Notes on Masks


In a very penetrating feminist analysis of three modern writers, Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers (Stanford University Press, 1999), Nina Cornyetz has drawn on feminist psychoanalytic theory to open Masks (and The Waiting Years) to provocative readings. Students should consult her work if possible.

Cornyetz notes that one of Enchi's "boldest and most innovative literary contribution" was to create in her protagonists "interiorized versions of the women who functioned metaphorically, often as male imaginaries, in the classics" and thereby enable her to shift from "narrative object to narrative subject." (101). In other words, Enchi empowers the women in her texts often by basing them on, or having them draw power from, the figures of shamanesses and women capable of practicing spirit possession as they appeared in classical Japanese literature. Mieko's fascination with the Rokujo Lady and her involvement in a complex plot to wrest the Togano bloodline away from the dominant patrilineal system and place it firmly under the control of the women--all the while, masking what she is doing--is an obvious case in point.

Mieko is most closely associated with the Fukai mask. Click here and here to see a picture of a Fukai mask. In Japanese, Mieko's name is written with three characters that suggest she is a woman of considerable depth (3 layers or levels), and complexity. Also, there is the matter of some curious language in the Japanese version at the end of Part Two. The translation reads "He [Ibuki] drew her to him again." But the original Japanese suggests a process of layering and substituting that is going on. These last lines, not really rendered into English by the translator are, “Ibuki once again drew Yasuko to him and lay(ered) his face on top of her flower-like face.”

In Japanese, after the quote about becoming a fool, we find,


言いながら、伊吹(Ibuki)は もう一度康子を抱きよせて、

"While saying this, Ibuki once again drew Yasuko to him, and,



Hana no yoo na kao no ue ni, kao (w)o kasaneta


On top of her flower like face, he lay(ered) his face."



What does this language suggest or bring to mind? Certainly the layering possibilities make us think of masks and the process of masking, disguising. For some more ideas, click here.

But one thing Enchi does consistently is to link the deeply individual "psychological interiority" of her characters with the actual historical "sociopolitical experience of being a woman in modern Japan," (101) something we see more of in her companion nove to Masks (called Onnamen in Japanese) The Waiting Years (called Onnazaka or the feminine hill or slope) than in Masks itself. The Waiting Years, which we are not reading this year, establishes specific historical markers in the text to cue the reader as to the year or era. And the years Enchi is targeting in this book is precisely those years--1880s to mid-1920s--when the modern patriarchy was being constructed in Japan. Moreover, every few chapters, Enchi will open up a new chapter with a specific time reference or reference to some specific historical event which explicity grounds the narrative in a historical context.



Here are a couple of direct quotations from Dangerous Women:


    Enchi transports the dangerous woman from social and geographic borders into the center of society and the city proper. Following Enchi, the Shinto shamaness and the mountain witch no longer need be found by a bridge or other liminal site. No longer do they inhabit only a mountain top or an archaic text; now they live inside (all) women, as the suppressed, enraged "other side" of the modern maternal ideal. . .Enchi did not, as many other critics have held, write as much of "female psychology" and "real women" (or femaleness as a principle or "essence") as she did about a literary configuration for femaleness. Hers was a quest to rescript femaleness. . .

    Although Enchi, in what could be called a feminist gesture, seems to have consciously sought to rebel against Japanese dominant restrictive notions of maternalized femaleness, she nonetheless usually reproduced femaleness within the confines of an already circulating, differently restrictive, trope of vengeful otherness. Her attempt at liberation through the dangerous woman trope frequently collapsed into a modern inhabiting of femaleness-as-site as it was already circumscribed by a phallic agenda. The political limitations of empowerment bound by the confines of inhabiting a male imaginary are obvious: the trope becomes a site for enormous ambivalences, resistances, and collusions. That Enchi won numerous literary prizes (she remains the most lauded female Japanese author to date), awarded by panels of primarily male judges presiding over a phallocentric literary agenda, suggests that the "essence" of femaleness that these judges feted in her narratives reproduced a femaleness collusive with or supportive of notions of the phallic subject as norm. Her dangerous woman ultimately bolstered, however unintentionally, the phallic agenda they were designed to undermine. (102-103)

    In Enchi's Masks, blood functions as an index of female identity and as a marker of female pollution and divinity. Blood further forms the basis upon which a community of women, exclusive of men, is constructed. Blood is presented as a structural component of female "otherness," in keeping with Japanese gendered ideations that comingle the stubborn traces of premodern pollution practices with modern representations of women as "fluid," in contrast to putative male "solidity." . . .An essay written by the character Mieko, and embedded within the primary narrative of Masks, proclaims: "Sin is inseparable from a woman's being. It is a stream of blood flowing on and on, unbroken, from generation to generation" (57). Yet, as I argue in this study, blood's seepage and formlessness incorporates the capacity to defraud or contaminate the phallocentric systems that it, as a marker of female otherness, ostensibly substantiates. (115-116)


For some more notes on the essay "written" by Mieko, An Account of the Shrine in the Fields, click here.


    . . .Linked to their archaic counterparts through the flow of tainted blood and jealous passions, the modern women in Masks are the reincarnations of the goddesses and the miko shamans of ancient folklore, the mad women of Noh drama, and the jilted, jealous women of Heian monogatari, whose spirits escape the confines of their bodies to wreak havoc on their female rivals--with one important discrepancy. The shamanesses of Masks join forces against men, not female rivals. Mieko is likened to the ryo no onna female archetype of the Noh, as a woman who will not sublimate her strong will to male dictates and whose only outlet for jealousy and passion is revenge through spiritual possession. Masks is a stinging indictment of female disempowerment, depicting a legacy of communal female insubordination born of repressed rage and enacted through supernatural empowerment. (119)



Here find some Genji material with particular reference to the Rokujo Lady which might be useful.

On p. 130 and elsewhere, there is reference to an old ghost story, made into both kabuki and Noh plays, called The Peony Lantern. The story is that a samurai's betrothed dies of a broken heart while waiting for her lover to return. In death, she and her maid devise a devious plot to haunt him in an attempt to bring him into the realm of death with her. Despite his servant's warnings that he is bewitched, eventually, the ghost succeeds and overcomes the samurai. A more detailed summary is:


    Kaidan Botan Doro (The Ghost Story of the Peony Lantern)

    One of the most famous ghost stories in Japan shows the ghost of a beautiful young girl who visits the man she loves nightly, her way lit by a lantern decorated with peonies. The clatter of her wooden clogs announces her appearance, “…karannn…koronnnn…” Originally a Chinese story, it became a Japanese classic when it was transformed into a long Rakugo story by Sanyutei Encho (1839 - 1900). Otsuyu (Kantaro) the daughter of a samurai family falls in love with a young samurai named Shinzaburo (Shichinosuke), but she falls sick and dies when he stops visiting her. Her ghost begins to visit him nightly preceded by the ghost of her nursemaid carrying a lantern decorated with peonies and he welcomes these meetings, not realizing that she is dead. But a priest sees the signs of death and protects Shinzaburo with holy amulets and a powerful Buddhist statue. The ghosts then bribe Shinzaburo’s greedy servant Tomozo (Mitsugoro) and his wife Omine (Fukusuke) to take the amulets away. The result is that Shinzaburo is killed by the ghosts and Tomozo and Omine run away with the money. But the money doesn’t bring them happiness. This version of the story is not just a tale of ghosts, but shows human treachery and the revolving ironies of fate.


For a full text of the story as rendered by Lafcadio Hearn click here.