The Wronged Woman

Posted by Colette Balmain on March 08, 2008 in Dr Colette Balmain, Guest Blog tagged with

As I mentioned in my last posting, Edo Gothic can be defined in terms of specific character types. The central characters are the deceitful Samurai (often as a ronin, that is a masterless Samurai) and the wronged woman, who suffers at the hands of the male antagonist.  The woman’s suffering is key to the genre, and as I suggested is connected to what Kawaii identifies as a key feature in Japanese fairy tales, the sense of ‘mono-no-aware’, a sense of transitory nature of life and sadness connected to a wider understanding of beauty (or awe), an aesthetic which is completed when the wronged woman disappears as a result of the sins of the deceitful Samurai. There is nothing new in understanding the horror genre as modern/postmodern fairytales, but it is useful to think in terms of cultural context, and the specific form that fairytales/horror takes. Kawaii identifies female characters as key to Japanese fairytales, and goes as far (in a Jungian sense) as suggesting that the Japanese ego is feminine compared to the masculine Western ego. She argues this makes sense of the fact that women are often the prohibitor in fairytale narratives, and it is men who break the injunction (often not to look), but the women who then end up disappearing as a result.  She writes about "The Bush Warbler’s Home" as an example. In this tale, a woodcutter comes across a beautiful young woman who lives in a mansion in the forest. She leaves, but before she goes, she warns the woodcutter not to look in the next room. Once she has gone, his curiosity gets the better of him and he enters the prohibited room. He finds riches and treasures in the room, but in the process breaks three bird eggs. When the woman returns, we discover that the man has unintentionally killed her daughters and as a result the woman turns into a bush warbler and flys away, leaving the man alone.(see Kawai, 1996: 1-2). Arguably it is Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, Mizoguchi: 1953) that lays down the conventions of what I would classify as Edo Gothic, although it is shot in black and white.  Tales of Ugetsu is based upon Ueda’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776). Here the wronged woman is Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), the wife of a peasant, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), who goes to the city to sell his pottery, and while there is entranced by materialism as embodied by the beautiful ghost, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) and soon forgets his wife and young son. He lives a life of excess with Lady Wakasa, while at home; his wife struggles to feed his son, and is killed for a few pieces of food that she has managed to obtain for her child. When Genjuro meets a travelling priest (the waki of Nō theatre), the spell that Lady Wakasa has over him is broken, and he leaves her to return to his dutiful wife. He is overwhelmed to see her again when he returns to the village, but after a night together, he awakes to find out that he has slept with a ghost. The sadness, or sense of mono-no-aware is evoked when the final lines of the film are given to Miyagi who mourns that it is only through her death that Genjuro learns how to be a proper father. Here, as in fairytales, the woman disappears and it is through her suffering that normality is restored. The “Black Hair” section of Kwaidan is perhaps the prototypical Edo Gothic narrative. Again the suffering woman/wronged woman is key to the narrative. Here a down-on-his-luck Samurai or rōnin, (Rentaro Mikuni)– which as we will see in my next posting is the key male character in Edo Gothic – leaves his dutiful and beloved wife, (Michiyo Aratama). He is seduced away from her by a profitable alliance with the beautiful, but spoiled daughter, of a rich man. He soon tires of her, and eventually at the end of his service, returns to his home. As in Tales of Ugetsu, his home at first appears derelict but suddenly becomes the home that he remembers, with his wife welcoming him with open arms. However, in the morning he is horrified to discover his wife is dead, and he has slept with a corpse. Her hair, still luxuriant, and embodied by malevolent (or rough) kami, throws itself at him and the Samurai flees the mansion chased by the embodied hair. In this case, the Samurai also ends up dead (again a common convention as we shall see). Jordan writes that during the Edo Period there was: ‘A heightened interest in … supernatural beings occurred during the Edo period, although tales of ghosts had been circulated in Japan for centuries. The common theme that runs throughout these stories is that of the wronged or jealous women’. (Jordan 1985: 26).

I am going to be away next week at a conference where I am giving a paper on evil or embodied hair in Japanese horror cinema, so I will take this up again when I return at the end of next week. In the next posting, I will look at the deceitful Samurai and the iconic wronged woman of Oiwa, in The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. I look forward to reading your comments.

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