Hair is said to be a woman’s crown. Long, luxurious hair is especially considered to be sign of her vitality and fertility and is unequivocally linked with femininity, sensuality, and female sexuality. So mighty is its power that many religions and cultures have indeed required women to cover their lovely locks while out in public, for such sights should only be saved for the privacy on one’s home. Equally, shaving one’s head has been used as a sign of grief as well as one’s dedication to religious practice. Cutting it has been a form of punishment and a way to humiliate a person. Hair and hairstyles have for centuries carried a cultural significance way beyond the mere quirks of fashion. How person would wear their hair could signify their societal and/or marital status, it could show of one’s wealth or help them to rebel against social norms. Even today people will make assumptions about each other purely based on their hairstyles. Hair matters.
And it certainly mattered in Japan, where hair has not only been interlinked with societal norms for centuries, but also has deep links with religious practices as well as local mythology and folklore. In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, the human body is believed to be a gift from our ancestors. On her essay “Of Hair and Hairdressers in Historic Japan” Debra Daley writes how in this context, hair, with its constant growth, represents life and continuity and taking good care of your hair would be considered a devotional duty. Hair, especially women’s hair, was also believed to have the power to attract spirits or kami and combing one’s hair with a special comb used in shamanistic practices, could animate each hairs spiritual powers and thus help it work as a conduit of the divine. In fact, the word kami spelled with the kanji 神 means “spirit” or “deity”, whereas kami with the kanji 髪 means hair, creating a link between the two that is hard to ignore. Hair was used in myriad of rituals, such as burning it to invoke a good harvest, or the ritualistic shaving of a retiring sumo wrestle’s topknot. Seafarers would offer their hair as a sacrifice to the kami of the sea, and young women would offer their locks at shrines during wartime in order ensure the safe return of loved ones. Hair is still used as an offering at Shinto shrines today and female shamans keep their long black hair in immaculate condition, so that the spirits can enter them if they so wish.
While hair continued to have positive associations and the beauty of women’s hair was celebrated through the centuries, poets, writers, and painters going to great lengths in describing its charms, it was also linked with a certain sense of danger. In his essay “Long Black Hair Like a Seat Cushion “: Hair Symbolism in Japanese Popular Religion Gary L. Ebersole writes about how the fact that hair (like fingernails and toenails) seems to have a life of its own, growing outside of person’s conscious control, thus associating it with lifeforce and energy, but could also simultaneously be seen as something wild and untameable; something that needed to be controlled. Referring to a poem by the Japanese poet Hitomaro (c. 653–655 – c. 707–710) Ebersole discusses the power of young maiden’s hair and how its associations change from something positive to something dangerous after the maiden’s untimely death. The poem paint of picture of young woman that has accidentally drowned and how her body has since been cremated. Ebersole notes that such death was seen as having the potential of creating a vengeful spirit and how the hair of such person was believed to not fall off the corpse, but instead it could have the power to vivify it and help it move around in this world even after death. Therefore, burning the body, hair and all, would be a much safer option than simply burying it and giving the horrible disorderly hair a chance to work its evil magic.
While these types of beliefs might be ancient history where everyday life is concerned, the myths and folklore surrounding hair are certainly alive and well in Japanese horror cinema. The use of a female antagonist with long dishevelled hair might seem like a simple gimmick only used for its visual power, but when examined more closely one can start to distinguish clear links to Japanese folklore, mythology, and cultural practices. In its own subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) way, hair plays a major part in relating these links and adding an unseen layer of depth to the stories.
While hair does feature in some form or another in many early Japanese horror films, there is two films in particular that deserve a closer look: Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 ghost story Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya), and Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 horror anthology Kaidan (Kwaidan).
