Category Archives: Essay (Academic)

Essay Wednesday: The Dichotomy of Order and Chaos in Ugestu and Double Suicide

Older Japanese movies are a bit of an interest for me. As much as I love current Japanese horror movies, there is always room in my heart for the classic movies, filled with substance. A few years ago, while completing my undergraduate studies, I had the immense pleasure of partaking in an Asian film class. Each week we would meet for our 3 hour class, and settle in to watch yet another amazing film. While not all of them were right up my alley, they all got me thinking about films and their connectedness to life. We had the benefit of having each film paired up with another, which were thematically relevant (Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko, environmental cautions linked with spiritual concerns; Pulse and Ringu, technology as a means to destruction, etc.). One of my favourite pairing was the classic Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi), and Double Suicide ( 1969,  Masahiro Shinoda).Here we saw how deviation from the right path, how favouring self over duty and responsibility, led to complete destruction.

Ugestu was based upon the Ugetsu Monogatari, a series of short stories written by Ueda Akinari written in 1776. Taking the tales, it created a period drama which reflected real concerns at the time, while twisting it with a sad and meaningful ghost story.  I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I do go into it more in the essay below. Needless to say, this is still one of my favourite movies, and I would recommend that you watch it if you have the chance. Similarly, Double Suicide is based on a much older work, The Lovers Suicide at Amijima, a play written by Monzaemon Chikamitsu in 1721.

 

Double Suicide 1969, M.  Shinoda

Ugetsu, 1953 K. Mizoguchi

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dichotomy of Order and Chaos in Ugetsu and Double Suicide

When a director chooses to adapt a literary or theatrical piece through the medium of film there can be no question that it is done with a specific purpose in mind. This is especially true for the film adaptations of period pieces done by Kenji Mizoguchi and Masahiro Shinoda. Both directors have made bold stylistic choice; they enhance and highlight the conflicting ideas of life and death, and the concerns related to Japanese concepts of the afterlife. By doing this, Shinoda and Mizoguchi emphasize the dichotomy between order and chaos, by utilizing the common concerns and issues of ninjo and giri in the life of the everyday person during times of conflict. Both films play on the idea of familial duty versus personal desire. While both are based on prior works, their respective directors make it clear that such struggles are not limited to the time in which they were originally addressed. Mizoguchi and Shinoda found the core themes of both works, and uniquely approached the common issues of order and chaos through a clever juxtaposition of death, the afterlife, and supernatural elements in order to make a strong impression on a contemporary audience.

The Kurogo, or puppeteers, guide the action

Double Suicide, or Shinju Ten no Amijima (1969), is an adaptation of a popular 18th century bunraku play. Shinoda uses a heavily stylistic approach in order to draw attention to the dichotomy between order and chaos, as well as life and death. There is no outright use of the supernatural in this case; instead, Shinoda has embraced an approach based heavily on Brechtian verfremdungseffekt,1 as well as puppet theory later studied and popularized by the likes of Western theatrical theorist Gordon Craig. In Craig’s opinion, the puppet is the most articulate performer, what he calls “an echo of some noble and beautiful art of a past civilization.”2 Craig proposes that the actor should be completely replaced by the puppet, as the puppet is capable of collapsing character and being into a single entity, and thus become the perfect artistic medium.3 Shinoda goes beyond this, and instead of collapsing the characters into the puppet completely, he superimposes the identity of a puppet onto his human actors; by doing this he plays on the universally understood idea of the puppet as a symbol of death, accentuating the Brechtian alienation by using a troupe of puppeteers, or kurogo,to guide the main characters through the story. Though the cast is human and able to move of their own accord, the kurogo control the main character’s major action and decisions throughout the course of the film according to Keiko McDonald, they are meant to be a personification of fate,4 marching the character towards their death and their duty. In all of these stylistic choices, the thin line between life and death is crossed repeatedly; when the main character acts according to giri (obligation or moral duty), chaos vanishes and the kurogo do not intercede. However, when ninjo (emotion or personal desire) reigns, the kurogo are in control, leading the characters from life to death, and blurring the line between the two. Shinoda draws on this most heavily in the final moments of his adaptation, depicting his ninjo controlled characters running across a series of bridges,meant to delineate life from death, and duty from pleasure.

Traditional Onna-men, Noh Mask

 

Lady Wakasa

 

 

 

 

 

 

In contrast, Ugestu Monogatari extensively utilizes the supernatural in order to establish how ninjo and giri affect the relationship between order and chaos in relation to death. Early death was common during the time period in which the original tales composing Ugetsu were recorded, when there was major spiritual and social concern in regards familial duty to the dead.5 As such, the dichotomy between order and chaos is heavily present in Mizoguchi’s use of the supernatural to frame these concerns. Death and the supernatural are once again linked with the idea of giri and ninjo; Lady Wakasa represents ninjo,6 and the concern of dieing before duty can be fulfilled. As such, she is the force for chaos in this film. Conversely, Miyagi is representative of giri,7 primarily concerned with fulfilling her duty and later honoured by her surviving family. This clearly shows that Miyagi is the force for order in this tale. Once again, Keiko McDonald provides a reading of the director’s implementation of the supernatural in order to create vivid contrasts between chaos and order. Mizoguchi utilizes strict aesthetics, reminiscent of Noh theatre, to delineate the supernatural from the mundane; in the case of Lady Wakasa, her movement style and facial expressions are what separate her from the living characters.8

By blurring the lines between life and death, and allowing the afterlife to linger in the physical world, Mizoguchi is making a commentary on the social role of the family, and how duty and giri must be followed in order for the world to reside separate from the yurei and ninjo which arise as a result of conflict and neglected responsibility. However, both order and chaos are represented by death and the supernatural. Instead of relying on the living and the dead to delineate order from chaos, the director has put the emphasis on the manner of death and the treatment in the afterlife, thus showing the audience that while life and death commonly believed as separate, they are actually inextricably linked. In turn, order cannot exist without chaos, or else it becomes meaningless; conflict arises when one chooses to amass wealth instead of caring for personal relationships and duties; Mizoguchi stresses that the line between duty and personal desire is easy to mistake, when desire is supported with faulty reason.

Both Shinoda and Mizoguchi strove to bring to light the common issues concerning the dichotomy of order and chaos; to do this they both adapted period pieces which addressed common social and spiritual issues, and sought to relay their meaning through the use of death, the afterlife, and the supernatural. Shinoda sought to look at the ideas of ninjo and giri in relation to death and the afterlife with his adaptable of Shunji Ten no Amijima; his work succeeded by relying on theatrical aesthetics, and his Brechtian approach in order to reinforce the idea of death as both the ultimate commitment to giri and also the complete victory of ninjo. Mizoguchi used the supernatural in Ugetsu Monogatari to pursue the idea of giri and ninjo, and how it is up to the living to ensure that they fulfill their duty as family in order to ensure that order is maintained in the afterlife; without the living pursuing the path of giri, the dead are forced to remain between worlds, unable to be released from their own desires.

