“She can kill someone, just by willing it?”

   Ryuji, in Ringu (Nakata 1998)

Judging solely by the sheer number of sinister mythological representations of women across cultures, through history, and more recently and specifically in the Japanese horror film genre, it would seem that women are, as Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley say in their book, Bad Girls of Japan, “inherently evil” (16).  One only has to grow up watching Hollywood horror movies and then encounter the Japanese variation, or vice versa, to notice the striking contrast: whereas in the Hollywood horror movies the evil antagonist is typically a monstrous male figure, in the Japanese horror cinema, almost without exception the villain is female. Why should this be so? The answer lies beyond the history of cinematic narrative. Indeed, Japanese culture in general is no exception to this pattern of representation, and indeed harbours a uniquely pervasive “evil” representation of the feminine: the onryou. Unlike Western literature and narrative culture, which feature largely male monsters and antagonists, out of Japanese creation myths, folklore, and kabuki traditions arose the onryou, a ghostly female avenger who, oppressed in life, returns from the realm of the dead as wrath personified. This figure can be seen in countless folktales, and even in the Edo-period woodblock illustrations known as ukeyo-e. As storytelling forms evolved from verbal tales to literary representations and on to contemporary Japanese horror films such as Ugetsu monogatari (Mizoguchi 1953), Audition (Miike 1999) and Ju-on (Shimizu 2002) and, perhaps most glaringly, in  Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), so too did the onryou representation. As it did so, it always both reflected and informed the changes, not only in narrative culture and art, but also in the Japanese socio-cultural landscape at large. Nowhere is this interaction more visible than in terms of the social construction and representation of gender. In contrast to the Western trope of the sinister male villain—Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs comes to mind—as well as the disproportionately female audiences for the Japanese horror films (male, in egalitarian North America), the presence throughout Japanese history of all these “scary women” raises a question. Why do Japanese myths, stories and particularly horror films—made predominantly by men for predominantly female readers and audiences—feature so many female monsters? To answer this question, it is crucial to first understand how female agency is represented, both in the Japanese horror film and within the culture at large.




Taken as an example of the contemporary incarnation of onryou, a character like Sadako in Ringu then, provides a working touchstone for the following analysis of both the representation of female agency and identity in the Japanese Horror film, and of its correlation to shifting tides in Japanese society. Although at first glance there may appear to be no relationship between a pop culture artifact and a society that has existed for thousands of years, a deeper analysis reveals that embedded within these representations of gender—surface images of violent female revenge notwithstanding—is a matrix of culture-specific operations that rather than express female empowerment actually do the opposite: they constrain the representation of gender. They do so by reconfiguring female agency as transgressive, monstrous “Other,” in psychological, social and spiritual terms. This, in turn results in the reinforcement and perpetuation of Japanese patriarchy.

On a psychological level, onryou representations reconfigure womanhood as transgressive by rendering it abject. To fully grasp the implications of such a move from the sublime and essential to what Sigmund Freud once called in The Uncanny, “the return to flesh and excrement” ( 45), Scott A. Lukas and John Marmysz, in Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation: Horror, Science fiction, and Fantasy Films Remade explain that psychological fear and anxiety are essential elements in the horror films, which audiences work through and linger with collectively (15). What then are the fears and anxieties involved in the Japanese onryou context, and how do they operate to constrain gender? Like the horror films of all cultures Japanese horror films rely for effect on the psychological projection of these anxieties, which result from the repression of inappropriate desires and behaviour. Given the female nature of onryou–and considering that the creators of Japanese horror films are almost exclusively male–onryou can be seen as representing specifically masculine sexual anxieties. According to Robin Wood in Barry Keith Grant’s The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, “the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses” (4). Clearly then, it is these repressed sexual anxieties that surface with the appearance of the onryou. In the case of Ringu, these operations of repression and oppression become centralized and embodied in the onryou character, Sadako.

