It has been said that the body of Oiwa-san, the ghost who inspired the character of Sadako Yamamura (i.e. my feminist idol), is buried at Myogyo-ji, a temple in Tokyo. The story of Oiwa, part real-life tragedy, part cultural artefact, has withstood the test of time, having first been performed as a Kabuki play in 1825 and having been translated into film over 30 times since.
I was happy to learn recently that a grant I applied for in order to pursue a new book of poetry, one to be written in loving dedication to female monsters in Asia, was successful. Which means I now have some money for both research and writing. Since my first encounter with Sadako in a cinema in 1998 was how my love of Feminine Monstrosity started, I decided that the first order of the day, is to visit the shrine dedicate to Oiwa, to say thank-you.
Oiwa is said to have died in 1636. Hattori Yukio, who has analyzed various permutations of Oiwa emerging from illuminated lanterns (Sadako emerging from television, anyone?) in the Kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, has argued that “the ghosts’ “violent eruption of emotion” represented the only means available in the feudal context for female characters to “become equal to men, or surpass them.” This analysis does not surprise me in the least and in many ways is still relevant to contemporary permutations of Japanese female ghosts.
For me, Sadako has always been the most powerful of all female onscreen villains. Unlike many other ghosts who target particular demographics (e.g. children, men, pregnant women, people who do bad things) or who target only those who have wronged them, Sadako’s revenge is indiscriminate, suggesting that the violence which was enacted upon her was not the violence of an individual, but that of larger system in which we are all complicit.
In fact, complicity becomes the only way to escape her: You want to live? Good. Pass on this tape and gift someone else the curse of death. If you don’t want to be a victim, you must be a villain. To paraphrase the vampire Lestat, she is giving you the choice she never had.
Death Wears a Dress, the project I am pursuing, is a collection of poems inspired by numerous female “monsters” central to Asian folklore, many of whom continue to reincarnate through horror films, pop culture and social media. I hope to centre, re-imagine and humanise the experiences, emotions, desires, fears and regrets of these female figures in an effort to unearth possible insights about gender, power, longing and justice. Here are some of the questions I hope to dwell on while writing:
- What can existing and prominent representations of female monsters in Asia suggest about the intersections of gender, culture, myth and monstrosity?
- What elements of female monstrosity are synonymous across various Asian cultures? (e.g. figures such as the pontianak exist in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, India and Cambodia – their names change depending on their geography, but their origin stories remain similar.)
- How do gender roles -traditional or otherwise- play a part in how women are imagined in the realms of horror and myth? How are these imaginings premised upon everyday assumptions of women’s places in society?
- To what extent is monstrosity derived from a woman’s failure to comply to traditional gender roles of “virgin”, “wife”, “daughter”, “sister”, “mother”, “sex object”, “caregiver”?
- Noting that restless spirits are often said to be appeased through ritual or offering, what can be said about the close ties between reverence and fear, between demonisation and deification?
Besides Oiwa, some of the ghosts I will be writing about include the Ubume, the Pontianak, the Sundelbolong, women and the act of Nasi Kangkang (a mode of magic available only to those with vaginas), Mae Nak, the Aswang, the Nine-tailed Fox, the Churel, Cho Nyo Gwisin, the Island of Rasetsukoku, and that nameless ghost from Singapore who keeps asking motorcyclists for rides… back to her cemetery. Over the next year-and-a-half, I will also be visiting the shrine of Mae Nak, the resting places of various other ghosts, and hopefully, will be presenting this work at a couple of conferences.
Am feeling thoroughly excited at the prospect of getting paid to nerd out for 18 months and about all the feminist geekery that I know will emerge from these explorations.
Stay tuned here for updates, if you are keen 🙂
Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese horror film. Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2014.
Creed, Barbara. The monstrous-Feminine: film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Shimazaki, Satoko . “The End of the “World” Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s Female Ghosts and Late-Tokugawa Kabuki.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 66, no. 2, 2011, pp. 209–246.
Revolvy, LLC. “”Yotsuya Kaidan” on Revolvy.Com.” Revolvy, http://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Yotsuya Kaidan&item_type=topic.
“The Ghost of Oiwa (Oiwa-San), from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories (Hyaku monogatari).” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 8 Jan. 2017, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/the-ghost-of-oiwa-oiwa-san-from-the-series-one-hundred-ghost-stories-hyaku-monogatari-237858.
“Yotsuya: Ghosts and Salary Men in Tokyo.” Japan Talk, http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/yotsuya-in-tokyo.
Nakata, Hideo, director. Ringu. Toho, 1998.