Onryo (Japan), Gwishin (Korea), Sundel bolong (Malaysia), Pontianak (Indonesia)
In many East Asian cultures, there exists some version of a terrifyingly vengeful female ghost. Her features are surprisingly similar: she has long, black hair, she wears a long, white robe, she glides instead of walking, she roams the living world, and she seeks vengeance to those that have caused her pathetic misery. Perhaps this description sounds familiar; in recent decades this vengeful female ghost has come to the attention of Western audiences through the rise in popularity of a new genre of horror sometimes referred to J-Horror. Films (both original and remakes) such as The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, and The Tale of Two Sisters have brought this East Asian phenomenon to America. The vengeful ghosts of these originally Asian films/stories occupy a unique niche in the realm of the monstrous female. By dissecting both the historical roots (most well-documented in Japanese history) and the modern adaptations of this monstrous feminine, we can see a paradoxical monster unfold. The onryo, gwishin, pontianiak, and sundel bolong evoke a strikingly comparable set of opposing emotions – fear and sympathy, admiration and disgust, understanding and confusion. The vengeful maiden of East Asian origin paradoxically critique misogyny while preserving that very patriarchal social order.
Ima-Izumi, Yoko. “A Land Where Femmes Fatales Fear to Tread: Eroticism and Japanese Cinema.” Japan Review 10 1998: 123-150. JSTOR. Web. 18. Nov 2013.
This source contrasts the onryo with other female characters and monsters of different cultures. Ima-Izumi argues that the femme fatale, a female character of potent sexuality and destructive power that allows her to overpower her male counterparts, is common in American and French films. She argues that the femme fatale was unable to fully incorporate into Japanese cinema and she uses the examples of monstrous females (mostly the onryo or onryo-like monsters) to prove her point. According to Iza-Izumi, the vengeful ghost has all the elements to turn into the perfect femme fatale, but ultimately is unable to do so and instead becomes “pathetic creature.” Her examination of how and why the onryo is not a femme fatale (in both traditional Japanese theatre and modern J-Horror) sheds light on what the onryo has come to embody in Japanese film and society.
McRoy, Jay, ed. Japanese Horror Cinema. Honululu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. Print.
McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. New York: Contemporary Cinema, 2008. Print.
Ng, Andrew Hock-Soon. “ ‘Death and the Maiden’: The Pontianak as Excess in Malay
This source seems a bit off-topic at first, for its primary focus is to discuss the Pontianak (a Malaysian analog of the onryo) as a vampire rather than a ghost. (The Pontianak is a creature that has both ghostly and vampire-like qualities although in appearance it is almost identical to the vengeful female ghosts we are concerned with). However, Ng’s discussion of the Pontianak as a vampire reveals that this Malaysian monster can arguably be seen as the same vengeful ghost, in a different cultural context. Like the onryo, Pontianak is a vengeful spirit of a woman who died during childbirth. Out of what Ng argues is distress over the unequal burdens on woman (both natural and societal), the spirit/vampiress can disguise as a beautiful woman and lure men to eventually suck their blood. In many cases, the Pontianak may seek revenge on a specific male. Ng remarks on the strange, sad, pathetic, and yet beautiful nature of this monster (a common theme when discussing the vengeful female ghost).
Popular Culture.” Dracula, Vampires, and other Undead Forms. Ed. Browning, John Edgar, and Caroline Joan Picart. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009. Print.
Shuk-ting, Kinnia, Yau. “A ‘Horrible’ Legacy: Noh and J-Horror.” East Asian Cinema and Cultural Heritage: From China, Hong Kong, Taiwan to Japan and South Korea. Ed. Yau Suk-ting, Kinnia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 101-124. Print.
Shuk-ting, Kinnia explains in depth the shared concepts present in both “J-Horror” (Japanese Horror) and Noh, the classical Japanese dance theatre. Although the primary goal of the essay to draw out similarities in the two entertainment forms, the author in doing so, lays out the role the vengeful female ghost takes on in both art forms. According to Shuk-ting Kinnia, the onryo or onryo-like vengeful ghost in both Noh theatre and J-Horror is a unique figure of beauty, horror, sympathy, disgust/aversion, and social commentary. How the onryo embodies all of the aforementioned emotions and evokes such responses is detailed in the article. The author also describes the onryo as a monster (ghost) that simultaneously criticizes the misogynist framework of structural violence against women while upholding the fear of the disruption of such a framework.