Tag Archives: kabuki


Musings VI: On the ghost of O’iwa, and why she’s still scary.

The Season of Horrors

It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.

You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.

Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii]  Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.

The Birth of O’iwa

In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]

Oiwa O'iwa Iemon yotsuya kaidan ukiyoe

O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836.  http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034

The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.

Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.

But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.

This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?

The three horrors of O‘iwa.

Pollution

The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of

discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.

Mother and Monster

 

Oiwa O'iwa hair blood ukiyoe

O’iwa’s bloody hair loss.Source

O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare.  As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.

 

Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.

Rebellion

Class…

O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.

Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.

…and gender

Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice.  “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.

At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.

Otherworldliness

One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.

An onryō…

But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]

Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.

… or another other scary creature?

However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.

The Burning Lantern

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hokusai ukiyoe

Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s.  https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg

One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.

Hokusai’s O’iwa

While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]

To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hozuki reitetsu

O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.

Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.

Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond

I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.

Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.

What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere.  She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?

Notes and References:

[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.

[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.

[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.

[iv] http://www.kabuki21.com/nakamuraza.php#jul1825

[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.

[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.

[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.

[viii] Scherer 2011:50-51, my translation.

[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.

[x] Wee 2011:154.

[xi] For a definition of onryō, see http://yokai.com/onryou/, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/10/07/heike-ichizoku-no-onryo-the-vengeful-ghosts-of-the-heike-clan/

[xii] Carmen Blacker: The Catalpa Bow. A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975, 48.

[xiii] Scherer 2011:40-41

[xiv] For a first look, see http://yokai.com/yuurei/. There are whole books on the different types of yūrei… This one, for instance.

[xv] Samuel L. Leiter: „Keren. Spectacle and Trickery in Kabuki Acting“. In: Educational Theatre Journal 28 (2), 1976, S. 173–188, 188.

[xvi] Scherer 2011:112, 114.


Musings V – Adaptation in Japanese (Pop) Culture

One among many orientalist[i] stereotypes of Asians is that they are masters of imitation (or adaptation) but lack original creativity (or invention); an assumption which looks ridiculous when one spends just a little time studying any given Asian culture, I would say. Rather, I spot the tendency to imitate (instead of inventing) in modern popular culture (of any country). And I ask myself: Is the idea behind this that nothing is so easily, quickly and cheaply made and so sure to sell as something the audience already knows and enjoys? So, why create something new when you can just adapt something known?

Of cause, in practice, it‘s not so simple. According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, an ‚’adaption‘ is either ‘the process of changing to suit different conditions’ or ‘a film, book, play, etc. that has been made from another film, book, play, etc‘.[ii] In other words, ‘adaptation’ signifies either a general process of transformation, or the specific result of such a process in the area of modern media. I will consider the first for a bit before going into the detailed consideration of some examples of the second.

The Long History of Adaptation

Japan has been ‘adapting’ cultural practice and information for centuries, most notably perhaps Buddhism, which reached the archipelago via China and Korea and became an integral part of Japanese spiritual life, branching out into various indigenous schools. The form of Buddhism Japan is most known for in the west, Zen, originated in China but was, in common opinion, completed in Japan. Subsequently it has strongly influenced the ‘way’-based arts from budō (warrior arts: karate, jūdō, kendo, etc.) to shodō (calligraphy) to sadō (the tea ceremony).

Along with Buddhism, writing in Chinese characters came to Japan, and they made possible an influx of Chinese ideas from poetry and philosophy to popular culture. Similarly, from the first encounters in the sixteenth century Western technology and knowledge began trickling into Japanese culture, until the Meiji Restauration 1868 started a metaphorical torrent of ‘Westernization’. What’s interesting about these broad historical processes is that even if they were, for a long part, attempts to replicate the ‘foreign’ concept as closely as possible, sooner or later a hybrid form developed as the result of ‘changing to suit different [i.e. Japanese] conditions’. In writing, the Japanese developed the two kana syllabaries to suit the flexion of their language. In poetry and philosophy, Japanese styles and concepts rivalled with Chinese ones or were synthesized with them. Western technology was and is applied to Japanese issues, from firing Western guns at rebelling samurai in the Seinan War (or Satsuma Rebellion) 1877, to the construction of the multifunctional Western-style bidet toilet, with in-built Otohime, in our day.

Jiraiya Monogatari vol 6

A page from the yomihon novel Jiraiya Gouketsu Monogatari.

To my mind, this far-reaching adaptation is not a negation of original, creative and inventive thought, but the proof of it. I will try to demonstrate this by looking at pop culture, since that is, as you might have noticed, my field of interest.