Work Cited

Craig, Gordon. “The Actor and the Über-marionette.” Theatre Theory Theatre. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2000. pp. 394-401.

McDonald, Keiko I. “Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern.” Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994. pp. 208–223.

McDonald, Keiko I . “Ugetsu: Why Is It a Masterpiece?” Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. pp. 3–16.

1Keiko L McDonald, “Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern”in Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994), 214-215.

2Gordon Craig, “The Actor and the Über-marionette.”in Theatre Theory Theatre. Ed. Daniel Gerould (New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2000), 396.

3Ibid., 394-396.

4Keiko I. McDonald, Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern”in Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994 214-215.

5Keiko I McDonald, Ugetsu: Why Is It a Masterpiece?” in Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 9.

6Ibid., 9.

7Ibid., 8-9

8Ibid., 12-13.

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The Forest: A history of Japan’s “Sea of Trees”, Aokigahara

As a historian and horror enthusiast, I am always both excited and apprehensive when a horror film draws on the byline “Based on a True Story or True Events”, as so often that true story has been warped and torn in so many ways that the truth which inspired the initial horrific reaction is muted in favour of sensationalism and loud scream-y “jump out” moments. It’s why I am a much bigger fan for movies like “Gojira” and “The Devil’s Backbone” than I am for the mistake that was “The Chernobyl Diaries.” What is worse is the fabrication of horror films based on a completely fake history, or one that takes the tragic history of an event or location and renders it trivial, hidden behind the “story” that is created based on the stories based on the real experiences.

I have spent no small amount of time researching the history of such a place, that is about to reach an even wider audience that it has since the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s as a place of real tragedy.  Aokigahara, known as both “The Sea of Trees” and “The Suicide Forest”, is such a place. I am fascinated by the long history of tragedy, and of cultural association with death, that the forest has endured. On the North-facing slope of Mount Fuji, arguably one of the most iconic places, both spiritually and culturally for the people of Japan, lies a forest of trees so dense and old, that getting lost and never returning from within is not only a fear, but in fact an inspiration and a lure for those who have suffered the many trials of living in the modern world.

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

The forest has appeared in Japanese fiction, popular/pulp culture, manuals for death, and even been the subject of psychological study since the mid 20th century. Some are drawn by this very “macabre” culture, drawn by the accumulation of death and the forbidden idea. Others seek the loneliness of the forest to make their final escape from life, driven by depression, social pressure to succeed, financial hardship; it is there that they go to disappear, where the must feel that the burden they assume they carry will not pass on to others when they die. The forest also draws those who seek to help; signs caution those who seek to disappear that there are others who can help them, debt services, an ear to listen (Though mental health issues are still a major concern in Japan at this time, due both to stigma and to a lack of adequate supports within the healthcare system). Others, like Azusa Hayano, walk the forest in hopes of discovering the desperate before it is too late, to bring them back to the world and give them the help they need. However, there is a large chance that, venturing far enough into the densely packed forest, they will instead encounter the long missed remains of the very ones they want to help. Shoes, empty bottles and pill packets, and ropes are among the foliage. Where they cannot help the living, there are those who would seek to help the dead; Buddhist monks often dedicate time to walking the forest, either between the trees or around the perimeter, to pray for those departed, to offer their spirits a proper mourning, so that they will not return as ghosts to lure more individuals into the lullaby of death.

Since 2010, American producers and directors have released no less than 4 films which focus on Aokigaraha; all but one of these films is from the horror genre (Notably, 2015’s Gus van Sant film “The Sea of Trees”, seeks a different dramatic approach to the forest, and what it represents). Conversely, the most apparent title from Japan was released in 2013, titled “Aokigara”, and directed by Taku Shinjou, is also a drama/mystery, rather than a horror film. Coming alter this week is another addition to the horror genre’s repertoire starring Aokigahara. “The Forest“, directed by  Jason Zada, written by Ben Ketai, Nick Antosca, and Sarah Cornwell, and staring Natalie Dormer, is set to be released to North American theatres on January 8th, 2016. While The United States’ Golden Gate Bridge is similarly infamous as a site for suicide,  it has already received a rather intimate treatment as a documentary, while Aokigahara seems to feature more prominently in North American films as a “spooky haunted place of supernatural proportions.

While the intersection of horror and history is always interesting, there is something to be said about knowing the real history, and the cultural and social role that such places and stories have. Above everything, Aokihgahara is a place of tragedy, A place that must be understood, based on its long history in association with death and suicide. To merely see it as a “spooky forest”, a “supernatural hive of evil” or “that place where people go to kill themselves”, is a mistake. Aokigahara is much more, and its story should not be swept under the rug of theatrics and superficial scare moments and special effects (I can’t say anything for the movie plot itself yet, as I have not had the chance to see it, though I likely will see it shortly after release). While it is true that there are many who have ventured into the forest and never returned or been found, we cannot forget that they went to disappear, that they felt it was their last option. It must be remembered that this is not merely a place where the trees grow so close together that it is easy to lose your way, that without the proper navigational equipment you may be going in circles, or where the wind blowing through the branches may seem to call out for others to join the countless others who have walked through the trees before. It is a place of dep spiritual connection, of desperation, and of tragedy and loss. It indicated and highlights serious  social issues, and as such is a serious place, that must be given the respect it deserves.

Be warned, some might find this topic difficult to deal with, and this research is still in progress, as much of the more recent sources for historical comparison are not readily or easily obtainable. If the history of Aokigahara as a spiritual place, or as a suicide pilgrimage point does not interest you, I encourage you instead to watch either one or both of the documentaries linked at the bottom of the post, as they are informative both on the subject of Aokigahara, and the reality of suicide in Japan.


Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

THE FATALISTIC PILGRIMAGE IN JAPAN

Aokigahara-jukai and the Translocation of Mount Fuji’s Sacred Identity

For the Japanese, Mount Fuji is a place of cultural and spiritual memory; it is the most recognized symbol of Japanese culture, and a spiritual beacon shrouded in mythology, mystery, and beauty which is unlike any other place in the world. In her late 19th Century travel letters, Isabella Bird described Fuji as a mountain of lonely majesty, and reports that she understood why it was so spiritually and culturally valued by the Japanese.1 While Mount Fuji is an awe-inspiring representation of natural beauty, it is not alone in the Fujigoko area in having a sacred identity. Caressing the North-Western flank of the mountain rests the 3,500 hectare forest of Aokigahara-jukai,2 called the Sea of Trees, but more popularly documented as ‘The Suicide Forest’. Aokigahara is a place that has been shaped as much by its spiritual associations as by its actual history. Left untouched by the push for Japanese modernity,3 Aokigahara has become the terminus for a macabre pilgrimage tradition, where despair and an eerie sense of foreboding permeate the atmosphere. Long associated with demons and yurei (ghosts),4 since the 1970’s the forest has become an infamous locale where weary Japanese venture in order to end their lives. Scholarly documentation concerning Aokigahara is sparse in comparison to the research that has been done concerning the spiritual and historical role of Fuji, but there is a strong cultural and spiritual connection between these two spaces.