Based on Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s synonymous kabuki play, Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan tells a tale of Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), who is murdered by her greedy, power-hungry husband Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) so he can marry a daughter of a wealthy family. However, Iemon’s crimes do not go without punishment, as Oiwa swiftly returns from beyond the grave to avenge what was done to her. While one of the main elements of Oiwa’s ghostly vengeance is in fact water (her body being cruelly discarded in a river), it is her hair that very much embodies the transformation from the meek, wholesome wife and mother to the deadly force of retribution that she becomes. The poison that kills her does not merely horribly disfigure her face, but also makes her beautiful long hair fall out. As she in her final moments tries to comb it, great big clumps get tangled up in the comb, leaving her scalp bald and bleeding. Daley remarks on the importance of the scene in the original play. On stage her hair would come off in great big clumps, not only indicating the loss of her beauty, but of her humanity as well. For the audiences of the time, the scene would have been seen as a kind of dark parody of the classic kabuki scenes of female characters sensually combing their hair. Here, something sensuous has turned into complete horror and dismay. Daley also notes on the importance of the comb: when divided in the two syllables, the word kushi (comb) means suffering (ku) and death (shi), giving the scene yet another level of depth.
The scene also marks a turning point in the film. From there on whenever we see Oiwa and Iemon together, her hair is a dirty, tangled mess, giving her a wild, otherworldly look. Rather than being neatly tied up, it now hangs on her face, covering the ravages that Iemon’s poison has caused. She is no longer of this world but has become a being solely driven by revenge. This becomes glaringly obvious when Oiwa’s ghost pays a visit to her sister Sode (Noriko Kitazawa) and her deceitful husband Naosuke (Shuntarô Emi). Having played a part in Oiwa’s untimely death, just like Iemon, Naosuke is haunted by Oiwa’s disfigured ghost. To him Oiwa appears as she was when she died, with the long raggedy hair and horribly scarred face. Meanwhile Sode sees her sister as she was when alive; immaculately dressed and her long black hair neatly done up. As Sode’s beloved sister enters the house, Naosuke is simultaneously attacked by ghost Oiwa, forcing him to confess his crimes and reveal Iemon’s current hiding place.
Besides these ghostly visits, it is in fact the aforementioned comb that ends up playing a key role in Iemon’s demise. Ebersole remarks on a myth of an empress that drowns herself in order to pacify a water deity. Her body is never found, but seven days later her comb is washed ashore, and it is buried in her place. Echoes of this story can be found in Nakagawa’s film. As Iemon together with Naosuke drag Oiwa’s lifeless body away, the comb with the long stands of her hair is left on the floor. Later, the foolish Naosuke drags it up from a body of water while fishing for eels, and not recognising it, takes it home to his wife. Sode naturally identifies her sister’s prized possession straight away and as she puzzles over how it could have ended up in the water, Oiwa starts her reign of terror over Naosuke, ultimately leading to his confession. The comb is not only Oiwa’s beloved heirloom but has become the symbol of her broken up body. As Naosuke drags it up from its’s watery grave and takes it home, he also unknowingly takes home Oiwa’s spirit and all the mayhem that comes with it.
Masaki Kobayashi touches upon similar territory with the first segment of his masterful anthology. Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s short story The Reconciliation, the segment titled Kurokami or Black Hair, tells a tale of an ambitious swordsman that divorces his loyal, loving wife in order to marry into a wealthy family and thus obtain wealth and status. This however is a decision that he comes to bitterly regret as it quickly becomes apparent that his new wife, while beautiful and rich, is vain and selfish and pales in comparison with the women he so heartlessly deserted. Some years go by and after finishing his years of service the man hurries back home to his ex-wife. While their old home is in a state of disrepair, she is still as beautiful and gracious as ever. She harbours no ill will; he tells her how very bitterly he regrets his choices and vows to stay with her forever. The two talk late into the night, eventually falling asleep together. When morning finally comes, the husband wakes not holding his beloved wife, but instead her rotting corpse. Recoiling in horror and trying to make his escape he is attacked by her long black hair that is unwilling to let him go without a punishment.