 

Jiraiya, the Toad Ninja

A long time ago in Song-era China, there was a thief known as 自来也 , because every time he broke into someone’s

Jiraiya kabuki Danjuurou

Woodblock print of the kabuki adaptation of the same scene.

house, he left this graffito on the wall, which basically said ‘I was here‘. The Japanese reading, incidentally, is ‘Jiraiya‘. His story was first told in Japan in a popular novel by Edo-period writer Kantei Onitaka in 1806 and served as a basis for the fantastic story of ‘another’ Jiraiya, now written ‘児雷也‘ (Young Thunder). In the Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, The Tale of Gallant Jiraiya, he is the son of a samurai family fallen to intrigue, who learns toad magic from a hermit to fight his foes, a snake-magic using villian named Orochimaru among them, aided by snail-magic-wielding princess Tsunade. The novel was illustrated by well-known woodblock artist Kunisada, with images so iconic they informed the design of the kabuki stage adaptation of the work.[iii] This performance, in turn, provided the basis for colour woodblock prints of the actors in these roles, comparable to a modern movie poster.

 

Naruto Jiraiya toad magic

Latest incarnation: ‘Pervy Sage’ Jiraiya from Naruto

In other words, the story and its title character were adapted from Chinese legend to novel to illustrated literature (a potential manga precursor?) to kabuki theatre, to popular art. Characters based on Jiraiya the toad-magician-ninja have come up in Japanese pop culture time and again, to the present day – most well known is probably his ‘pervy sage’ incarnation in the Naruto franchise.

Modern ‘Media Mix’-Society

Speaking of franchises. A great number of today’s anime are themselves adaptations of manga or light novels, and they in turn inspire games, movies, and even more novels or manga – from fanfiction/dōjinshi to fully commercialized spin-off series (One Piece’s Chopperman and Naruto’s Rock Lee, both comedy manga, come to mind). The simultaneous advertising of different incarnations of the same characters and plot has been called ‘Media Mix’ – it is very noticeable in the well-known Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, for example, where movies, anime and other products related to the manga series are advertised between chapters. There are a great many examples, both successes and failures, of a story changing format over the years, one of which I will look at later.

Alternatively, stories are remade in the same or a different form, as we know from western comic books and movies. A special example of this dynamic is the

Poster Kitaro live action movie (2007)

Poster for the Kitaro live action movie (2007)

children’s anime GeGeGe no Kitarō, based on a 1960s monster manga by legend(ary) writer Mizuki Shigeru, which has seen a new incarnation, with the same characters and similar plots, in almost every decade. The title sequence alone shows how the series was updated time and again, from the uncanny old voice and black- and white animation of the first series to the electric sound of the 80s, to the ‘sexy teenage idol’ makeover in the 2007 live action movie.[iv] Kitarō in the last version, portrayed by half-Japanese actor Wentz Eiji, looks quite different to his animation precursors, but his silver hair is the call-back to the character’s very first manga appearances – which makes it hard to decide, of cause, which is the ‘original’ text being adapted. By the way, with all the intertextuality, genre conventions, tropes, audience pandering and suchlike going on, you’d have a hard time finding an ‘original’ to many a popular anime anyways…

 

The Live Action Dilemma

Manga/Anime-to-movie adaptation is a big topic, of cause. Live-action movies have the potential to leave a really big impact – they can be amazing and epic, such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films (that is not to say these are flawless). A good adaptation captures the spirit of the source material while giving it a new turn in a new medium. Ideally, it can both be appreciated by fans of the original and function as a gateway to new audiences. Some Western-produced anime-to-live-action-adaptations, however, have failed on both accounts, being badly planned, badly written, badly acted catastrophes, such as the infamous Last Airbender[v] and Dragonball movies. This seems to have played a major part in the genesis of the ‘Hollywood can’t do anime’ prejudice. It may come as a surprise to the adherents of this theory, however, to hear that a quite close adaptation of the Rurōni Kenshin (Samurai X) manga to a live-action movie in 2012 (with 2 sequels in 2014) was produced by none other than Warner Bros.

Ruoruni Kenshin Himura anime

Kenshin, as shown in the 1995-99 anime.

Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurōni Kenshin was first published in Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1994-9, and was adapted into a long-running anime series, several OVAs, and (in 2016) even a Takarazuka women’s musical. The plot revolves about travelling swordsman in the early years of the Meiji era, Himura Kenshin. He fights for those in need with his reverse-bladed sword, in order to atone for the numerous assassinations he had performed as a member of the imperial loyalists in order to bring the feudal military rule of the Edo government to a close. In other words, the story is set within the complex historical events of the late 19th century in Japan, and its main character, however good-natured and cute his day-to-day personality, has committed murder countless times. Despite his vow never to do so again, driven to revert to his old self more than once, though he indeed never kills again. In a manga, it is possible to combine such complex ethical questions of atonement, the structure of the human psyche and the working through of traumas with light-hearted slapstick comedy, or to unite precise historical circumstances with flashy costumes and weaponry, but in a live-action movie, this could seem disrespectful or nonsensical. So how did the film crew go about this?