Aokigahara shares in Fuji’s sacred identity in a very interesting manner, and also has its own associations with cultural memory that make it a pilgrimage location in its own right. However, while Fuji could in all likelihood continue to thrive and exist without the presence of Aokigahara, it might be argued that the forest requires the mountain in order to retain its identity and to be understood as a meaningful cultural space. However, due to the vast number of suicides, as well as the haunting atmosphere of the forest itself, Aokigahara has come to be considered the most haunted space in all of Japan.5 Fuji and Aokigahara are a linked space not only due to their proximity, but also because of shared history and the translocation of sacred identity. As will be argued, this allows such polar opposites of beauty and the macabre to be juxtaposed. Fuji and Aokigahara are two sides of the same coin; both are locked in cultural memory and steeped in spirituality, despite the differences in their individual identities.

Understanding Aokigahara-jukai’s appeal as a site of fatalistic pilgrimage first requires an investigation Fuji’s cultural identity as a sacred space. This will be achieved by looking at the sacred value of mountains in the Japanese culture, and particularly at the history of Fuji as a sacred space associated with death. Next, the concept of pilgrimage and the attitudes in regards to suicide in the Japanese culture will be examined. Finally, a closer look at the history of Aokigahara-jukai will reveal how history and association have shaped the forest into a pilgrimage site in Japanese cultural memory. Aokigahara provides pilgrims with a private space which Fuji, as a highly trafficked destination for both foreign tourists and Japanese, cannot. The forest is a sacred space, steeped in cultural memory, and creates a private locale where distraught, desperate, and despondent individuals can completely disappear.

In order to make the connection between sacred space and the pilgrimage which takes place in Aokigahara, the identity and history of Fuji must be briefly addressed. There is no question that Fuji played an important role in the creation of Japanese national and spiritual identity; it is historically one of the most sacred spaces in all of Japan. Despite the role Fuji played in nationalistic fervour during World War II,6 its reputation and importance remained unharmed and untainted even when General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (S.C.A.P.), forbade Japanese film directors from showing Fuji during the Occupation.7

The sacred and spiritual identity of Fuji was established by Shinto and folk tradition, which are based largely on reverence for nature and the natural world. Later, Buddhist practices in the area reinforced this sacred reverence by linking both the Buddhist paradises of Dainichi and Amida to the peak of the mountain.8 In establishing an understating as to why mountains, in particular Fuji, play such a role in Japanese spirituality, Edmond Rochedieu’s text Le Shintoïsme cites two important principles. First, Rochedieu states that the religious value of any mountain is based on its presence in daily life and practices.9 Considering that Japan’s geography is 70% mountainous,10 and that Fuji is still visible from Tokyo barring certain atmospheric conditions,11 it is not difficult to understand how mountains would take on a role of great sacred and spiritual power in early folk practices. A triumvirate of sacred association exists between Mount Fuji, Buddhist Bodhisattva’s,12 and Japanese kami. These associations allowed Fuji to retain its unique sacred and national identity in cultural memory despite the fluctuations in belief and national political sentiments over the course of Japan’s modernization.13 This can be argued to make Fuji a space which exists both in the capacity as a provider of identity, as well as a deeply important sacred icon, for the people of Japan.

Most importantly for the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji onto Aokigahara, Rochedieu emphasizes that mountains were perceived as locations where it was possible to invoke the souls of the deceased.14 In the vicinity of Fuji, a place that also exists outside the mundane world, such a belief is supported by mythology, folk practices, and religious traditions. This triumvirate served to establish Fuji as a pilgrimage destination early on, as it provided the necessary spiritual, religious, and environmental connections. There are many small shrines dotting the area,15 in addition to the purification lakes used by those making the traditional Fuji pilgrimage.16 The whole area offers a great spiritual security, and can be understood as affirming a sense of belonging to the larger identity of Japan. However, the mountain itself is an open space, offering little privacy. Because of this lack of privacy, Fuji itself is not able to provide the proper atmosphere for the ultimate and final pilgrimage of one seeking to take his or her own life.

Byron Earhart’s Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan says that “through history Fuji has been celebrated more as a religious or sacred site and as a cultural and aesthetic ideal.”17 Social and religious history in Japan supports a wide variety of pilgrimage concerns, ranging from leisure pursuits to self-sacrifice. Also, pilgrimages of self-sacrifice are well documented in the history of Fuji. Take for example Jikigyo Miroku. He was the leader of a Fuji-centric Buddhist sect in the Edo period, and within his sect promoted Mount Fuji as “the pivot-stone of the Three Lands,”18 increasing its spiritual and cultural importance to a new level. Based on the idea that Mt. Fuji is the fulcrum of China, Japan, and India, Miroku scripted his suicide, planning to make the ultimate pilgrimage to the summit of Fuji. However, such action was forbidden by the shrine in control of the summit, Sengen in Fujinomiya, due to a spiritual concern that such a death would pollute and defile the purity of the mountain.19 With his original plan thwarted, Miroku chose instead to establish himself in a cave on the Northern slope of the mountain, above the Eboshi-iwa, or 7th station, facing the forest of Akiogahara.20 In 1733, Miroku committed himself to thirty-one days of fasting and meditation, and died as he had predicted.21 This choice of location is interesting, as it resembles a similar religious sacrifice which took place much earlier, inside the forest of Aokigahara. Historically, religious deaths, especially suicides and sacrifices by Buddhist teachers, were seen to “sever as models on which future deaths might be patterned.22 Based on this idea, it can be argued that since Miroku’s time the spiritual associations connected to Fuji have continued to evolve, with the mountain serving equally as a symbol of the sacred and place of cultural memory, as well as a beacon for the ideal death, as its connection with suicide, especially suicides committed for the salvation of others, dates back centuries.

When looking at the nature of pilgrimage traditions, it is important to note that the summit of Fuji is not always the ultimate goal, or the most significant space; the true goal of any Japanese pilgrimage lies in achievements of a more spiritual nature,23 and relies on the experience of some sort of cathartic personal realization.24 In addition, Buddhist thought dictates that the nature of a location in the natural world can aid in the escape from an aggressive karmic cycle.25 Because the forest is closely connected to Fuji, as well as an untouched piece of the natural world, Aokigahara-jukai is tantamount to a true pilgrimage; it is a sacred area associated with and sharing in Fuji’s identity, but designed to meet a different cultural and spiritual need. Where Fuji is a public space, Aokigahara has a haunting and intimate sense of privacy, as noted by those who venture into the forest as ‘tourists’, or to seek out the bodies of the dead.