Hideo Nakata’s Ringu centres on a TV reporter, Reiko, a single mother whose son Yoichi, possesses a kind of ESP-like ability to “see,” which he apparently inherited from his father, Ryuji. When a series of high school girl deaths prompts her investigation, Reiko discovers a viral curse circulating in the form of a video featuring surreal and obscure images. Once somebody has viewed the tape, they have only one week to live before Sadako the onryou visits them and terrorizes them until their hearts stop. Having herself viewed the tape, Reiko turns to her ex-husband for help, showing him the video. Together Reiko and Ryuji uncover the source of the curse: Sadako, a young girl who, along with her mother, were persecuted by society 40 years earlier for possessing unusual ESP abilities. After being labeled as “impure” and thus dangerous by a group of male scientists, Sadako’s mother had committed suicide. When Sadako literally killed one of the persecuting men by willing him to death, Sadako’s own father bludgeons her and thinking her dead, deposits her in a well, which he seals. Sadako however, survives in the well for 17 years, and her wrathful spirit grows, until finally in her death she manifests the videotape curse. The film focuses on the gradual revelation of Sadako’s story and the nature of her curse. Once Reiko and Ryuji find the well and expose the injustice done to Sadako, the curse seems to lift. Reiko survives. However, Sadako visits Ryuji and kills him, and only then does Reiko finally realize the true nature of the curse: the person who viewed the tape must pass it along and get someone else to view or they will die. Reiko had passed it to her ex-husband and now must pass it along to someone else because her only son has by then also seen the video.

The onryou story certainly operates within universal psychological paradigms such as those laid out by Freud and Jung, but does so in ways particular to the Japanese cultural psyche. The unheimlich, or, “uncanny,” quality, according to Freud’s analysis, is symptomatic of a return (in the form of a projected figure) of something repressed but which was once well known,   resulting in a cognitive dissonance, usually through a process of transgressing the boundaries of fantasy and reality, and often involving masculine castration complexes (153). For Japanese, this “uncanny” dimension is expressed in the concept of on ( ), but which carries within it a sense of unvoiced injustice and oppression, which must be absorbed internally, resulting in a fatalistic sentiment (Lukas and Marmysz 118). This accounts for the on quality involved with Sadako’s uncanny return, as well as the nature of her death. Particular focus is paid in the film, for example, to the backstory of how Sadako and her mother were oppressed in life by the male scientific community for being possessed of “unnatural” abilities. Sadako was even murdered by her own father. Her victims (both male and female), who die by heart-stoppage when they are exposed to the cursed videotape, often do so off-screen. Scenes of death are given less emphasis than scenes of Sadako transgressing the liminal boundaries that separate worlds living and dead, or scenes revealing the injustices done to her. So, when Sadako moves from video footage of her crawling out a well, towards the screen, and finally through the screen, Sadako’s incursion from the world of the dead into the world of the living certainly qualifies as an uncanny move–the female oppressed by masculine society returning from death. However, the on sentiment is alone not enough to fully account for Sadako’s representation because it does not address for example, the fact that she is specifically a teenaged avenging spirit.



Japanese women are subject to long-standing social expectations and ideals of femininity, ideals that onryou represent challenges to. Lukas and Marmysz argue that since every culture has differing semantics of horror, with the onryou representation of Sadako, the Japan-specific signification of both the female avenger and the female high school student become indelibly interconnected with the on sentiment (119).

In the case of Sadako, this interconnection is evidenced in the way that the Japanese semantics of femininity and beauty are inverted and made icons of gendered monstrosity.