Like Iemon, the husband in Hearn’s story is a man haunted. However, it is not a vengeful spirit that haunts him, but memories. The more time passes, the more he thinks of his old love and all the things that she was that his new wife is not. These daydreams will not leave him until he relents and returns to the place of his crime and confronts the person he wronged. Unlike Iemon, he regrets his actions and is offered redemption for them, or so it would seem. There is nonetheless something, some small part of his wife that is not willing to let this wrongdoing go so easily, and that something takes the form of her long flowing locks, changing from the silky, idealised coiffure to dirty, tangled mess; a symbol of her hidden wrath. Ebersole points out the power of female hair to attract back the spirit of an absent lover, and that indeed seems to be the case here; It is the hair that has called the husband back, and it is the hair that shall have the revenge for the wrong that he has done. As he fights his way through the house, visibly ageing every passing moment, the hair repeatedly attacks him, making him flee in terror. The ending is left ambiguous. In Hearn’s original story the husband escapes and is later told by the locals that the house has been empty for years. However, in Kobayashi’s version we are left with the final image of the husband stumbling out of the house on to the wild, overgrown yard where the equally wild and tangled hair makes another move against him. While we do not know what becomes of him, the suggestion seems to be that he will not escape this house alive. The hair will take him and make him keep the flowery promises of the night before, thus concurrently taking revenge and reuniting the lovers torn apart by time.
When it comes to modern Japanese horror cinema, there is one film that has defined the horror landscape for the past few decades: Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (Ring, 1998). Its influence did not only extend to the Asian market, but the film also made an impact in the Western horror scene like no other Asian horror film had ever made before. In the 1990’s Western horror had largely been dominated by the comeback of the slasher film. Everything revolved around crazed killers and their foolish teenage victims, and the audiences were starting to grow weary of repeatedly being offered the same product. To this somewhat oversaturated landscape entered Ringu with its completely different kind of terror; the kind that creeps in quietly. It not only terrified the audiences with its eerie antagonist, but also offered a fresh take on traditional ghost stories, bringing them to modern era and making them eminently more relatable for modern audiences
In it a young journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) hears of a cursed video tape that kills anyone who watches it within seven days of viewing. Together with her ex-husband Ryūji (Hiroyuki Sanada) Reiko must race against time to find the origins of the curse before it gets her, Ryūji and their son.
The one thing the film is most notably known for and the thing that directly contributed to it becoming the cultural phenomenon that it is, is its terrifying antagonist Sadako Yamamura (Rie Inō). Even people who have never seen the film know her, and by the time the American remake hit the theatres in 2002, she, with her white dress and long dishevelled black hair, was as recognisable as any classic American horror icon. Indeed, if Western horror market was oversaturated with murderers before Ringu, it would now be overrun with little girl ghost with dirty black hair to a point that it turned almost farcical. So, what makes Sadako such affective figure? Why did a little girl with psychic powers become such a symbol of fear? Much of this is thanks to the cunning design where every aspect of her appearance is aimed to unnerve, of which her long, unkempt locks play a key role. Like Oiwa before her, Sadako too uses her hair to hide her face, but unlike her predecessor, she hides her whole face behind it, and we never get to see her features at all. Even in the few brief scenes where we see her still alive, her face is never shown. The hair is like a mask that hides the real monster. It promises something so frightening that the mere sight of it will kill you in an instant. It would not only damage the potency of the suspense but also, perhaps, put the audience in danger of dying of fright themselves.
The power of her hair is hinted at in the scene where Reiko finally finds the body of Sadako. It is the hair she first finds while searching through the murky well water and as she holds the long, slimy strands in her hands, we see Sadako’s head appear from the water. Just like the corpses in ancient folklore, her hair is still attached to her body, assumably animating and energising its terrifying, never-ending hatred. As the hair slips of the rotting skull, Reiko lovingly embraces Sadako’s body and Ryūji informs her that the deadline of her death has passed; almost as if the hair detaching from the body has finally broken the curse. Of course, we will soon learn that this is not the case, as Sadako turns her wrath on Ryūji, but the link between the falling hair and the seeming end of the curse is certainly a notable one.
Nearly a decade after Ringu, Sion Sono’s Ekusute (Exte: Hair Extensions, 2007) returns to similar territory with Kaidan, with the titular hair extensions having a mind of their own and attacking anyone who they get attached to. In centre of the story is an aspiring stylist Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama), trying to get her hair stylist qualification. Things are made more complicated by her wayward older sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) who dumps her eight-year-old daughter Mami (Miku Satô) on Yuko’s doorstep, leaving Yuko to take care of her. Meanwhile the local police have discovered a badly mutilated woman’s body in a shipping container full of human hair. When the body is taken to the morgue, the night watchman, an avid hair fetishist Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), discovers that not only does the dead woman grow back her closely shaven hair, but also grows hair out of any cut made to her body (as well as eyeballs, mouth, ears…), making her every tricophile’s dream (or at least Yamazaki’s). Yuko and Yamazaki’s paths cross when the eccentric hair fetishist begins to sell the cadaver’s hair to local hair salons and people receiving them start turning up dead.