When examining the fatalistic pilgrimage made to Aokigahara annually by dozens of Japanese,26 there are three additional mitigating factors which serve to validate the forest as a culturally and historically informed choice. The first is the Japanese attitude towards suicide. The second is the historical memories and religious ideas associated with death and Aokigahara. Finally there are contemporary influences, and physical geography which play a large role in perpetuating the individual identity of Aokigahara. Based on these factors, Aokigahara-jukai’s pilgrimage tradition, though macabre, can be shown to be rooted in history and ingrained in the cultural memory of the Japanese.

The historical attitudes toward suicide in Japan are very different from those held in the West. In Japan suicide is not considered illegal, or taboo, by religious or moral standards.27 Historically, suicide was sanctioned as a sacrificial act to prove loyalty and regain honour;28 it was accepted as an act of dedication and redemption and came to bear heavy influence on the sacrificial spirit attributed to the Japanese national identity.29 It was also historically viewed as a sacrifice that could be made in times of dire starvation, where the elderly or the infirm would lay their lives down in order to help their family survive, by becoming one less mouth to feed.30 Presently suicide is still believed to be an acceptable solution for a wide variety of social problems stemming from heavy societal pressures.31 In

Aokigahara-jukai, the number of documented suicides has gone from an average of 20 per year in the 1970’s,32 to 108 in 2004. 33 After this date, authorities hesitate to release numbers, in an effort to deter others from seeking to end their lives in the forest.34 An exact record of the number of deaths which take place in Aokigahara-jukai per year is difficult obtain, as it is believed that the bodies of many of those who are successful will not be found or recovered.35 Behavioural psychologist Takahashi Yoshitomo wrote in his 1988 case study of individuals that survived their suicide attempts in Aokigahara that those who choose the Aokigahara pilgrimage sought a quiet death in a place where they felt accepted as a member of a group, namely those who had also felt that their only choice lay in taking their own lives. He also states that they want to purify and beautify their death by committing their final act in the seclusion of this culturally important forest.36 This desire for purity and beautification can be argued to be closely associated with the sacred identity of Fuji, and the historical and cultural memories established between the living and the dead at such spiritual locations.37

Aokigahara is culturally connected with death, stemming from religious practice as well as local history. The first documented suicide in Aokigahara occurred four centuries prior to Miroku’s pilgrimage on Fuji. In 1340, a Buddhist monk named of Shohkai entered a cave within Aokigahara and began his ritual fast, saying that his sacrifice would liberate the people from their karmic transgressions.38 The records indicate that Aokigahara-jukai possesses its own deeply rooted cultural memory as a sacred pilgrimage location. Due to the number of important similarities, Shohkai’s actions can be argued to have influenced those later taken by Miroku: both men were devote Buddhist monks, chose the Northern area of Fuji, and committed their suicide through ritual fasting. It is important to note that there were many other religious suicides committed in such a manner.39 These religiously oriented suicides can be seen to serve as yet another justification for the pilgrimage to Aokigahara-jukai. The notion of karmic release from a sinful world,40 as created by these religious teachers, can be argued to strengthen the cultural memory of the forest as a place of great spiritual power.

While religious suicides are individually documented, Aokigahara was also the resting place for many rural and peasant people during the Sengoku Jidai (the Warring States Period; 1467-1603).41 War and bitter famine were common during this period, and it was to Aokigahara and the foot of Fuji that people brought the old and young who they could not feed.42 They hoped that through their sacrifice, the spirits would find rest and pacification in nature. This type of behaviour gave rise to Aokigahara’s ghoulish infamy as a haunted space, and is believed to have created a cyclical vortex of the dead drawing the living to final repose.43 As will be shown next, this historical association has largely influences to the manner in which contemporary media and art treats Aokigahara-jukai.

Contemporary media such as fiction and journalism have served to perpetuate the understanding of Aokigahara as a place of macabre sacred pilgrimage. Paired with modern religious and cultural ideas, such as the financial burden a suicide by train or a full Buddhist funeral places on the family, it is difficult to dispute Aokigahara’s treatment in stories and reports as a spiritual magnet and pilgrimage spot for those who have thought of suicide. According to modern Buddhists, such as Showzen Yamashita44 and Kyomyo Fukui,45 the spirits which linger in Aokigahara are actively “calling people [to the forest] to kill themselves.”46 Considering the rich and storied past the Japan has regarding the ghost story and the concerns regarding the proper treatment and mourning of the dead, such a phenomenon is not unheard of. It has been documented by notable writers and used a plot device in the creation of truly haunting ghost stories; This phenomenon appears in Lafcadio Hearn’s work In Ghostly Japan,47 as well as popular manga Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaibin (The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service).48 This phenomenon, the eerie sense of being pulled by some unseen force inside of Aokigahara, has also been by journalists who have ventured into the trees in an attempt to understand the suicide phenomena.49 When there exists so much cultural memory and history in a single space, it can be argued to have the ability to affect the minds and perceptions of those who are inclined to believe, and serve to shape the pilgrimage route into something more personally and spiritually meaningful. In this, there is a sense of the prevalence of pre-modern Japanese social and spiritual connection, where, as Moerman states, “the dead come to attract rather than to repel the living.”50 To this effect, modern Buddhist monks have taken to setting up

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

temporary alters in order to make offerings to pacify the spirits, and walk the woods in hopes that one day the spirits will stop drawing people to making this fatal and final pilgrimage.51 Journalists who have ventured in the Aokigahara often speak of the position in which bodies are found; while some hang from the tress, others are on their knees,52 a position associated with spiritual thought, and Buddhist meditation.

Popular media has played a role in the perpetuation of the social memory and associations of the Aokigahara pilgrimage. In 1960, author Seicho Matsumoto released his novel Nami no Tou, or Tower of Waves, in which the heroine makes a final trek into Aokigahara for the purpose of committing suicide.53 It is interesting to note that Matsumoto’s most controversial piece has been adapted for television multiple times since the 1970’s, echoing the fact that suicide in Aokigahara is still prevalent in Japan. In 1993, Wataru Tsurumi’s self-help book, Complete Suicide Manual, called Aokigahara the perfect place to die; this book has since been found with many bodies during the annual search of the forest.54 The appeal of Aokigahara-jukai is in the associated history of suicide, the proximity to a place of great spiritual importance, as well as the nature of the forest itself; Aokigahara is not on the agenda for innocent leisure hikes, family trips, or sightseeing due to the high probability that a scene of a past suicide will be discovered.55 There is a loneliness to Aokigahara, and a sense of belonging to something larger than self.56 This loneliness, previously attributed to Fuji by Isabella Bird, can be argued to provide a sense or separation from the mundane world, while establishing a strong connection to the sacred past and cultural memories.

