237.230 Creative Cultures in Context I
Assessment 2: Critical Position Project: Catalogue Essay
Word Count: 1,596
Horror stories have been popular for centuries all over the world. Western horror stories typically focus on the Christian notions of good versus evil, whilst in contrast, Asian horror stories focus on the dead coming back to haunt the living. Many Asian ghost stories feature a female ghost – a woman was wronged in life and then meets an unfortunate end. In death, the female ghost is oftentimes both the protagonist and antagonist and uses her supernatural powers to torment her, usually male, murderers. These horror stories although fictional, reflect on socio-historical and cultural norms for women. Positioning the woman as victim and avenger in Asian horror cinema, filmmakers reflect gender roles in real life Asian society. Women’s position in Asian society has changed greatly from 1825, when the play Yotsuya Kaidan was first staged in Edo Japan to when Hideo Nakata’s “Ring” debuted in cinemas in 1998. Over the course of its history, Asian Horror cinema has re-contextualized the female ghost to convey current social issues and economic difficulties to the audience that have been ingrained into the core of the Asian horror genre’s elements.
Fig 1: Ukiyo-e print of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan
Japanese horror cinema has strong historical roots which link back to the Edo Period (1603 – 1863). Kaidan or in English, ghost stories – first entered the vernacular in the form of a summer time game, One Hundred Ghost Tales. Participants of the game would gather around, each taking turns in telling a ghost story. It was believed that after the 100th tale, a ghost would appear or a participant would die (Iwasaka and Toelken 15) and these tales would be later be published as pamphlets for the general public. These
ghost stories were believed to have stemmed from the prominent Japanese religious belief systems – Shintoism and Buddhism. Due to the religious flexibility and polytheist ideals heavily related to Shintoism, Japanese people had a wealth of legends and beliefs drawn upon the two different religions (Pruett Survival Horror Quest). Buddhism teaches that life is an endless cycle of life and death, while the Shinto religion teaches that all people are endowed with a spirit or a soul called “reikon”. The public’s
fascination with the supernatural and the other side had fuelled Kaidan’s popularity. Long withstanding religious beliefs could be a factor, while contemporary author, Miyuki Miyabe, argue that it was Edo Japan’s socio-political climate; “Life was hard and short for people in the Edo period. They understood that death might be just around the corner” (Alt The Japan Times). An example of a ghost tale that reflects socio-political issues of the time is the legend of Oiwa – the story just wasn’t about a disfigured
woman, but was a “dramatization of Japanese attitudes on marital obligations, betrayal of family… as well as an enactment of otherwise abstract ideas about spirits and their emotional condition” (Iwasaka and Toelken 44). The socio-political climate of the Edo period, along with the influence of its two major religions, shaped the ghost story tradition.
Fig 2: Kaubki Actor, Nakamura Kankuro as Oiwa
In 1825, “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” debuted as a Kabuki play. The play tells the story of Oiwa – a tale filled with betrayal, murder and ghostly revenge. It was regarded by many as a long established cultural narrative and is regarded as one of its most famous ghost stories (Lacefield 85). Yotsuya Kaidan’s popularity was derived from a mix of universal themes and the audience’s sympathy to its main character. At the time of the play’s debut, the Japanese people had suffered social unrest and treatment of women was especially poor; audiences at the time could relate to Oiwa’s initial powerlessness and
desire for revenge against her tormentors. This resonated with women in the audience as Oiwa can be interpreted as a literary device to “raise issues that were not possible to negotiate directly within the rules and laws of the feudal system” (Braunlein and Lauser 63). Oiwa as a literary device and the playwright’s usage of the horror genre can be seen as resisting dominant ideologies and presents resistance and vocal political action (Woodward 143). Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan not only conveys horror elements to frighten its audience, but to voice out socio-political issues that were prominent at the time
in its main character. Audiences could resonate with Oiwa’s character while they could not openly voice out their social unrest within the feudal system.
Fig 3: “Ring”, 1998
The history of Kaidan and popularity of the legend of Oiwa has formed the female ghost in modern Asian horror cinema; however, the fears of the audiences have changed over time. The 90’s saw a horror boom in Asia with Hideo Nakata’s “Ring” and South Korea’s “Whispering corridors” – the ghosts embodied contemporary issues such as Japan’s fast growing electronics industry and South Korea’s high pressure education system (Newman 425). Asian horror cinema emphasizes the ghostly form of the past
and connects it to present socio-political issues. Amandas Ong of Little White Lies magazine points out that these two films, “signal a shift towards acknowledging the evolving pressures on contemporary Asian women. They offer audiences an exploration of what happens when women seize the transgressive opportunity to fight back” (Ong Little White Lies). Whispering Corridors, released in 1998, is a good example of a film that highlights contemporary issues – the film served as a social critique to the harsh, high pressure education system in South Korea.
