Japan’s folkloristic landscape is densely populated. Yōkai alone can take plenty of different forms depending on the features these supernatural creatures assume. Some are well received by people (for instance, Amabie, a three-legged, beaked merperson who occasionally emerges from the sea to warn humans of coming disasters, made a timely comeback with COVID-19).
Others aren’t always so welcome. Ghosts (yūrei), in particular, always draw the short straw. In popular culture, these ghosts are mostly female. Mistreated in life — disfigured, raped, cheated on — the women of these stories (also known as kaidan) can’t embrace a peaceful afterlife and instead are condemned to cross the earth in the guise of vengeful specters. Reflecting the chauvinistic patriarchal society of feudal Japan, such stories were told as kabuki plays and later also integrated into the repertoire of rakugo.
Japan’s traditional entertainment industry has been long dominated by men, hence few opportunities arose to consider the tales of these wronged women. This has finally changed with Aoko Matsuda’s latest collection of short stories, Where the Wild Ladies Are (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), translated by Polly Barton. Based on a substantial pool of kabuki, rakugo, and folk stories, Matsuda rewrites the pitiful fate of famous yūrei, including Oiwa and Okiku — the former disfigured by a poisoned cream to prevent a marriage, the latter tricked by a man who wanted to have his way with her.
A classic rakugo tale where a man catches human bones instead of a fish is re-imagined in “Quite a Catch,” in which a beautiful female ghost clad in a muddy kimono appears to the narrator every night. “The Missing One” likewise does justice to its subject — Okiku — by giving her a caring partner who providentially appears at her shop’s door to deliver the missing plate she could never find in the original rakugo story. And in “My Superpower,” Oiwa is reinvented as a journalist suffering from eczema, who develops the power to see through others and discover if they’re secretly judging her by her appearance.
The pressure for women to maintain a beauty regime re-emerges in “Smartening Up.” At a bathhouse, a young woman is catapulted into a desperate vortex of self-deprecation when she remembers that she didn’t shave her body hair on the day she was dumped, and blames the hair for her partner’s infidelity. “It had happened because my arms, my legs, and other parts of my body were not perfectly hairless — because I was an unkempt person who went about life as if there was nothing wrong with being hairy,” she tells herself. But her aunt’s ghost counters, “Your hair is your power,” enabling her to embrace her new hirsute identity, pampering daily the long hair that now covers her entire body.
From a woman empowered by her thriving hair to another who finds her mojo with the skinhead look, Matsuda entertainingly engages the breadth of feminine identity and beauty. “Having a Blast” reworks a rakugo story in which the ghost of a woman can’t return to her husband because of her shaved head. Instead, Matsuda’s ghost is a perpetual lazybones who can’t be bothered to grow her hair back. “I’ve seen a lot of styles of dress come and go across the ages, but I feel like today’s fashion is probably best suited to the skinhead look,” she says. “There are lots of women like me on earth these days — their ears full of piercings, wearing ripped band t-shirts and torn black jeans, DMs, bright red lipstick and plenty of eyeliner. It seems like people have finally caught up with my style. What took them so long? That’s what I’d like to know.”
Peppering her short stories with references to Repetto ballerinas, Starbucks coffees, and trendy Scandinavian interiors, Matsuda attunes her traditional characters to contemporary Japan. Her heterogeneous writing style contributes to the collection’s vibrant rhythm. Ranging from a short story formatted as a magazine column to a first-person narrative from the point of view of a tree, the author decisively updates her source materials to offer a fresh critique of Japan’s stance towards women.
Physical appearance and socially prescribed beauty standards are not Matsuda’s only concerns. Her stories demonstrate how Japan’s restrictive gender roles still heavily influence the country’s women. In “A Fox’s Life,” a refreshing tale of a brilliant woman who becomes a fox (inari), her natural cleverness is seen by her male schoolmates and, later, colleagues as a hindrance. Kuzuha hides her excellence by taking on such menial tasks as tea-making and photocopying. Matsuda writes:
She also had a forte for spotting mistakes in documents written by her male colleagues. It was such a profoundly unexceptional sort of place that there wasn’t any competition between female employees over the high-earning male staff, and Kuzuha’s excellence didn’t seem to bother them. Her competence was hurled into her bosses’ mouths along with their afternoon sweets, washed down with their tea, then promptly forgotten about.
With a few precise brushstrokes, she reveals one of Japanese society’s unfortunate truths: that women are expected to hold themselves back, while lesser qualified men struggle to succeed in higher positions.
The stories are threaded together by the mysterious Mr. Tei, the manager of a soul-summoning incense company where most of the ghosts are employed. Working with them are few living temps and mysterious middle-aged women in kimonos, who recite spells in a top-secret department where oils and plants are blended for incense. With this collection, Matsuda subverts the typical male-dominated workplace to look the chauvinism of contemporary Japanese society right in the eye. And her gaze is burning.