Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture by Christine Marran

Marran, Christine L. Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Marran claims the first serialized poison woman story (dokufumono) was published in 1978. These stories appeared in their own time to “anesthetize populations to racial, gender, and economic biases through false claims of inclusion. They purported to illuminate intoxicating elements that might lead to social and political bedlam. In retrospect, they suggest the modern drive to detoxify the body and expel dangerous ambiguities by creating clear classifications.”  Previous scholars (Maeda Ai, Asakura Kyōji, Hirata Yumi, Matthew Strecher, and Mark Silver, to name a few) have recognized the importance of these stories, but Marran is the only scholar who devoted an entire book to the consideration of a genre that she notes began with the rise of the newspaper serial.  Based on the lives of real women, these were fictionalized stories that appeared in a variety of mass culture forms (kabuki, mass novels, poems, medicalization literature etc.)  She examines the poison woman as an object because she “illuminate[s] not only the emerging social, sexual, and political mores but also the fundamental drive to read and consume the other in order to define the self.” The other, in this sense, is the criminal transgressive poison woman, the self is defined as normal only in comparison to/with her.  Most importantly, she is threatening and infamous not because of her murderous impulses but because of her voracious and excessive sexuality.

This focus on transgressive women’s “charged representations of sexual difference and gender articulated in stories of deviant women do ideological labor, especially in times of political change.”  The rise of these stories is no coincidence, she suggests, because the constitution of a national body during this period “require[d] spaces of exclusion” and these stories helped to contribute to (and marked interest in) “sexual difference as an essential category for interpreting social relationships and identities.” Thus, in the same way Foucault suggests modern sexuality in Europe is a movement from performed acts to embodied identities, the rise of this genre of literature might also mark a similar transition for Japan.  Interestingly, though, these women did not speak for themselves, but they were spoken for/spoken about.  Marran echoes Jardin when she asserts, “female transgression and obsessive interest in it throughout the twentieth century in Japan has everything to do with configuring the modern Japanese subject, particularly the female subject, through representations of female criminality in literature, theater, newspaper, and film.” (emphasis mine)

Marran asserts four suppositions that she elaborates on throughout the book.  1) The “general social and political concerns” are inscribed onto the transgressive body, so it is the “figuration of the poison woman” where there is a struggle to speak of the “social symbolic.” 2) These are fantasies of woman, part of a “textual process of domination.” 3) The transgression, because it is part of popular culture, produced by the hegemonic system (and supportive of it), “does not often accomplish its name or what it promises.” 4) The “creation of subjectivity in Japanese modernity has occurred consistently (though not soley) through the specter of gender difference.” Chapter 1 looks at the first boom in literature in the 1870s and 80s, to see the early way female criminality is aligned with sexuality and gender.  The poison woman’s sexual body is created through discourse as a negative to “a national ‘civilized’ body.” Male authors used scienitific methods of description, narrating the “facts” and “truths” of female bodies (including things like the autopsy of Takahashi Oden, where her body was “proven” to be the source of her aberrant behavior since she had enlarged sexual organs and extra fatty tissue — the simultaneous cause and evidence of excessive sexual desire).

Important to my own argument, Marran asserts that because these were gesaku, the writing practice itself was “made outlaw in Japanese literary history” that was constructing an idea of modern literature.  Thus “the gender outlaw and the “genre” outlaw are products of a broader cultural and political investment in a positivistic articulation of bodies, both literary and nonliterary.” (xxii)

The second chapter discusses context of publication as part of “civilizing” rhetoric that included journalistic elements as part of the modernizing of fiction.  These moved from novels about women to self-narratives of confession or repentance (including testimonies). She compares these with male authored confessional literature to support the claim that gender difference is relevant to “articulating the modern self.”

The fourth chapter considers the 1920s and 30s as a rise in sciences of sexology and criminology as scientific knowledge was used to illustrate “crime as a potential in every woman.”(xxiv)  The final chapter takes up postwar return to these woman in pulp fiction, through film and avant-garde theater to think about the way the female criminal is used to help articulate “a counterhegemonic, masochistic male subjectivity.”

Although some of her later texts fall out of the explicit genre category she begins with, and one of the criticisms of her work is that there are perhaps a number of literary examples from the Edo period that would certainly fit within this designation (Yotsuya Ghost Stories), she makes a very clear argument about the impact of this genre and the legacy of the discourses on these transgressive female bodies that normatively is produced and naturalized by identification of the exception.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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