Aokigahara thus exists as a place between reality and the spiritual; it is at once sacred, accessible, and isolated. Popular belief prior to World War II was that once one entered Aokigahara, here or she would be unable to find their way out,57 trapped in a perpetual twilight, with a limited field of vision which made it impossible to see the stars or even the peak of Fuji.58 In that place, one is completely cut off from the outside world and Aokigahara becomes a surreal space cut-off from the outside world,59 and haunted by a persistent, ever-growing history of death and cultural memories associated with despair and death. This belief is actually supported scientifically: the whole of Aokigahara-jukai is located on top of a lava plateau which formed after the 9th century eruption of Fuji.60 Due to the igneous nature of the ground, the high iron content creates an area of higher than normal magnetic activity,61 and makes the forest very difficult to navigate in comparison to other forests in Japan; it has been shown that within Aokigahara common commercial compasses do not function properly due to the higher level of magnetic activity.62 Based on this geographical anomaly, even the Jieitai (Japan Self-Defense Force or JSDF) admits that commercial equipment would be virtually useless one someone was lost within Aokigahara.63 All of these elements come together shape Aokigahara as a place of the lost and those who are seeking to not be found, and the earlier assertion that juxtaposition of identity and the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji plays a large role in establishing Aokigahara in cultural memory, and influencing the idea and nature of the fatalistic pilgrimage is supported. With the added fact that navigation the forest is problematic, there is a much higher chance that the individual who has ventured to Aokigahara with the intention of committing suicide will not be found until long after they have died, if they are ever found at all.64

Cultural memory, history, and spirituality have all been factors in the creation and perpetuation of the Aokigahara-jukai pilgrimage. The forest presents an accessible and acceptable alternative to Mount Fuji; the forest shares in part of Mount Fuji’s sacred and cultural identity, and exists as a spot steeped in cultural memory. Aokigahara-jukai builds on the majestic loneliness ascribed to Fuji, and allows for pilgrims to find a deep association with Japan and Fuji’s deeper sacred aspects. While the prospect of a pilgrimage for the purpose of suicide is macabre, its existence is not only supported by historical predecessors, but it also served a require social function. Takahashi’s interviews with survivors of Aokigahara support his idea of psychogenic amnesia, by which he means that the trauma of the suicide attempt has caused the individual to be unable to recall their motivation.65 However, there are some survivors who site debt, depression, and anxiety due to the excessive social pressure to succeed as their reasons for attempting suicide within the forest.66 Though the inhabitants of local area towns express a desire for journalists to look beyond the macabre nature of the forest,67 there is still very little material in the media concerning the forest as a site of natural beauty. Aokigahara-jukai becomes much more than a lonely and beautiful forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, chosen due to its seclusion and infamy; it has become a refuge where connection can be established to cultural identity, and a sensation of belonging can be achieved.

1Isabella L. Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (San Francisco: Traveller’s Tales, Inc., 2000 [1880]), 2.

2Peter Hadfield, “Japan Struggles With Soaring Death Toll in Suicide Forest.” The Telegraph (Nov. 5, 2000).

3Yoshitomo Takahashi “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, Vol. 18 Issue 2 ( Summer 1988), 165.

4Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

5Ibid.

6Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2011), 129.

7Ibid., 176-177.

8Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 27.

9Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme (Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968), 76.

10Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia, 2nd Ed (Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010), 4.

11 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. Eds. Richard Browning, and Peter Kornicki

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9.

12Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan , 7.

13Ibid., 178-182.

14Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 76.

15Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

16 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 7.

17 Earhart, “Preface: Invitation to Fuji.” Mount Fuji: Icon of, XVII.

18 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 55.

19Ibid., 53.

20Ibid.

21Ibid.

22Bryan J. Cuevas, and Jacqueline I. Stone, “Introduction.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 19.

23 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 143.

24Antonio Santos, “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, eds. Maria Rodriquez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez (New York: Routledge, 2007), 131.

25 Peter Ackermann, “Pilgrimages in Japan: How far are they determined by deep-lying assumption?” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, 99.

26Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

27Rob Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.” The Japan Times Online (January 26, 2011), 2.

28 Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 184.

29 Boyé Lafayette De Menth, Japan Unmasked: The Character of Culture of Japan (Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2005), 94.

30 Whether a myth or reality, the practice of ubasute (Parent abandonment) exists, whereby a family member, elderly or infirm, would be left or sacrifice themselves to a mountain or forest to slowly die in times of starvation and drought in order to alleviate the burden they placed on their families. The Ballad of Narayama (1968 dir. Keisuke Kinoshita, 1983 dir. Shohei Imamura) depicts a mother encouraging her son to help her sacrifice herself on a mountain so that she will no longer be a burden.

31 Louis G. Perez, The History of Japan, 2nd Ed. (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009), 212.

32Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

33 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 2.

34 “Suicide Forest”, Studio 360 (Japan). January 8, 2010

35Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.”

36Yoshitomo Takahashi, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, Vol. 18 Issue 2 (Summer 1988): 172-173.

37D. Max Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japan” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, 285.

38Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

39 Ibid.

40Ibid.

41“Japan’s Harvest of Death,” The Independent

42Ibid.

43Ibid.

44Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 2.

45“Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday, October 24, 2000).

46Ibid.

47Lafcadio Hearn. In Ghostly Japan (Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971 [1889]), 238.

48Otsuka Eiji,Delivery #4: Waltz” in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 3 (Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004), 141-191.

49 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 1.

50 Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Pre-modern Japan”, 267.

51 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

52Ibid.

53Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest”. 166.

54 Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.”

55Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

56Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 174.

57 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

58Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

59Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

60Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

61Ibid., 166.

62Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

63Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

64Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

65Yoshitomo “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest, 167-173.

66Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest,” 1-2.

67“Japan’s Harvest of Death” The Independent

Bibliography

Ackermann, Peter. “Pilgrimages in Japan: How far are they determines by deep-lying assumption?” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. ed. Maria Rodriguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. London: Routledge, 2007. pp. 97- 106.

Bird, Isabella L. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. San Francisco: Traveller’s Tales, Inc., 2000 [1880].

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. ed. Richard Bowring, and Peter Kornicki. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Cuevas, Bryan J, and Jacqueline I. Stone. “Introduction.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Eds. Bryan J. Cuevas, and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. pp. 1-31.

Davisson, Zack. “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan. As of Oct. 21st can be found at: http://janettedillerstone.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/suicide-woods-mt-fuji/

De Menthe, Boyé Lafayette. Japan Unmasked: The Character & Culture of the Japanese. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Earhart, H. Byron. Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Gilhooly, Rob. “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’.” The Japan Times Online. Jan. 26, 2011. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20110626x1.html

Hadfield, Peter. “Japan Struggles with Soaring Death Toll in Suicide Forest.” The Telegraph. Nov. 5, 2000. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/1373287/Japan- truggles-with-soaring-death-toll-in-Suicide-Forest.html

Hearn, Lafcadio. In Ghostly Japan. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971 [1889].

“Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japans-harvest-of-death-635356.html

Moerman, D. Max. “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japanese Buddhism.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Eds. Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. pp. 266- 296.

Otsuka, Eiji. “Waltz.” The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 3. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004.

Perez, Louis G. The History of Japan. 2nd Ed. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Rochedieu, Edmond. Le Shintoisme. Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968.

Santos, Antonio. “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. eds. Maria Rodriguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. London: Routledge, 2007. pp. 130-137.