For example, qualities such as a reserved nature or enryo, and tenderness, yasashii are still highly valued by males, and consequently internalized as desirable values by women. Physical characteristics, Takie Sugiyama Lebra says in The Japanese Self in Cultural Logic, that ideals of beauty such as slimness and long black hair, are also highly valorized. In terms of additional expectations placed upon young females, the ability not to be a burden (meiwaku) to others is encouraged, as is a compliant nature, or sunao (187). Young Japanese women are particularly vulnerable to these influences. On the one hand, places like all-girl high schools are the location of the female’s training in the patriarchal ideology of Confucianism, and where, “systematically glorified female figures” such as the “good wife” or “good daughter,” are presented in order to prevent young girls from imagining themselves outside the context of men, and where such qualities as female endurance (shinbō) are emphasized. On the other hand, female adolescence is also seen as a liminal temporal space, a period of natural transformation into sexual beings. Overall, in young females can be seen the potential for creating new self-conscious narratives of self-identity. In Gambling with Virtue: Japanese Women and the Search for Self in a Changing Nation, Nancy Rosenberger claims young Japanese women insist on the ability to experience global travel and consumerism, leisure and even sexual freedoms; significantly, lifestyle considerations that they largely associate with the West (238). As a result of their potency, in a problematic environment of masculine oppression, the young female is often rendered in “fetishized visual codes” such as the long black hair (Lukas and Marmysz 122). This unease in the cultural consciousness, specifically the masculine consciousness, leads to the school girl’s persona in the horror film, of which Sadako in Ringu is emblematic. Although in surviving at the bottom of a well for 17 years, Sadako certainly demonstrates shinbō, such a feat is humanly impossible, so this act further demarks her as monstrous. Sadako’s vengeful return from the realm of the dead can also be seen as a willful act of profound assertion, hardly the reserved actions of a young girl demonstrating enryo. Likewise, Sadako’s extremely long black hair, completely concealing her face, inverts the traditional iconography of youthful female beauty ideals and renders it a signifier of Sadako’s enigmatic malevolence. Notable in its complete absence in Ringu, is any mention or address of Sadako’s maturing sexuality. Indeed, Sadako is killed before her transition out of adolescence and into sexual womanhood is complete. According to the formulation laid out by Shelley S. Lindsay with regards to an American horror film, but which is appropriate to Ringu,

[b]y mapping the supernatural onto female adolescence and engaging the language of the fantastic, (Ringu) presents a masculine fantasy in which the feminine is constituted as horrific. In charting (Sadako’s) path to mature womanhood, the film…constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy (Grant 281).

Thus, in the projection of masculine anxieties about the transitioning teenaged female sexuality, Sadako’s repression is displaced and then mapped onto her violent wrath, and by rendering her monstrous in this way, places her femininity in that subject position “impossible to occupy,” namely, as a representation of apparently monstrous psycho-sexual forces. What emerges from this psychological perspective though, is that these constraining operations both actively inform and construct representation, but are also be informed and constructed by the Japanese social context from which they arise, and which produce the masculine anxieties.