As one might guess, hair is well and truly in the centre focus of Ekusute. Not only does the whole story revolve around hair, but the hair itself is the main monster of the story. It does not appear as a part of a vengeful spirit but is in itself a very real and tangible force that attacks its victims in the most gruesome manner. The way it burrows in and out of its victims’ ears, eyes, mouths and even their pores is indeed more reminiscent of the scenes seen in body horror films such as Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 masterpiece Tetsuo, than it is of any classic vengeful ghost story. The sharply cut, kinetic editing of the kill scenes, where shots of the victims suffering are intersected with hectic images of animated hair, as well as the mysterious hair sprouting corpse, with its hair filled mouth and eyes, are undeniably evocative of Tsukamoto’s Metal Fetishist and his world of warped pleasures.
Behind the body horror still lurks a very familiar story. The monstrous hair has not just simply become sentient killing machine for no reason, but the root of its wrath has very similar origins as any other ghostly strands discussed in this article. As the hair begins its rather unselective killing spree, the history behind its existence is explained through a series of flashbacks. They depict the morbid fate that the owner of the hair has encountered in hands of merciless organ traffickers. While her body suffers horrific trauma at the hands of these monsters, it is the violent cutting and shaving of her long, silky hair that has stuck in her dying mind, thus making her hair the key tool of her revenge. Much like Oiwa, the loss of her hair exemplifies the loss of her humanity and works as the catalyst in turning her into a monster. I use the word “revenge” here, even though we do not at any point get to see her take revenge against those who actually hurt her. Her vengeance, much like that of Sadako’s, is one of blind hatred directed purely on those unfortunate enough to cross her path. In the end her lust for retribution is satisfied by killing the one person that adores her and her monstrous hair: Yamakazi. Seeing him hurting young Mami by cutting her hair and laughing about it in the same way that her own torturers did while killing her, ignites her fury and sees Yamakazi ending up as her last victim. Her rage finally satisfied, the hair returns to normal and her poor, brutalized spirit finally finds peace.
While most of these films are decades apart and ultimately tell four relatively different stories, hair can still be found at the centre of them all. In each case, it works as a powerful symbol of the humanity lost and the transformation from idealised, gentle femininity to something freer and more uncontrollable. As these antagonists leave behind their human selves, so too they let go of the things that society might have expected of them. Through betrayal and trauma, a dutiful wife becomes an epitome of revenge, a young girl a deadly entity fuelled by hate, and an innocent young woman a ghastly agent of death. The hair is simultaneously a symbol of this metamorphosis as well as it’s conduit. It makes monsters of those attached to it but also helps to free them and give them power that they so sorely lacked in life. Hair matters. Especially to those who anger it.
Ebersole, Gary L (1998), ”Long Black Hair Like a Seat Cushion”: Hair Symbolism in Japanese Popular Religion’, in Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, Alf Hiltebeiteland Barbara D. Miller (eds), New York: State of New York University Press
Balmain, Colette. Alive: Disorderly and Dangerous Hair in Japanese Horror Cinema. Academia.Edu, 2008. https://www.academia.edu/706281/It_s_Alive_Disorderly_and_dangerous_hair_in_Japanese_Horror_Cinema. Accessed January 15, 2022.
Daley, Debra. Of hair and hairdressers in historic Japan. Blogspot.com http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2016/10/of-hair-and-hairdressers-in-historic.html. Accessed February 2, 2022.
YABAI Writers. The Importance of Hairstyles for the Japanese. Yabai.com, 2017. http://yabai.com/p/2890. Accessed January 22. 2022.
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Ikebana, Tatchi. Evil Hair. Livejournal.com, 2010. https://tamamushi.livejournal.com/28429.html Accessed January 15, 2022.