The folktales of Japan stand amongst the mythologies of Greece and Iceland as some of the most unusual, nightmarish, thrilling, and exciting stories the ancient world has to offer. Japanese yokai (ghosts and monsters) like the kappa, kitsune, and tanuki are sources of endless fascination, hilarity, and strangeness. They also offer the potential inspiration for remarkable stories, provided writers with the right imagination come along. Matsuda Aoko is one such writer, and her collection Where the Wild Ladies Are is a moving book of modern feminist tales inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Japanese yokai.
Where the Wild Ladies Are
At the back of Where the Wild Ladies Are, we’re provided with a list of the stories included in this collection, and the original inspiration for each one. Most of these are kabuki plays, rakugo stories, or folktales. But what Matsuda has transformed these into is each a beast all its own. Sixteen stories, each inspired by a single ghost or monster of Japanese folklore, set in modern-day Japan and with a decidedly feminist twist. I ask you: what more could one ask for in a collection of short stories?
Rather than pining maidens and masterless samurai, the protagonists of Matsuda’s stories are disheartened salarymen and bitter young women exhausted by loneliness, isolation, and misogyny. Where the Wild Ladies Are offers sixteen incredibly human stories about the lives of modern-day Japanese women and men.
From its first story, Smartening Up – the tale of a young woman visited by the ghost of her aunt and inspired to become something monstrous in order to seek revenge on her selfish and dismissive former lover – to its final tale, On High – a modern riff on the play Tenshu Monogatari, which tells of a ghostly woman in Himeji Castle who catches a falcon and then falls in love with the falconer, Where the Wild Ladies Are delivers time and again entertainling, engaging, and twisted tales of revenge, aggression, and fear.
There is, quite simply, so much fun to be had with this collection. Many of the stories here provide us with an angle: that of a young woman or man in a strange or difficult situation. From there it introduces a ghostly presence or a transformative power to befriend, overcome, or embrace.
Not all of the stories follow this formula, however. Silently Burning, for example, tells the tale of a young calligrapher working at a temple dedicated to Oshichi. Oshichi was a woman so fiercely burning with passion for a man that she committed arson and was burned to death for it as punishment. This particular tale is far more closely tied to history and folklore, rather than being concerned with reinventing a story for a modern setting.
The feminist bent of this tales is often subtle and offers a fresh perspective on the often overlooked or accepted relationships between women and men within a family, a relationship, or a workplace. One story which toes a line between bitterness and freedom is A Fox’s Life. This wonderful story describes the life of a woman who resembles a fox; she enters the modern workforce only to face overwhelming and exhausting misogyny. She is eventually relieved from this life when she marries, has children, and becomes a housewife. Of course, we all understand that no woman should have to choose between a sexist workplace and the isolated life of a housewife. And so, our fox lady, now in her fifties, takes up mountain climbing, only to discover that she is, in fact, a fox.
A Fox’s Life is a cathartic tale about a woman who goes through more than one stage of escape and freedom-finding. In that sense, it is enormously uplifting. But it is also a stark and deflating reminder that such a freedom does not exist for many modern-day women, in Japan and beyond. This is the sharply clever multi-layered storytelling that Matsuda offers time and again in Where the Wild Ladies Are.
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More than one story in this collection offers a very open-ended conclusion. In fact, rarely are we offered a satisfying end to these people’s (or ghosts’ or monsters’) stories. Hina-chan tells the story of a woman who fishes a skeleton from a riverbed, only to then be visited by the ghost of that skeleton with whom she enters a deep and intimate friendship. The story concludes just when our protagonist grapples with a difficult choice, the resolution of which we are not privy to.
Other stories, such as The Jealous Type and Off Day, use this open-ended storytelling device to excite the reader’s imagination, allowing us the pleasure of considering what wonderful and satisfying events must surely follow the story’s end.
The pool of inspiration which Matsuda draws from goes beyond salaryman culture and domestic lives and into deeper subjects like that of beauty standards and aesthetics. In My Superpower, our protagonist actually refers to the folklore that inspired its story: those of two infamous Japanese ghosts. Oiwa and Okon are two legends surrounding the ghosts of women who both suffered physical deformities. Our protagonist is a modern woman who suffers terrible acne and laments the stereotype of deformities being inescapably tied to corruption, impurity, and waste. It’s a direct and bitter tale with a clear message well worth mulling over long after the story is done.
The translation for Where the Wild Ladies Are, which is provided masterfully by Polly Barton, particularly highlights the mark that a translator leaves on every story they work on. Barton’s translation has a decidedly, and delightfully, British angle. Characters hoover their flats, wear plimsoles, and repeatedly exclaim ‘bloody’ this and ‘bloody’ that. These Briticisms are a surprise at first, but prove to be ultimately welcome and refreshing, and also serve to simply highlight how US-centric most language. If the word ‘apartment’ had been used instead of ‘flat’, this would not be remarked on at all, and that hardly seems fair, does it? Anyway, as a fellow Brit I smiled every time at each Briticism I came across.
There is a decided lack of bitterness to the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are. It wouldn’t be unfair to expect modern feminist tales inspired by the folktales of vengeful and lost spirits to be laced with bitterness. Instead, what keeps these stories fresh from beginning to end is the emotional range they offer, and thus the entertainment they provide. There’s so much fun to be had here. Many of the themes covered are topical, thought-provoking calls for change in our sexist modern world. But they also manage to embrace the strangeness and wonder of Japanese yokai.
These are thrilling stories of ghosts and monsters in the everyday. They’re sometimes strange and jarring, especially given the juxtaposition of ape-like monsters and castle-haunting ghosts with modern suit-and-tie culture, but that is simply part of the fun that is to be gleaned from these tales. Where the Wild Ladies Are never forgets how wonderfully weird the tales of yokai are, and it uses them to offer us a stream of witty, biting, eccentric, and dark tales of feminism in modern Japan.