In addition to their representing repressed sexual dimensions, in the onryou‘s portrayal as beings that transgress ordering social structures, onryou like Sadako are also reconfigured as transgressive “Other.” Several social dimensions account for this. For example, historically the Japanese male privilege to name and control in the creation of myth, has acted against female power, a response to the threat to male-defined social order posed by female potency and agency, and which has resulted in the myth-makers reconfiguring female agency and potency as abject and monstrous (Miller and Bardsley 16). Furthermore, as Joanna Liddel and Sachiko Nakajima argue in Rising Suns, Rising Daughters, the imbalance of gender power in Japan’s patriarchal system, rooted originally in Confucian thought, was institutionalized during the Meiji restoration, where the traditional feudal system was replaced with the “family-state” system, in which male heads of the household were granted authority over the women of the family. In 1898, the Civil Code was introduced, requiring of married women a, “chaste and secluded lifestyle and the surrender of rights in property to the husband’s family” ( 42). Liddle further argues that this new legal structure of the family constituted an institutionalization of the patriarchal system, and was an attempt to begin institutionalizing the (patriarchal) nation’s vision of a globalizing Japanese society, and to construct ideals of womanhood, revolving around the home, and in terms of chasteness, modesty and obedience (102). These ideals were further codified in Kaibara Ekken’s neo-Confucian text “Greater Learning for Women,” or Onna Daigaku, written in 1905. Among the precepts outlined in this text was the ideal morality in which women must sacrifice their selves and private interests to the common good, and “reserve in place of réclame…forebearance in place of impetuosity, and complete submission to (male) authority” (Liddle 103). Such codes form the structure of constraint against which Japanese feminist movements have struggled, and which serve as the backdrop to the masculine hierarchy in Japan that is challenged by the presence of a transgressive female, certainly in the case of a woman who can will men to death. Simultaneous with these efforts by male society to constrain female power, Japanese feminism, or the struggle of women to collectively “move out of an object positioning to a subject positioning” (Liddle and Nakajima 30), arose. Recent years have seen continuing shifts in woman’s power, shifts that seem to privilege “egoism,” over family, community and nation, and where marriage and childbearing are no longer seen as the “sole option” for women, so suggests by Jay McRoy in his book,  Japanese Horror Cinema (80), but which have not necessarily reversed the patriarchal alignment of society. For example, many women still see their husbands as the traditional ruler, or teishu kanpaku, of the household. This willful quality has its parallels in the larger struggle of women in Japan to acquire power and self-determination, and in recent examples of youthful females involved in violent outbursts and anti-social activities, such as in the case in 2001, of two all-girl biker gangs engaging in a street brawl involving Molotov cocktails (Miller and Bardsley 1). Such “scandalously visible” and newsworthy incidents undoubtedly influence the existing and changing masculine anxieties about young females. For example, as James McRoy (2005), points out, in response to social transformations in Japan, the incursion of women to the patriarchal economy, changes in the family structures, and the growing power of the young females to re-imagine gender roles,” Japanese men have apparently suffered their own form of identity crisis, resulting in a panicked cultural reassessment in which contemporary manifestations of the ‘avenging spirit’ motif can be understood as symptomatic” (4). All of these gendered social concerns and changes are reflected in Sadako’s transgressions. Importantly, it is Sadako’s will, her female agency, perhaps emblematic of feminist empowerment, and her supernatural ability to destroy men and threaten the patriarchal order, that mark her difference, provoke the masculine response, and importantly, render her an outsider to the social order, render her a monstrous “Other.”

Sadako is made monstrous Other in the particular way she transgresses the Japanese construction of identity. Traditionally at least, identity is constructed in Japan differently than in Western cultures, where a “logic of opposition” predominates. Takie Sugiyama Lebra argues that the Western conceptualization of the individual self is a construction made in opposition to a targeted “other” or non-self, and for true selfhood to be achieved, it must be separated from the other, while simultaneously unified internally, “armed with a fixed identity, autonomy, and volition that sustain the opposition” (3). The Japanese notion of identity however (and useful for understanding the onryou), is structured differently, in what Lebra calls a “contingency logic.” For example, the Japanese logic the opposition self/other are unified into a single unit as self and other, and which are continually in relation and negotiation. This relational identity is in turn also embedded within the Confucian conceptualization of an inside and outside dynamic, or uchi/soto. What results, according to Joy Hendry in Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, is the Japanese sense of a collective, with dynamic boundaries between self and other, where the group is characterized by virtual uniformity, and which forms an enduring temporal frame, or ba. (95) Anything lying outside this collective identity then, comes to be seen as soto, with subtle connotations of impurity rooted in Shinto ideology. As  Charles Shirō Inouye claims in Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture, “simply put, one identifies with uchi, and not with soto (90). Recalling the earlier positioning of Sadako as the subject “impossible to occupy,” it is clear that she is a female agent that one cannot identify with–Sadako is positioned outside the unified inside, making her supernatural incursions all the more transgressive and shocking. This is important, when one considers that the audience for the Japanese Horror film is disproportionately young females. According to this view, these audiences can not identify with Sadako then, despite her being the sole female character who demonstrates agency. Audience would naturally turn to Reiko, the protagonist to identify with, but Reiko’s characterization is problematic. She is divorced, a single parent, and when faced with Sadako’s curse requires the assistance of her ex-husband. Moreover, Reiko is unable in the end, to escape Sadako’s curse. She succumbs to her wrath. Through her transgressions of social order, and this process of “Othering,” Sadako as an onryou representation constrains gender.