Sesana, Laura. “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Community. Aug. 19, 2012. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/world-our- backyard/2012/aug/19/aokigahara-japans-suicide-forest/

Takahashi, Yoshitomo. “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour. Vol. 18. Issue 2, 1988. pp.164-175.

Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia. 2nd Ed. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010.

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Filed under Essay (Academic), History

The Tragic Tale of Lady Oiwa and Adapting the Onryō for a Contemporary audience

UPDATE: It has recently come to my attention that this article has been added to a recommended reading list by  a couple of education programs, in relation to Drama and performance. If you are coming here from those sites and you have any questions, or if you are the library resources staff updating the links, please feel free to contact me at negrych @ gmail dot com. I always love talking with students and educators.

As a student, and as a Japanese historian, I have always been intrigued by the role that folklore and storytelling has played in Japanese culture. This is especially true when it comes to the Japanese traditional ghost story and contemporary Japanese horror; something about them always seems more rich, somehow, than our own North American tradition. Japan has always had a rich literary, theatrical, and cinematic relationship with its ghosts and its tales of horror; from Noh and Kabuki to the popular film and literature traditions of today, many of Japan’s traditional ghosts and spirits have been re-invented within the confines of our contemporary cultural understandings to reflect the shift in cultural and social perceptions of horror, tragedy, and the macabre. Fears of being set back on the karmic cycle have been largely replaced by fears of rampant technological advances (something which I investigated in-depth, and continue to be fascinated with), and key literary figures have been reshaped; where once the kuchi-sake-onna, or slit-mouthed woman, used to hold a fan to her face when meeting strangers, now she is depicted as wearing a medical face mask. However, one figure which remains a cultural constant is that of the onyrō, or vengeful spirit, a woman who was so wronged in life that she returned to torment those who caused her suffering. But how have the rampant and face-paced cultural and social changes reflected on the manifestation of these figures in popular culture? That is what I seek to explore in the following essay, which focuses on two popular manifestations of the Japanese onyrō.

The Tragic Tale of Lady Oiwa

One of my favourite stories is that of Lady Oiwa; I was introduced a few years ago to this particular folktale/kabuki play by a religious studies professor. Here was a folktale, a creation of history and popular culture so popular that it has inspired multiple recreations. Within it, a figure so tragic and so powerful that any who participate in a staging of her story, and especially those cast as lady Oiwa, would seek the place of her burial (which may or may not actually exist) to ask for her blessing to retell the story, or suffer their own tragedy (there is a series of accounts that tell of the misfortune that befell those who tried to stage the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan play without first asking her permission and blessing, and were met with a string of ‘Macbeth’ like bad luck). It is a tale of tragedy, betrayal, vengeance, and the problems that dishonourable behaviour can cause.

The ghost of oiwa

For those of you who have never encountered the tragic tale of Lady Oiwa and the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, the story goes a little something like this: There was a masterless samurai (Iemon)who had fallen on hard times, forced to make his living as an umbrella maker (historically true during the Edo period, when many samurai lost their livelihood due to the widespread peace created by unifying the country under Tokugawa Ieyasu.)  Oiwa was frail and weak after giving birth to her son, and was unable to help Iemon with the household; nevertheless, she did what any proper wife could do, she looked after their son and made sure that she was beautiful whenever Iemon came home, brushing her long silken black hair and being as dutiful a wife as she could be under the circumstances. However, because of Iemon’s failure, Oiwa’s father approaches him, and suggests that he dissolve the marriage bonds and allow Oiwa to return to her own family. Enraged, Iemon murders Oiwa’s father. There is more to this, a second story, wherein another man, Takuetsu,  accidentally murders his former master (in a tragic case of mistaken identity), and he and Iemon conspire to make it look like the second murdered man was the one who killed Oiwa’s father, and thus Iemon has succeeded in avenging that death and can continue to live as an honourable man, instead of the failure he has become.

Now, Iemon was a handsome fellow, and in his journeys he had caught the eye of a local lady of means, Oume, the grand-daughter of a prominent and successful man. In a scheme to separate Iemon from the more beautiful Oiwa, this woman and her family conspire to destroy Oiwa’s beauty; they do so by sending her poison disguised a facial cream, which immediately scars Oiwa’s beautiful face and causes her beautiful hair to come out in bloddy clumps. As a result Iemon, seeing his wife’s disfigurement, conspires to invalidate the marriage by having  Takuetsu rape Oiwa. In a strange break from his previously dishonourable behaviour, Takuetsu cannot bring himself to commit the act; instead, he forces Oiwa to look at her own reflection. Seeing what she has become, she grabs Iemon’s rusty and disused katana and tries to leave the home in order to avenge the wrong that has been committed against her, only to accidentally slit her own throat in the struggle. As a result, she dies cursing Iemon and those who conspired against her with her last breath. Coming home, Iemon wants to cover the death of his wife and hide the crimes committed against her, tries to hide it. Some versions of the story go on to say that the baby is also killed, and to cover his ‘new wife’, Iemon nails Oiwa and a servant to a door and tosses them in a river, declaiming them for having an affair.

With Oiwa out of the way, Iemon and Oume get hitched and plan to live happily ever after, or as happily as two despicable murdering individuals can plan to live. What all stories agree upon is that, after her death, Oiwa’s ghost returns to haunt Iemon, causing him to have horrible visions and resulting in him murdering Ouma and her grandfather. Did I mention that Iemon’s happy new union did not even manage to survive its first night? No matter how Iemon tries to escape, Oiwa always finds him, emerging from lanterns, long black hair matted, one side of her face horribly disfigured, and carrying their dead child. Eventually Iemon winds up at a monastery in an attempt to escape her vengeance, but even there Oiwa cannot be stopped, and eventually drives Iemon to madness and his death.

Adapting the Onryō:

The Evolution of the Edo Period Tale Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan in Hideo Nakata’s Adaptation of Ringu

When it comes to popular and enduring icons of onryō in Japanese kaidan, there is no idiom more accurate than the popular ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ From the early 19th century’s Lady Oiwa from the kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談, 1825)1 to present day Sadako from Ringu (リング, 1998),2 no figure evokes more trepidation, fear, and anxiety than that of the vengeful female ghost, known in Japan as the onryō. However, over time there have been changes made to the nature of the behaviour and depiction of the onryō and the way in which vengeance is administered. At the same time, many aspects remain unchanged, and these are indicative of the deeper cultural concern with the kaidan. These differences and similarities are seen when examining Lady Oiwa, and Sadako Yamamura in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, a film adapted from the first novel of Koji Suzuki’s Ring Cycle series. Both of these tales gained widespread fame and attention, and thus ignited interest in the Japanese tale of the vengeful ghost across generations.3 These meeting and divergence points make it possible for the onryō to have as much of an impact in contemporary settings and for a contemporary audience as in earlier incarnations.