The Strength of Kenshin

In a first, thankful decision, director and cast were kept Japanese, preserving the historical feeling of the manga. Director Ōtomo Keishi

Satou Takeru Rurouni Kenshin

Satou Takeru as Himura Kenshin, 2012.

had previously worked for NHK to produce period dramas such as Ryōmaden, where some of the later Kenshin actors appeared as well. Thus the production team is historically and culturally grounded, and therefore able to treat the source material with the appropriate know-how. Art film director Hoshino Keiko even suspects that the long wait (13 years since the end of the manga) for a live action adaptation happened because until Satō Takeru, there was no actor able to perform the lead role.[vi] In contrast, both the Dragonball and the Last Airbender movie disrespectfully changed the ethnicity of the main characters, which angered fans and made the cultural context of the story seem paradox. For example, how come Katara and Sokka in the movie are two white kids, but their clan remains an Inuit-style tribe? Rurōni Kenshin does make some changes to its characters, but not in such a nonsensical way.

Instead, two to three manga antagonists are combined in one character, and the same goes for storylines, a smart move to combine many good scenes from several volumes of manga in a single two-hour film. Apart from the introductory text, all relevant background information is given by characters in dialogue, so it doesn’t feel forced. Furthermore, while the film re-shuffles lot of incidents and plot elements from the manga, they are still the backbone of the plot (pleasing the fans), and the resulting narrative is coherent and logical (so that those new to the story are able to follow).

The comedic tone of many of the manga’s scenes surfaces several times in the film, mainly through the music, which sets the mood brilliantly. For example, it aids the establishment of Takeda Kanryū as the cruel and threatening, yet also ridiculous main villain. Some of the comedic elements in the characters of Kaoru, Yahiko and Sanosuke are also incorporated, most memorably the scene where Sanosuke interrupts a fistfight he is having in a kitchen to share a meal with his adversary, or the misunderstanding-ridden, slapstick-y first meeting between Kenshin and Kaoru, which is highly reminiscent of the source material.

anime Megumi Takani

Sly and ‘foxy’: Megumi in the anime.

The two most overt changes regarding characters are the transformation of Takani Megumi and the exclusion of Shinomori Aoshi. In the manga, Megumi is a clever, perhaps even sly, woman (often compared to a fox) who makes informed choices; in the film, she appears more like a traumatized girl. Whether this has been done to accentuate Kaoru as the more reasonable female character, or for the sake of casting another young and popular actress, or for an altogether different reason, I cannot say.

Takani Megumi rurouni Kenshin movie live action

Takani Megumi, as portrayed by Aoi Yuu

Likewise, there are several possible reasons why Shinomori Aoshi was cut from the plot. With so many iconic characters already featured, he might just have been too much of a distraction, but more importantly, there can only be one climax to the movie, and in the Rurōni Kenshin movie, this is clearly the fight between former assassin Kenshin and still-assassin Jin’e. A true-to-manga portrayal of Kenshin and Aoishi’s suspenseful duel would simply not have fit into the storyline. Jin’e also was an adversary Kenshin had great trouble defeating, but more than that, the emotional stakes were much higher, making for the more interesting scene – which is probably why, for the film, Jin’e was included in the Kanryū-plot in the first place. Moreover, the popular character Saitō Hajime play a minor but important role in the movie despite not appearing in the manga until much later. Between Saitōs aloofness and Jin’e’s ability, Aoshi would have felt redundant – though for Aoshi fans, this may have felt like stuffing in Saitō to the detriment of Aoshi.[vii] While some elements of Aoshi’s character have been transferred to the film-version of Hanya, like his mild concern for Megumi and his very fast short-sword-technique, this only leads to further changes, since it creates a character (now names Gein) who is quite different in personality and looks (model with a burn scar rather than hideously disfigured ninja) to the source material’s Hanya.

In the end, though, Rurōni Kenshin is an example for a successful adaptation despite these minor issues. The original manga has been treated respectfully. While its feel and atmosphere, characters and plot, visuals and emotional stakes are transformed as to leave lasting impact on the big screen, they survive this, for the most part, without losing their essence. Again, this evidences a transfer process impossible without clever creative thought.

