From Daniela Moro, “Evil and Abject Women of the Traditional Japanese Theatre through the Reading of Enchi Fumiko’s Literary Works.” The entire article can be found at:
The writer Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986) is known for her deep knowledge of
Japanese classics, which she made skillful use of in her works by means of
intertextuality. A number of legends either born within oral or written tradition,
have spread in Japan through classical theatre, like Kabuki or Noh. In this paper I
will present three literary works by Enchi inspired by feminine evil and abject
archetypes of the ancient tradition, which became part of the Japanese imaginary
also by being represented on the Noh stage.1 The aim of this research is to tackle
the feminine figure coming to the fore in Enchi’s works by analyzing the writer’s
elaboration in modern key of the evil female archetypes of the Noh iconography.
The theories on Noh theatre’s origin are various, but one of the most accredited
is that Noh’s previous form was born into the sarugaku tradition, which had
developed from different forms of entertainment merged with religious rituals.
Under the guidance of the actor and theorist Zeami (1363?-1443?), sarugaku-nō
(where nō means “ability”) established its form and started being appreciated by
the military class, gaining the patronage of the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. 2 In
the course of time this highly refined artistic form became known simply as nō
(“Noh” in the English transliteration). With the Ashikaga Zen Buddhism reached
its peak and Noh plays, in origin already deeply linked to religious functions, took
strong Buddhist tones.
There are different theories about the attitude towards females in Buddhism,
either stressing or denying the misogynistic attitude of its doctrine.3 Anyways,
apart from what Buddhism could have meant in theoretical terms, looking at
historical facts, nobody can deny a negative attitude towards women in every-day
life, generated among Buddhist culture starting from ancient and worsening during
A Buddhist-based belief in female moral and biological defilement could be
considered at the same time cause and effect of the general social-economic
background which brought to the subjugation of women.4 Buddhist expressions
meaning the obstacles to overcome attachments to life and to reach enlightenment,
like “karma” or “passion” would be strongly associated to women, often referring
to their jealousy or sexual temptation. 5 In this panorama, the concept of evil in Noh
has often been linked to the one of feminine.
Onnamen (Masks, 1958), which is reputed to be one of Enchi’s most
representative works, has at its center the concept of feminine karma, and it is
focused around the vengeance of the middle-aged protagonist Mieko towards her
husband and in general towards patrilineal social system, one of the fundaments of
female subjugation in Japan. She makes her handicapped daughter -who was
actually born out of an extramarital relation-- having intercourse with a man and
giving birth to a child who is alien to her husband’s lineage. Even if not without
sense of guilt and internal conflict, Mieko decides to sacrifice her own daughter for
the sake of vengeance, giving priority to the female empowerment gained through
that act, instead of her motherly feelings.
Mieko, known for her ability of “possessing” other people’s mind and make
them do what she wants, is often compared in the narration to a Noh mask for the
ambiguous aura she is surrounded by. Her figure is inspired by Lady Rokujō
Miyasudokoro, famous feminine character of the masterpiece of the Heian period
(794-1185 a.D.) Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji, 11th century), which depicts
the life at court through the amorous adventures of the womanizer protagonist
Genji. Lady Rokujō is also protagonist of two Noh plays, first and foremost of the
drama “Aoi no Ue” (Princess Aoi), which directly inspired the figure of the Lady
emerging from Masks. In Masks, Enchi skillfully inserts her own ideas on the
character of Lady Rokujō in the form of an essay written by Mieko in her youth.9
It is a sort of apology of the figure of Lady Rokujō, whose living spirit leaves her
body out of jealousy while she is unaware of it, in order to possess the new wife of
Genji, her former lover.
This phenomenon of the living spirit possession ikiryō was very common in
Japanese tradition, and it was believed to manifest due to repressed feelings,
especially in women.10 In the traditional interpretation of The Tale of Genji,
Rokujō’s spirit -living or dead- had haunted more than one of Genji’s partners.
Despite the male-centered canonical interpretation, the essay in Masks stresses the
male responsibility in the vengeance of Lady Rokujō’s spirit in two forms. First, it
is seen as a possible effect of what we would call today an unconscious reaction
resulting from the woman’s suppression of a strong ego, and secondly it is also
contemplated that in one or more of the cases, it was Genji’s conscience itself
-realizing his guilt- that would manifest in form of spiritual possession.
Using the literary device of the essay written by Rokujo’s modern alter ego
Mieko, Enchi creates a sort of inducted apology of Mieko herself, suggesting that
even if she is the heartless creator of a monstrous plan, she is at the same time
victim of the patriarchal yoke which suppressed her possibility of expression. In
other words, while assuming the interpretation of the female karma emerging from
Noh drama “Aoi no Ue” --which stresses the evil aspect of the feminine--Masks
denounces the androcentric system as the motivating factor of evil.