, or antiforeignism; distortion of history; approval of racial or religious discrimination; favouring or approving feudal loyalty or treating human life lightly; direct or indirect approval of suicide; approval or oppression or degradation of wives; admiration of cruelty or unjust violence; anti-democratic opinion; exploitation of children; and any opposition to the Potsdam Declaration or any SCAP order’ (Tucker 1973: 33-34). Anything considered transgressive of the new Western democratic ideals, such as traditional jidaigeki films with their insistence on Feudal loyalty, such as stories based upon the Forty-Seven Ronin, were banned. However the reinstatement of the Emperor, albeit with no political power, towards the end of the Occupation, allowed the reassertion of traditional Japanese values.  Richie writes, ‘Directors and Screenmakers were thus, as the Occupation deepened, no longer so interested in subjects which advertised the rosy future and their country’s changed ways. The Japanese no longer needed to regard themselves as model citizens of the future. It was now possible to return to being “Japanese” in the traditional sense’ (2001: 115).  That these films provided an active forgetting of Japan’s colonial ambitions and her culpability in the events of World War 2, through rewriting the past in mainly metaphorical form (there were few films that dealt with the War directly) can be seen clearly in films of Edo Gothic which worked within what Standish describes as. ‘post-defeat victimization’ or higaisha ishiki (victim consciousness) ((Standish 2005: 2004). Here it is the body of the suffering woman, as symbolic of the national body that is representative of this post-defeat victimization. The wronged woman, in films such as The Ghost Story of Yotsuya, and The Ghosts of Kagami Pond, is victim to male [patriarchal] violence for no fault of her own. Although as I will discuss in my next blog, the male antagonist is rarely a totally unsympathetic figure as we saw in my discussion of Iemon in The Ghost Story of Yotsuya.


I want to conclude this blog by referring to the figure of Okiku, who is the other archetypical wronged women of Japanese cultural mythology and folklore, and a cinematic representation of her in the figure of Kiku in The Ghosts of Kagami Pond (Kaidan Kagami-ga-fuchi, Masaki Mori, 1959). Okiku is a maid, who works for a Samurai called Aoyama Tessan, and who rejects his advances, leading to her death at the hands of the enraged Samurai. Before he kills her, Aoyama discredits her by stealing one of a set of ten plates, and then asking her to fetch them and count them, in an attempt to make her succumb. However she refuses, and Aoyama murders her, and hides her body down a well (again we can see this trope in contemporary Japanese horror films, for example the well in which the body of Sadako is hidden in Ring). There are a number of variations on this tale, but in all Okiku can be heard counting the plates from her watery grave, and after counting nine, giving a heartrending wail, driving Aoyama mad in the process.  In The Ghosts of Kagami Pond, the name of the central wronged woman, Kiku, is an explicit reference to the folktale. She is the childhood sweetheart of Yasujiro and his Kiku. Yasujiro has been swindled out of his inheritance, and forced to work in the Eijmaya kimono shop in Edo in order to support himself and his father. The villain of the piece is Kinbei, who also works at the kimono shop, and who murders indiscriminately to ensure that Yasujiro, who has become the adopted son and successor of the shop’s owners, does not inherit the property. However once Yasujiro and Kiku, an example of the archetypical passive and respectable femininity that still determines many representations of women in Japanese cinema, are married, Jiemon – the patriarchal head of the family – tries to seduce her. When she refuses, she is set out from the family, and forced to live in a brothel by the murderous Kinbei who seizes the opportunity to discredit Yasujiro and Kiku. Kiku’s suffering is enhanced when Yasujiro does nothing to rescue her until he sees her reflection in the water towards the conclusion of the film and the family are reunited – Kiku having given birth to his child while in enforced prostitution.


In The Ghosts of Kagami Pond, as in The Ghost Story of Yotsuya, female suffering offers a point of redemption for the male antagonist, whether through her disappearance as in the later, or the reassertion of appropriate maternity in the former. In both cases, the woman-as-victim is a mechanism of asserting the repetition of historical trauma, whilst refusing culpability in the formation of that trauma.


In my next blog, I will come back to the villains of the Edo Gothic, the deceitful and murderous ronin, or masterless Samurai.



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