Kenshin live action movie poster

Movie Poster for Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

I might come back in summer to the topic of adaptation and transfer/transformation, and discuss a different example, one befitting the time of year when scary tales are told to induce pleasant shudders against the heat – the cultural impact of O-Iwa, the female avenging ghost. But until then, I close my musings on the topic. Thanks for reading!

Notes and References

[i] The concept of orientalism – the construction of the ‘orient(al)‘ as binary Other to the ‘west(erner)‘, and how it informs discourse on the subject of anything ‘oriental‘ – was developed by Edward Said in his eponymous book (1978). See this website. If you’re short on time, here’s the wikipedia entry.

[ii] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/adaptation.

[iii] I compiled this information from various dictionaries on kabuki, such as Samuel L. Leiter’s New Kabuki Encyclopedia and its Japanese source, the Kabuki jiten, as well as Engeki hyakka daijiten (Great Encyclopedia of Drama), Kabuki tōjō jinbutsu jiten (Dictionary of Kabuki Characters); and the Koten bungaku daijiten (Great Dictionary of Classical Literature).

[iv] 60s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9boVDep-diw, 80s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bwOON3-1bY , movie trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX08cqhv0Kg . The animated series itself addresses this in the 40th anniversary special episode, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64BK6EQW3Qo

[v] I am aware that Avatar The Last Airbender is not a Japanese production and thus not an anime in the literal sense. But its look, cast and atmosphere are paying massive tribute to Asian culture and anime storytelling.

[vi] Katsura, Chiho; Hoshino, Keiko & Urazaki, Hiromi: „Katsura Chiho no eigakan he ikō. Tsukurite-tachi no eiga-hyō [Let’s go to Katsura Chiho’s Cinema. Film criticsm by those who make them“. In: Shinario, 68.11, 2012, 52-68, p. 62.

[vii] Shinomori Aoshi IS featured in the following films (Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends), however.


Musings On Nameless Old Women in Edo-Period Popular Literature

About a year ago, I was looking at Edo-period book illustrations and reading name cartuoches – until I stumbled upon two which did not actually contain a name!

I was working behind the scenes of an exhibition at my former university (Goethe-University Frankfurt Main, Germany[1]), which owns a small but very well-preserved collection of mid- to late- Edo-period (mostly early 19th century) woodblock printed books.[2] Many of those are illustrated (beautifully even though black-and-white). We planned to exhibit a few of these, related to the topic of travel in Edo-period Japan. In the process of preparing the information booklet for the exhibition, my supervisor, my co-worker and I usually transcribed and then translated the text on the pages which were to be shown. Kyôden granny bear 1Since I couldn’t read premodern Japanese very well, I tended to focus on short texts such as name cartouches and one-line image titles. This is where I noticed that, in two pages from different volumes of Santô Kyôden’s (1761-1816) novel Mukashigatari Inazuma Byôshi (Tales of the Past: The Envelope with the Lightning Design, illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni), two old women are not actually named in their name cartouches.Instead they are identified as ‘the mother of Kamon’ ( 嘉門の母, Kamon no haha, right) or literally ‘an old woman’ (老女, rôjo, down left). Incidentally, both of them have to be  rescued by male heroes: the old woman from a pack of dogs, Kamon’s mother from a bear.

By contrast, in another novel we exhibited, Kyôden granny dogs 2Shûshoku Shibori no Asagao (Autumnal Colours: Morning Glories Tie-Died, by Shôtei Kinsui, illustrated by Utagawa Yoshifuji), the female characters seemed to be travelling quite safely on their own or with a servant, and they have actual names, both in the text and in their cartouches.

Why might this be? The principal difference between these two sets of female characters is their age. The women in Shûshoku are young and thus of interest to the male heroes (as potential wives or paramours); but the old women in Mukashigatari have either already served their function as wife/lover and mother, or are too old now to do so. In both cases, I thought to myself, they have nothing left to contribute to a patriarchal society… so why bother naming them?[3]

There is more to it of course. In the Edo era, religious and social prejudice against women was prevalent; Buddhism as well as Shinto decried women as polluted and polluting beings for their ‘sexual allure’ and their bleeding in menstruation and childbirth. (These were colourfully evoked in the Buddhist concept of Blood Lake Hell and are probably responsible for the prohibition for women to ascend certain holy mountains.[4]) Yet, Buddhist nunneries existed too, and traditionally, an imperial princess dwelled as a miko (shrine maiden) in the ancestral shrine of the Tennô family.[5] Because of the approach of death, old age especially was seen as a time of religious devotion for both genders[6] – that was how the elderly were supposed to spend their additional free time in ‘retirement’. Kamon’s mother follows this custom and in so doing, I would argue, demonstrates her agency when she travels the mountains, by herself, to worship at a temple.[7] I would also assume that, similar to the nunneries of the Christian Middle Age, religious practice offered security and even a pathway to some degree of validation and authority for women.Kyôden granny bear 2

However, Confucianism was more influential in the period than either Japanized Buddhism or Shintô,[8] and it emphasized the moral virtue of caring for the aged, represented by ‘the image of the devoted son carrying his incapacitated [i.e. passive] parent around on his back’.[9] This is referenced in Mukashigatari when the hero, having saved Kamon’s mother from the bear, carries her home.