Fig 4: “Whispering Corridors”, 1998
Following the same formula as Yotsuya Kaidan, Whispering Corridors has a female perspective that harshly criticizes the society that mistreats them and to “challenge conventional stereotypes and mores” (Woodward 143). Modern Asian horror cinema takes cues from traditional horror storytelling, by using female ghosts as a representation of current issues and a communicative tool to the audience. By
melding these elements together, the female ghost figure still vocalizes social criticism and raises issues that plague modern Asian society.
Fig 5: “Ring”, 2002
After the successes of “Ring”, “The Grudge” and “Whispering Corridors” in the 90s, Asian horror cinema continued to flourish well into the 2000s. These horror titles eventually caught the attention of the West and ushered in a trend of remakes, like “Ring” in 2002. VICE investigates the success of Asian horror cinema and its remakes by citing media and violence was something both Japan and America had in common. Zac Thompson of VICE comments that “while the Grudge ultimately connected with western audiences, with themes of domestic abuse and sorrow were general enough to have roots in both cultures but didn’t resonate with North American audiences in an iconic way” (Thompson VICE). By this time, the female ghost had lost her voice and became a symbol of fear, poorly placed jump scares and entertainment in its American remakes. The rich horror tradition in Asia became lost in translation and director Takashi Shimizu voices, that whilst his Japanese audience “already knows the cultural background of ghosts, and many of the scary elements” (Waddell Neo), American audiences needed more explanation and context. The remakes of iconic Asian horror films failed to tap into the rich, traditional Asian horror storytelling, resulting in the female ghost losing her ability to effectively voice socio-political issues. Even though western audiences could relate to themes in the remakes, such as violence and domestic abuse, the character became nothing more than a symbol of fear and entertainment.
In 2010, South Korea enjoyed immense success in the horror genre with titles such as I Saw the Devil and Bedevilled, hence revitalizing the genre locally and overseas. Neither titles have supernatural elements in them but still resonate with the audience with very contemporary issues such as violence against women. Bedevilled’s main character, Bok-nam is arguably the 2010’s archetype of the female ghost – even though she is very much alive.
Fig 6: “Bedevilled”, 2010
Like her Japanese predecessor, Oiwa, Bok-nam was a victim in a community that belittled and abused her. Her character, in the tradition of the female ghost “conveys economic difficulties and its harsh impact on women give a strong empowerment to the characters and its motives” (Digital Asia). Director Yang Chul-Soo stated in an interview that he chose to tackle the subject of violence against women in Bedevilled due to a mixture of real life rape cases in South Korea and to convey that “women in Korean
society are the weak, but they are not the weak kind. Women are discriminated against and have obligations under the feudalistic customs….The film shows a complex aspect of the men oppressing the women, the suppressed women putting the men on a pedestal while oppressing another woman, and that woman to take revenge against those women and men” (Selavy Electric Sheep). By replacing the female ghost with a living woman, but still having the same formula of initial powerlessness and revenge, modern audiences could relate to the socio-political issues that the filmmakers wanted to convey more
effectively. The audience could arguably relate more to a living breathing human character rather than a ghost.
The character of the female ghost has went through an evolution from Yotsuya Kaidan’s stage debut in 1825, to the 90’s Asian cinema horror boom and finally to the success of Yang Chul-Soo’s Bedevilled in South Korea, 2010. The female ghost has been re-contextualized over time to convey socio-political issues and cultural norms that were prominent in Asian society at the time. The female ghost, simultaneously victim and avenger, represents violence against women, social critique of society and its rigid structures (such as Edo’s feudal system and South Korea’s educational system). The ghost is so effective in its presentation that it allowed filmmakers and audiences throughout Asian horror cinematic history to “take on deeper meanings – they can afford a variety of projections” (Woodward 145).
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Bedevilled. Dir. Chul-soo Jang. Perf. Seo Young-hee Ji and Sung-won. Sponge ENT, 2010. DVD.
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Ring. Dir. Hideo Nakata. Perf. Nanako Matsushima and Hiroyuki Sanada. Toho, 1998. DVD.
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The Ring. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson. DreamWorks Pictures, 2002. DVD.
Whispering Corridors. Dir. Ki-Hyung Park. Perf. Choi Se-yeon and Kim Gyu-ri. Cinema Service, 1998. Videocassette.