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Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture

by Christine L. Marran
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
256 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 0-8166-4726-7; ISBN: 0-8166-4727-5.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


The stories of dokufu ("poison women"), usually guilty of robbery or murder involving one or more sexual partner and/or victimized husband, emerged in novels serialized in sensational koshinbun (small newspapers) in Japan during the 1870s. Over the next century, the figure of the oversexed female criminal often appeared and captured the attention of modern Japanese culture. "Yoarashi" (Night Storm) Okinu kidnapped a seduced a doctor’s girlfriend and gave her to a friend as a slave. More famously, Takahashi "Yasha" (Demon) Oden, troublemaker since childhood, poisoned her leprosy-suffering husband and fatally stabbed a businessman. She was tried and beheaded in 1879 by a respected eighth-generation executioner. It is the author’s argument that, as Japan moved from feudalism to oligarchic government, these dofuku accounts articulated the politics and position of underclass women, sexual morality, and female suffrage. A few violent acts by women were transformed into plenty of ideological, social, and moral tales that deployed notions of unconventional female sexual desire and womanhood, to contrast them with societal norms of docility and domesticity.

Readers eagerly devoured zange, confessional narratives of female and male ex-convicts. Outraged at seeing others profit from her life story on stage, in the early 20th century Shimazu Omasa turned her personal tales of sex work, robbery, and clever escapes from the police into a vaudeville act. Medical and psychoanalytical literature of the 1920s and 1930s adopted a supposedly objective scientific perspective in their explanations of the female criminal. For some criminologists, women were naturally driven by their sanguine physiology to monthly violence; at the least, shoplifting. After execution or their natural death in prison, the genitalia of notorious female criminals like Takahashi Oden were preserved in formaldehyde for further examination. One is reminded of the fate of those of the eighteenth century African (Khoi) woman Saartjie "The Hottentot Venus" Baartman, on exhibit in a Paris Museum until 1974.

Like the ubiquitous figure of Jesse James or Billy the Kid in Hollywood movies, there were many retellings of the 1936 case of Abe Sada. After several drunken days of lovemaking, Sada inadvertantly killed her lover Ishida Kichizo during intense sex play, carved "Sada Kichi futari-kiri" ("Sada and Kichi, the two of us") into his thigh, and then chopped off his penis, and carried it for three days until her capture. During her trial, former lovers recounted in detail her sexual proclivities and demands. The story filled the newspapers of the day, and captured the public imagination. The 1937 book Abe Sada No Seishin Bunseki Teki Shindan (The Psychoanalytic Diagnosis of Abe Sada) featured Aubrey Beardsley’s florid drawing of Salome with the decapitated head of John the Baptist on its cover.

After the war, the Allied Occupation authorities wanted to keep the populace apolitical and distracted with an avowed encouragement of "sports, screen and sex". They encouraged the publishing of pulp magazines that would have been considered obscene a decade before, and the tales of Abe were now considerably more nuanced and sympathetic. Her photograph was published in 1949, showing the remorseful and reformed woman living modestly and performing the tea ceremony. Post-imperial Japanese society’s greater freedom for women offered more understanding of a transgressive one.

By the 1970s movies of the Abe Sada story focused more on her masochistic lover Ishida Kichizo than pinning blame upon her, as sensual Ishida was contrasted with disciplined men his age serving the Emperor in the Imperial Army. Oshima Nagisa directed "In the Realm of the Senses", climaxing in Abe strangling Ishida in an act intended to heighten orgasm, was popular among American college audiences as well as Japanese. One experimental play in Tokyo even ended with Abe opening a packet, which characters and spectators presumed carried Ishida’s severed part. It was revealed to be a gun with which she shoots a journalist, so her story can be published no longer.

The two chapters on Abe and Ichida bear the unfortunate titles "How To Be a Woman and Not Kill in the Attempt" and "How To Be a Masochist and Not Get Castrated in the Attempt". This fey humor is not the author’s only academic excess, for at times her perceived need to buttress her statements with citation of the published work of contemporary theorists clogs the flow of otherwise exciting narratives. Now that Christine L. Marran has given us this book of literary analysis, what is truly needed is a flowering of contemporary Japanese female Pop Artists work on dokufu subjects along the lines of the American "bad girl" painter Niagara, who for three decades has visualized (and vocalized) wry imagery of female criminality and social transgression; this reviewer has seen links to her http://www.niagaradetroit.com from Japanese artists’ and hipsters’ websites. Perhaps a wave of energetic Japanese "poison women" artists already exists, who are thirsty for blood, so to speak. If so, Christine L. Marran is qualified to write an appreciative explanatory text in any book that reproduces their work.



Updated 1st November 2007

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