Angry women hold a special place in Japanese folklore. Many of Japan’s best-known tales are about “vengeful ghosts”, almost always women, who wreak havoc on the living for some perceived wrong.
Where the Wild Ladies Are recasts such classic ghost stories for a contemporary audience. Matsuda Aoko reinvents these women, highlighting the strength of will that drives them to become ghosts in the first place. As ghosts, they are no longer victims of fate. By becoming monstrous, they gain power.
The narrator of the opening story, “Smartening Up”, forgot to shave her body hair the day her boyfriend dumped her. She rebounds by putting herself through a hair-removal regime, dreaming she will someday have skin “so soft and smooth that people just want to reach out and touch it.”
One evening, she receives an unexpected visit from her aunt, all the more surprising because her aunt committed suicide more than a year before. The ghost upbraids her niece for getting rid of her hair. After all, her hair is the only “wild thing” she has left—“the one precious crop of wildness remaining” to her. Her hair is her power.
Later, the narrator visits a nearby public bath. Mid-shower, surrounded by other women’s nakedness, she realizes that the breakup isn’t her fault at all. She has a right to be angry:
One after another, the little boxes where my memories had been stored had their lids flipped open, and the memories came together to form a black, hazy mass.
I’m coming, the black mass told me, as it swelled larger and larger… I could hear the blackness clamoring, the blackness I knew to be the accumulation of all the sadness and rage and frustration and emptiness and idiocy I’d been storing up inside my body… the black force overtook me, propelling itself out of my body.
Then her entire body erupts in thick, black hair. The narrator recognizes that she has become “a nameless monster”—some new creature outside of the bounds of Japanese folklore. But she is elated: “I am an amazing thing”.
The collection’s source notes, which may sometimes be too brief for a non-Japanese reader, give “The Maid of Dōjō Temple” as Matsuda’s inspiration for “Smartening Up”. “The Maid of Dōjō Temple” is a familiar 11th-century Buddhist tale adapted into both Nōh and Kabuki dramas. The titular maid transforms into a giant snake after she is rebuffed by a monk whom she loves. As it does for the narrator of “Smartening Up”, anger makes the powerless maid monstrous—but also capable of expressing her own will.
The stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are are loosely linked together by Shigeru, the cousin of the narrator of “Smartening Up”. After his mother dies, he takes a position at a mysterious company with supernatural ties. The company’s factory is almost entirely staffed by women who resemble shape-shifting fox spirits or carry ghostly echoes of other Japanese folk stories. The factory is, the titular story suggests, “Where the Wild Ladies Are”.
If the title sounds familiar, it is because Matsuda adapts it from American author and illustrator Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are. Shigeru received the book as a child. He found the monsters, who “hadn’t been made kid-friendly or cute”, refreshingly scary. He was especially compelled by the monsters’ plea, “Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so.” That love can become something consuming, something monstrous, is a theme Matsuda frequently revisits.
“The Jealous Type” may be the collection’s most sinister story. A woman with a violent temper has flown into jealous rages all her life. Now, married and in her fifties, she has turned that violence against her husband. A disturbing tale of domestic abuse, the story is all the more disquieting because it is written in the second person:
You are half crazed, ablaze with jealousy, and your husband’s little exclamation [of pain] only stokes your fire further.
The reader later discovers that the entire story has been a recruiting effort by Shigeru’s company. “The numbers of people with the levels of passion it takes to become a ghost are decreasing every year,” it writes. “When you do pass away, please get in touch.”
“The Jealous Type” complicates an easy reading of Where the Wild Ladies Are as a feminist effort—as does the presence of a man, Shigeru, as the collection’s unifying figure. Nevertheless, Matsuda presents a radical reimagining of stories fundamental in Japanese popular culture. Women are no longer victims, no longer the objects, but the subjects of these stories. Whether made over into heroines or as villainous as they have always appeared, the women finally take center stage. For better or worse, it is what the “wild ladies” have to say that matters.