 

Lady OiwaGregory Barrett notes that in Japanese tales of revenge, the one seeking vengeance is typically a woman who has been wronged in some way.4 Despite the time between the original Kabuki play and Ringu, there is very little alteration in the nature of onryō‘s appearance and gender, save for a shift in age from adult to child. Furthermore, Lady Oiwa and Sadako are similarly dressed in flowing white garments, a colour understood to represent death in many Asian cultures; both women also have long black hair, and possess a physical beauty at odds with their manifestations as onryō. It is interesting that Sadako and Oiwa share in the loss of their hair, and the disfigurement of their faces.5 In most incarnations of Yotsuya Kaidan, the journey to vengeance begins which Lady Oiwa losing her hair; because she has been poisoned, when Oiwa attempts to prepare herself to act dutifully as Iemon’s wife “handfuls of raven black hair fell from her head.”6 Likewise, when Sadako’s body is found in the well beneath the cabin, her hair is still intact after a 40 years. However, as Reiko handles Sadako’s corpse Sadako’s hair peels away from the skull, leaving only putrefied flesh and bone. Yet, when Sadako’s spirit appears to exact her vengeance, her hair is still there, obscuring everything except a single protruding eye. This serves to make Sadako an unsettling figure of the unknown.

The second most notable similarity lays in the form of their betrayal. In both cases, there is a heavy association with water; after Oiwa’s body is found Iemon discards it, in order to escape his guilt. To so this “a wooden door was found and [Iemon] nailed a corpse on either side . . . cold-bloodedly, [Iemon] heaved the wooden door into the river.”7 Like Oiwa, Sadako is committed to a watery grave, trapped there and deprived on spiritual pacification which is due to the dead. Furthermore, both women were betrayed by those who were supposed to support and protect them; Iemon is a neglectful husband to Oiwa. He fails to take his responsibilities as husband seriously, instead choosing wealth and beauty over honour. This is furthered by the fact that Iemon is responsible for the murder of Oiwa’s father, which he committed in order to keep Oiwa as his wife.8

In Ringu, Sadako’s mother, Shizuko, commits suicide after being humiliated by reporters during a public display of her clairvoyant powers, jumping into the crater of Mt. Mihara; it was Shizuko’s ability to accurately predict the eruptions of Mt. Mihara that brought her to the attention of Dr. Ikuma, whose desire to display her psychic powers ultimately led Shizuko to take her own life. This same event also brought out Sadako’s powers, causing her to kill one of the reporters who claimed her mother’s powers to be fraudulent. After this, Dr. Ikuma becomes Sadako’s guardian; due to his fear of her, born from her own destructive supernatural powers, Ikuma throws her into a well, hoping that she will disappear forever, and becomes the catalyst for the creation of Sadako’s onryō.9 The film does not do much to establish Ikuma’s role in Sadako’s life, only that he abandoned his responsibility and was one of the catalysts for Sadako’s change into an onryō after her slow and gruesome death.

There are many differences between the Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan and the adaptation of Ringu, reflecting the changes that have occurred in order to keep tales of vengeance and onryō appealing and unsettling. The most important of these changes occurs in the nature of the targets of the onryō‘s vengeance. While Lady Oiwa is a vengeful spirit who “would only torment the guilty and leave the innocent alone,”10 In contrast, Sadako is indiscriminate and takes after all those who come contact with the site of her betrayal, as she felt she had been betrayed by everyone with whom she had ever had contact with. This is a return to earlier Noh conventions, where ghosts bare vague grudges,11 and take their anger out on any bystander.12 In opposition, Lady Oiwa is focused on bringing pain and death only to those who were involved in her downfall and betrayal. Sadako’s unlimited anger is for the benefit of the audience, allowing them to experience fear and anxiety similar to older kaidan audiences. This also stops the audience from seeing Sadako as an avenging hero, and instead makes her a true threat in the minds of the audience.

Sadako from 1999's manga adaptation. Art by Misao Inagaki

Sadako from 1999’s
manga adaptation. Art by Misao Inagaki

The second difference between Oiwa and Sadako exists in the very nature of their character; while Oiwa has a voice, and is given means to express her feelings, Sadako is a silent haunter, with no voice or opinion. Not once is Sadako’s voice heard, and never is anything more than a ring of light seen from her point-of-view; in essence, she is the unknown. While flashbacks inform the audience of her history, all Sadako is given is a pattern of actions propelled by her unyielding thirst for retribution. This pattern serves to set her further apart from Lady Oiwa; Sadako is guilty of sinful actions, while Oiwa is sinless.13 The movie implies that Sadako is the product of a fantastical birth; there is speculation made throughout the film that Shizuko was lured down to the ocean by some unknown creature and the result of that relationship was Sadako who, as a result of this union, possessed psychic powers beyond that of her mother.14 The only blood on Lady Oiwa’s hands is her own,15 and suicide was glorified as an act of redemption.16 Sadako, on the other hand, has taken life other than her own; during a flashback, it is insinuated that she was responsible for the death of a reporter, and it is from this point that others truly begin to fear her abilities. Once again, this difference instills unease and fear in the audience, on a level reminiscent of the way Lady Oiwa’s onryō would have made the kabuki audience feel.

Sadako is almost a complete unknown in the film adaptation of Ringu, while Lady Oiwa is the polar opposite in almost all incarnations of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. The similarities that remain between them are the sake of convention, a reminder that at one time it was believed that such an avenger was given power for the sole sake of exacting vengeance for wrongs committed against them. The differences are created in order to evoke a similar feeling for the audience, one which leaves them uneasy and frightened. With modern society quickly becoming desensitized to violence and horror, the psychological Japanese film must adapt in order to instill the same anxiety as such onryō and kaidan instilled in the past. Ringu must also be evaluated as an adaptation in order to truly understand the evolution of kaidan; the film adaptation of Ringu and its depiction of Sadako is a completely different beast from what Koji Suzuki created in his novel. It is no secret that author Koji Suzuki’s novel is a much more in-depth study of modern adaptation of the Kaidan conventions, the evolution of the onryō as a vengeful spirit, and as a product of widespread cultural change.


