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  • Deadly Desires
  • Genevieve Yue (bio)
Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture. by Christine L. Marran. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 220 pages. $67.50 hardback, $22.50 paperback.

Within area and postcolonial studies, the "modernity" debate has shifted away from determinedly Western models on which non-Western nations supposedly pattern themselves to a more complex and local articulation of the political, social, and economic forces that make up the modern period. Recent publications such as Zhang Zhen's An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937 (2005) productively inform the heterogeneous and multiple forms of modernity that take shape largely through new technologies and media forms. Japan's Meiji period (1868–1912), most commonly regarded as the nation's self-conscious enlightenment era, is often synonymous with the beginning of the modern period in Japan, and as such it has been the site where much of the debate surrounding modernization has taken place. While the Meiji era has been central to scholarship on twentiethcentury Japanese imperialism, the development of modernity in Japan, and contemporary East Asian regional dynamics, it also bears significance for scholars of modernity as the formation of an alternative, non-Western modernity that forges a link between a [End Page 391] global, cosmopolitan, and postmodern nation and its local, feudal, and premodern past.

Although modernity remains a nebulous term, it is commonly distinguished from its premodern predecessors by dramatic shifts, often accelerations or scalar leaps, in cultural sensibilities. Accounts of female criminality, for example, were hardly new to Meiji Japan, but the notorious figure of the poison woman (dokufu) emerged during the time with surprising vigor. Unlike earlier periods, the scandalous tales of the late-nineteenth-century poison woman were unusually sensationalized and sexualized. The popularity of figures such as "Lightning" Oshin or "Viper" Omasa spread across a wide range of media, some of which developed into their own genres, and lasted well into the postwar period. Unlike the monstrous female spirits of folklore, their stories were rooted in real events, with the trials and confessions of these generally lower-class women updated regularly in newspaper serials. Even though most poison women did not actually use poison to kill their male victims, nor were they all murderesses, the poison woman remained a strikingly potent figure, defined chiefly by her threatening, transgressive sexuality. In Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japan, Christine Marran examines the role poison women narratives played in the development of the nation, particularly in the ongoing and often contradictory negotiations of gender difference. As she contends, the "gendered subject—the subject of gendered difference"—preoccupied popular and serious literature, performance, science, and film, and was central to the nation's modernization project as a whole (172). Nowhere was this self-conscious drive to modernize more pointedly expressed than in poison-woman narratives, which, through negative example, produced prescriptive, normative social roles for both men and women.

Throughout Poison Woman, Marran posits female sexuality as the term through which gender roles are structured. On a political level, the overtly sexualized body of the poison woman lent itself to the broader project of nation building and its "different methods for sorting bodies" (xvii). Psychoanalysis and criminology, scientific discourses adopted from the West, described poison women's bodies and sexual desires as stemming from the fundamental fallibility and regressive sexuality of all women. What had during the late Meiji era been seen as aberrant or unnatural, was, by the early twentieth century, understood as a dangerous potential inherent in all women. Female identity and, by extension, feminine culpability, became a function of a pathologized sexuality: "Never innocent, she is always already guilty—of being sexual" (xxi). Since women [End Page 392] lacked the rational clarity of men, these "enlightened" discourses were deployed as forms of "biopower" to reassert and legitimize the existing gender hierarchy (131).

Although notable scholarship, including the work of Yoshida Yoshikazu, Helene Bowen Raddeker, and Sekine Hiroshi, has been done on individual poison women within literature and area studies, Marran traces the figure's continuity from 1870 to 1970, and tracks its wildly heterogeneous discourse well outside the boundaries of a literary canon. She includes such...


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pp. 391-394
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