In addition to the psychological and social dimensions that work to constrain gender in the onryou representation, perhaps the most profoundly disturbing transgressions she commits are those that involve the Japanese spiritual dimension.

Being from the realm of the dead, and thus being highly “impure,” clearly the onryou fall outside the unified uchi self. This adds substantially to their “Otherness.” Spirituality is culture-specific. For example, in the case of The Ring (Verbinski 2002) Hollywood’s remake of Ringu, the qualities particular to Japanese culture were altered in order to appeal to American audience sensibilities. Whereas in The Ring the female protagonist Rachel is presented as a female warrior who defeats “Samara,” thereby affirming the Western-Christian values of good triumphing over evil (as well as American triumphalism, in Reiko’s case, she in fact becomes in the end further locked within the operation of Sadako’s curse. For Reiko the only possible way out of the curse is an act of self-preservation: knowingly passing on the videotape curse. In traditional Japanese Buddhism, existence is seen as a cyclical evanescence, where life and death are seen not as linear oppositions as if on an arrow, but as points of change and transformation on a circular samsara. In the film Ringu, one of the prevailing visual motifs (seen on the videotape) is the circle formed by the well when viewed looking up from its depths, the titular “ring” an imagistic metaphor for the abstract ring formed by the circulating nature of the cursed videotape, and the spiritual cycle of the samsara. This traditional Buddhist concept is complicated in Ringu though, because even at the story’s end, as Sadako’s wrath continues within the enfolding ring of samsara, the cursed person must pass it along to someone else. Willfully and knowingly giving another person the cursed tape, is an egoistic, self-preserving gesture, and introduces a Western linearity to the samasara. If one were to illustrate this relationship, it might look like a circle with an arrow struck through its centre, clearly a monstrous perversion of the samsara. Notably, in Ringu this perversion is made possible by the television screen and videotape, through which Sadako passes from one world to the other. The TV becomes a symbol of pervasive Western intrusions, influences that pervert the samsara and, if only implicitly, Japanese existence. If the TV can be seen as an outside, or soto element, which is permitted inside the uchi space of the home, then certainly Sadako’s entry through the TV into the home, can be seen as doubly transgressive. The conflating of Sadako with the TV then, takes on the signification of the incursion of will itself, of Western-style egoistic individualism, which is perhaps responsible for “polluting” Sadako in the first place.

Through this nuanced conceptualization then,

Sadako is not only made “Other” because she has died and returned, but also because she is “impure,” and what makes her impure is that she is infected with female agency–remember, she can will men to death.

This ultimately is her transgression against the spiritual order. In this most transgressive way, female agency, reworked through the lens of the onryou archetype, is threatening because,

it is leaky and morphs. It is inauthentic because it borrows and mimics other cultural “agencies.” It is mysterious because it conceals itself, and it is messy because it refuses control and demands disorder. This…agency is abject (Miller and Bardsley 85).

Ultimately then, gender is constrained because such representations reinforce the patriarchal values by presenting the actions of female agents as transgressions against the spiritual order, and therefore as negative and abnormal, anti-social, destructive and monstrous. If the outsider Other is positioned outside the unified, contingent self/other field, when it intrudes on the unified field, it threatens to pollute not only an individual self, but the entire spiritual order.  Thus, the positioning of the “outsider” in Japanese culture plays a central role in configuring agency in general.