On the other hand, the image also recalls the ‘custom’ of ubasute (‘throwing away the old woman’) attacked in Confucian moral tales. In old times, these stories claim, whenever food was scarce or sometimes just because they became too much work, old people were abandoned in the mountains (which are linked to the afterworld in the Japanese religious mindset) by their kin – that is, until a faithful son breaks with the custom (there are different variants but this is the general story). In both ways, as a symbol of devotion or as a reminder of past bad practices, the image was vastly familiar in the Edo period and would have been recognized by the readers.[10] This stereotype could also be a reason why Kamon’s mother lacks a personal name – she is an intertextual reference.

Turning to the other old woman, the beggar, I found that, despite the Confucian demand for care and loving obedience toward one’s parents (and by extension all aged persons), old beggars are portrayed Kyôden granny dogs 3as a frequent occurrence in Edo-Period texts.[11] Wandering from door to door begging for food, they would often be attacked by the village dogs, as the rôba is in Mukashigatari. Although probably not as common an image as the piggyback-riding parent, the beggar woman trying to keep the dogs at bay with a stick may thus also have been a well-known image. (My supervisor suggested this as well.) In Mukashigatari, the encounter might prove crucial for the hero: he is travelling incognito, wearing a straw-hat which covers his face, but he needs to lift it in order to assure the old woman of his intentions (see image above). This will most certainly come into play later in the story: thus, the old woman serves a narrative function, as Kamon’s mother does – no need for a name.

To conclude, it seems to me that, from whatever angle I approach them, these women end up being functions – either biologically, religiously/morally or narratively – rather than people. Limited in their options and confined by social expectations, which push them aside as dependents on filial piety, they don’t seem to matter enough to anyone – character, writer or reader – to deserve a personal name. Basically they cannot do anything interesting: if you are but an old woman with a stick, chances are you will not be able to beat back the dogs on your own.

In my next ‘musing’, I might be looking at very young women with sticks who perform magical feats, meaning Magical Girls, and try to disentangle a bit of the puzzling mixture of progressive and cringe-worthy stereotypical elements in the genre.

Notes and Sources:

[1] http://www.goethe-university-frankfurt.de/en?locale=en

[2] A German-language catalogue of the whole collection, entitled Edo Bunko, is available. See also the (German) website of the collection, http://sammlungen.uni-frankfurt.de/sammlung/43/edo-bibliothek-a-institut-f-r-ostasiatische-philologien-japanologie-a-edo-bunko-a-a-a-a/

[3] For an interesting discussion of the position, rights and abilities of Edo-period women, see Yabuta Yutaka, “Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan”, a paper presented at the Japan Forum, Harvard University, 2000. http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/pdfs/yabuta.pdf

[4] Okano Haruko, “Die Stellung der Frau in der japanischen Religionsgeschichte“, in Elisabeth Gössmann, ed, Japan – Ein Land der Frauen? (München: Juridicum, 1991), pp. 34-55, pp. 50-53.

[5] I read this in the notes to an English translation of the Kôjiki which is unavailable to me at the moment.

[6] Susanne Formanek, “Traditional Concepts and Images of Old Age in Japan”, in Florian Coulmas, ed, The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook about Japan, pp. 323-43, pp. 332-4. See also her (German) study Denn dem Alter kann keiner entfliehen: Altern und Alter im Japan der Nara- und Heian-Zeit (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994), p. 505.

[7] Women were allowed in temples if they were past the age of forty: Susanne Formanek, Die “böse Alte” in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit: Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005), p. 384. There was a danger, of cause, for old women living alone in the mountains to become suspect, as the tales of the yôkai ‘yamauba’ reveal (Yamauba are also connected to the obasute-custom I mention later; see http://yokai.com/yamauba, for example). All the more reason, then, for Kamon’s mother to emphasize her piety.

[8] Yabuta, p. 10.

[9] Formanek, “Traditional Concepts”, p. 338.

[10] ibid.

[11] Formanek, Denn dem Altern, pp. 228-31.