 Footnotes:

1 This is the date for the first public performance of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan; however, the play itself is based on events which occurred in the 17th Century.
2 The original tale, Ring, was a novel written by Koji Suzuki in 1991. Subsequently it was adapted into a television film in 1995 (Ring: Kanzenban), a feature horror film in 1998 (Ringu) directed by Hideo Nakata, and finally into English (The Ring) in 2002. Additionally, it has spawned a series of sequels in the franchise.
3 Ringu‘s success is apparent in the fact that it has been adapted multiple times, in a variety of forms, and over a variety of cultures (American and South Korean). Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan‘s popularity is apparent due to the many adaptations and re-tellings it has been subjected to over the years since its initial debut as a Kabuki play; this includes customary visits to Lady Oiwa’s grave marker prior to any new adaptations being staged, multiple film and anime versions, and her popularity among figures of ghosts and women in ukiyo-e prints.
4 Gregory Barrett, “Vengeful Spirit” in Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989), 7.
5 In the case of Sadako, one never sees more of her face than a single, bloodshot eye, while Lady Oiwa is characterized by heavy scarring and disfigurement, a result of the poison she unknowingly ingested.
6 Arendie Herwig, “A Ghost at Yotsuya on the Tokaido” in Heroes of the Kabuki Stage: An Introduction to Kabuki with Retellings of Famous Plays Illustrated by Woodblock Prints (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 298.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 297.
9 Here is where the film adaptations really differs from the novel; in the novel Dr. Ikuma becomes quite ill and is committed to a sanatorium, where he convinces a young doctor that his daughter, Sadako, must be killed because of her power. This leads the young doctor to pursue Sadako and, when subjected to her powers, to strangle her and throw her down a near-by well. However, when she was thrown down the well she was still alive, and her death came slowly as she tried to claw her way out. This death is what gave birth to the onryō, who had been wronged or abandoned by every individual with whom she had come in contact.
10 Barrett, 97.
11 Ibid., 99.
12 Ibid., 97.
13 Ibid., 101.
14 Again, this varies greatly from the novel; originally Sadako was the daughter of Shizuko and Dr. Ikuma, conceived during an illicit extra-martial affair.
15 Herwig, 298.
16 Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme ( Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968), 184.

Works Cited

Barrett, Gregory. “Vengeful Spirit.” Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989. pp. 97–117.

Herwig, Arendie. “A Ghost Story at Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō.” Heroes of the Kabuki Stage: An Introduction to Kabuki with Retellings of Famous Plays Illustrated by Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004. pp. 297–299

Rochedieu, Edmond. Le Shintoisme. Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968.

 

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On the serious side (well, maybe)

I realize that aside from my conference reflection more than a year ago and my piece of Mononoke-hime, I have done very little to give anyone a sense of my academic background. Certainly, I am a ‘historian-in-training’, an academic at heart, and a creative mess. However, that really doesn’t open the floor up for discussion, as it leave too much to the wind. What have I worked on and researched in the past? How have I engaged with cultural history on a level of serious academic contemplation? What topics draw my interest. Well, as a start to this new week, I thought I world provide a list of titles of papers I have completed. Some, which are sort, I have thought of posting to my blog at one point (as I did the Mononoke piece); others I have presented at conferences, or thought of submitting them for possible publication.

Below I have divided them by area (History, Religious Studies, English Literature, Theatre, and then Misc.), but they are in no chronological order. While I will likely not share the entirety of the work, I am more than willing to talk about the process of research and writing, and of course discussion centring around the topics themselves.

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History and Cultural Studies

  • The Postwar Apocalypse in Japan: The Unique Anxieties Reflected by Akira and Gojira
  • Shame and Destruction: How the Japanese Military Leaders Delayed Admitting the Truth of the Ianjo of World War II
  • The Survival of a Fragile World: The Geisha Through Modernization
  • The Importance of the Cultural Gift: Mishima and Japanese Modernization
  • Stonehenge: A multifunctional neolithic Megalith
  • The Sixties Sexual Revolution on Broadway: Androgyny and Female Sexuality in Hair and Cabaret
  • The Questionable Universality of Balibar’s The Nation Form
  • The Byzantine Empire During the Early 10th-11th Century: The Bulgarians and Internal Strife
  • The Fatalistic Pilgrimage in Japan: Aokigahara-jukai and the Translocation of Mount Fuji’s Sacred Identity
  • In the Midst of Horror: Japanese pre-modern Ghost stories and the Modern J-Horror- A Research Proposal
  • Medical Observations and Methods of Treatment in Hippocratian Greece
  • Xenophobia and the ‘Enemy Alien’: The Injustice of the Canadian Internment Camps of World War I
  • Jonathan Spence: The Voice of Modern Chinese History in the West
  • The Nation of the Family in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman by Ang Lee
  • Folktales and Superstition During the Late Heian and Kamakura Periods: Reflection of Moral and Cultural Behaviour
  • Prostitution in Roman Society: Female Prostitution as Social Support
  • The Stigma of Shell-shock and the Disabled Soldier: European Soldiers and the Perception of Psychological Disability

Religious Studies

  • Buddhism and the Modern Ghost in Eiji Otsuka’s Manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
  • The Visuals of Religious Subjectivity in Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring
  • The Dichotomy of Order and Chaos in Ugetsu and Double Suicide
  • Moro and the Shishigami in Miyazaki’s Temporal War Epic Mononoke-hime
  • Children, Nature, and Spiritual Play in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away
  • Elements of Buddhist Teaching and Though in Takahashi Rumiko’s Character Miroku
  • The Fictional Journeys of Rama and Monkey: A Mirror of the Internal Spiritual Journey
  • Myth, Folklore, and the Folk Tale: Their Relevance in the Practice of Shinto

Theatre Arts/Studies/Dramaturgy and Art History

  • The Inorganic Puppet: A Symbol of Life and Death
  • The Puppet in History and the Theories of Craig
  • The Sexual Politics Behind the Shrew: Marowitz’s The Shrew and Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You
  • The Intermingling of Ritual and Carnival: The Castle of Perseverance and the Medieval Tournament
  • Zeus and Bacchus: The Gods in Statue

English Literature and Classical Studies

  • “I Am No Lady”: George R.R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth as a Unique Female Warrior
  • The Mad Wives of  Bronte and Stetson
  • The Desired Influence: The Women of Epic and Their Social Significance
  • The Importance of Nestor in The Iliad
  • Mirror, Mirror: The Mirroring of Frankenstein and the Creature
  • Women and War: Sparta, Athens, and Rome
  • The Ghost Story as told by Gaskell and Wharton
  • Artistotle’s Doctrine of the Mean: The Understandable and Achievable Goal
  • The Rebirth and Adaptation of Greek Myth in Xena Warrior Princess

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Moro and the Shishigami in Miyazaki’s Temporal War Epic Mononoke-hime

Art used with permission of artist: Sugar-H

Art used with permission of artist: Sugar-H

 

Moro and the Shishigami in Miyazaki’s Temporal War Epic Mononoke-hime

Copyright ©2012-2017, M. Negrych

In modern history, Japan has experienced a set of dynamic shifts in identity. The Meiji Restoration (1868) saw an internal thrust for modernization, and the resulting issues and social anxieties which emerged in the aftermath of the Pacific War persist into the present. With modernization there came the negotiation of the Japanese relationship with nature and its sacred past; was it possible to modernize the nation while still preserving the sacred environment? Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s most loved and exported directors,1 negotiates this question in his whimsical and romantic style with Mononoke-hime (1997); the modern and the ancestral are in a proverbial battle royale, with nothing but a young man left to try and find a means to ensure the survival of both. Miyazaki creates a masterpiece which pits the past and the present against one another, with characters who are neither completely good nor absolutely evil, and the fate of a whole country rests on the shoulders of the youth.

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February 21, 2013 · 6:36 pm