Clearly, the stakes are precariously high for a culture wherein men have long established a patriarchy that in many ways has resisted female agency and any feminist attempts at empowerment, by defining itself in relation to the Other in this way. This is, after all, a patriarchy that had also established clear expectations of traditional femininity. Why then, would Japanese culture other the female representation to the point where it is made monstrous, at least within the confines of the horror film genre? In search of this answer, how the particular representation of female agency appears in the Japanese horror film has been examined. The accumulated effect, it seems evident, of the psychological, social and spiritual transgressions involved in the onryou representation in general, and the example of Sadako in particular is that they constrain gender by reconfiguring the representation of female agency as monstrous Other. Given that the audience for such horror films as Ringu in Japan are predominantly female, the question of impact seems warranted. How for example, does seeing female agency represented as monstrous Other influence the way young females interpret and construct gender identity, their ways of seeing themselves? Why then would men be afraid, since seeing female agency rendered monstrous Other would seem to affirm the values of the Japanese patriarchal culture? One can conjecture that for the female audience, seeing female agency othered would seem problematic. Since the audience is unable to identify with the othered female agent, they would naturally turn to the female protagonist Reiko and attempt to identify with her. However, in Ringu, the protagonist, although occupying subject position and therefore the likely candidate for audience identification, is portrayed as the victim. Reiko seems strong, and determined to stop the curse—admirable female qualities to be sure—but she also seems to require the help of a man, her ex-husband, in order to “make sense of things.” It seems only two options are left; a positioning that reinforces seeing women as victims or a positioning of seeing women as abject, female agency as transgressive and monstrous. The key to understanding the impact of this most recent manifestation of such a traditional archetype is to see it within its time. Sadako, for example, appears not within the context of patriarchy as status quo, with female subjugation the societal norm as was the case, say, during the Tokugawa period, but within the context of a relatively recent ascendancy of feminism. She, and anyone remotely like her, clearly pose a threat to the patriarchal order, even if only in imaginary terms that play on the psyche. This in turn, reaffirms the cultural values of masculine patriarchy for the female audience.

Ringu was an international commercial and critical success, and thus was seen by both female and male audiences, who, one could assume, equally found the film frightening. Given both this and the success of subsequent films with similar tropes, will the Japanese film industry then, continue to portray women in a way that reinforces patriarchy? Or will J-horror films, and thusly the society they are meant to entertain, also evolve to a more gender-equal state? Ultimately, this remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that feminism is on the ascendance in Japan, with many women opting for careers over more traditional roles as homemakers. To date, for example, several key government positions, including the Minister of Defense, are occupied by women. Considering the profits generated by films perpetrating the onryou archetype, it certainly appears likely to continue. What does emerge from this analysis though, is, to the degree to which an example of onryou like Ringu‘s Sadako reflects and is informed by contemporary Japan’s gendered spiritual, social and psychological dimensions, as Japan’s gender culture evolves, perhaps with the continued ascendance of feminism within Japanese society, the onryou and its representation in cinema will evolve too. To what it will evolve remains unknown, but for the time being there continues to be no shortage in the Japanese cinema of scary women.




Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2003.

Grant, Barry Keith. (ed.) Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 1996.


Hendry, Joy. Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge. 1998.

Iwasaka, Michiko and  Barre Toelken. Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. 1994.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. The Japanese Self in Cultural Logic. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2004.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 1984.

Liddel, Joanna and Sachiko Nakajima. Rising Suns, Rising Daughters. New York: Zed Books Ltd. 2000.

Lukas, Scott A. and John Marmysz. Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation: Horror, Science fiction, and Fantasy Films Remade. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books. 2009.

McRoy, Jay. (ed.). Japanese Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd. 2005.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan-Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. New York: Rodopi, 2008.

Miller, Laura, and Jan Bardsley, (eds.) Bad Girls of Japan. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Ringu. Dir.Hideo Nakata. Omega Project, Toho Company. 1998.

Rosenberger, Nancy. Gambling with Virtue: Japanese Women and the Search for Self in a Changing Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2001.

Sato, Barbara. The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2003.

The Ring. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Dreamworks SKG. 2002.

Toshiaki, Tachibanaki. The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality. Tokyo: International House of Japan. 2010.

Ugestu Monegatari. Kenji Mizoguchi. Daiei Studios. 1953.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Teacher Paul
Teacher Paul

Paul Duke lives, instructs, tutors, and writes in Canada and Japan.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply