Abstract: This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.
Within the generic realities of film, animation, games and comic books, there are many varied female archetypes. Indeed, the representation of women in the media inevitably segues into the active discussion of typologies. The distribution of such types fall within the predefined boundaries of high and low, popular and peripheral, men’s and women’s culture. The effect and ideology of certain types has been actively debated in the humanities, and in particular in feminist criticism. Tanya Krzywinska has outlined the way in which cultural analyses of action heroines has orientated toward the critique of such icons as role models, within the frame of identity politics (Krzywinska, 2005, p. 3). In her critique of action heroines within videogames, she suggests that the critique of representation is limited insofar as it fails to describe the dimensions of play and control that underpin the videogame experience.
This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. With the ‘recentering’ of globalised media from its traditional North American power-base toward new Asian counterparts (that has come as a consequence of sustained growth in Japan’s media and cultural industries), such icons have been disseminated to receptive western audiences. The characteristics of the single female intruder are defined as a consequence of the media that converge to form the transmedia space of contemporary popular culture. Their positioning as low cultural forms unifies the constituent fields that converge in the figure of the ‘single female intruder’.
What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. These will usually include computer programming, reconnaissance, research and investigation. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.
She is an amalgam of high trash clichés and narrative conceits; often orphaned, wracked by bereavement, seeking vengeance, driven by the urgency of an incurable illness. Such melodramatic tropes are buried beneath the sobriety and perfection of grey-white skin, expressionless and captivating. She is two people in one body; the face of an angel, the heart of a demon; but never duplicitous, her expressions of emotion are sincere and forthright, often taking place in secluded confessionals away from the song of carnage. She is never the homemaker, though the riddle of such happiness might emerge in moments of reprieve. She is a nomad, constantly on the move, often moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. She is more a heroine of generic reality than everyday life, a celebration of the seductive tropes of contemporary fiction and the intermingling of technology, imagination and desire.
The single female intruder is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture that an examination of her sophisticated rhetoric is necessary. In the course of this article, I want to show how such an internationalised, post-modern archetype, which seemingly operates outside of any clearly defined cultural boundaries, has origins in pre-modern Japanese culture. I shall argue that the history of this archetype can be seen as metonymic of the changing post-war relationship between American hegemony and the rise of Japanese popular culture as a new global centre. The proliferation of this archetype follows a very particular path, and its movement can be traced from aesthetic reforms in Japanese antiquity, subsequently retrieved in the 1970s by filmmakers and mangaka eager to revisit the culture of the Edo period. Hiroki Azuma has described how this internal appropriation of Edo period aesthetic and cultural values comes as a consequence of the cultural anxieties arising as a response to wartime defeat and American occupation. He writes,
Their preference toward the association between the 80s postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the abovementioned process of “domestication” of the postwar American culture. In the mid 80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in World War Two. The re-evaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere (Azuma, 2001, np).
As I will explain, the tropes of ‘rikyu grey aesthetics’ and ‘the poison woman’ are retrieved and then celebrated within the generic reality of Japanese popular culture from the 1970s onwards. The ambiguous, seductive and controversial qualities of this historical figure consequently circulate within the growing international fandom for Japanese popular culture. From there, contemporary influences imbibe this peculiarly Japanese anti-heroine with a new agency, to embody principles of control and beauty in an age of technological anonymity and information terrorism. Influences that immediately spring to mind include videogames, action cinema, exploitation cinema, science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, fetish clothing and the goth, techno and electronic music scenes. Contemporary single female intruders reveal the traces of their Japanese antecedents in their sober demeanour, snow-white skin and mobile technologies. Like the massively successful franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! The single female intruder is an ambassador for an alternative set of generic parameters in popular culture that assert the Japanese aesthetic, and is resolved in the interaction of multiple cultural centres.
In the first section of this paper, I will explore the Japanese antecedents to the single female intruder, with an emphasis on the relationship between simultaneous reforms in attitude to both colour and femininity. From there, I examine how Japanese film and literature of the mid-to-late twentieth century transformed this figure into a modern heroine first through exploitation, and then science fiction. I then want to examine briefly the transformation of this figure in the science fiction film and literature of 1980s America and Europe. The representations and descriptions generated by the likes of Ridley Scott and William Gibson play a central role in Japan’s imagining of itself and its iconography. To conclude, I examine how digital culture and convergence have effected the transformation of the single female intruder, and how her sophisticated rhetoric has been transformed to speak to our contemporary environment.
Poison Woman Dressed in Rikyu Grey
The prehistory of the single female intruder archetype is much more culturally specific than it might first seem, since such characters nowadays enjoy an international audience. The archetype emerges from the changes in the construction of cultural attitudes to beauty and femininity around the time of the Meiji reformation of Japan. Single female intruders are invariably rebels, whether they are escaping societal reforms, in the case of Trinity in The Matrix trilogy (1999; 2003; 2003) or the eponymous Aeon Flux (2005), complex mercenaries like Vanessa Z. Schneider (fig.1) in the videogame P.N.03 (2003), or living technologies driven by existential angst like Major Makoto Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell (1995).
Christine L. Marran has described the origins of what she has coined the ‘Poison Woman’, in stories made popular during the Meiji reformation (1868–1912) of the nineteenth century. They profile the lives of sensational women who had caused some sort of scandal, more often than not though the murder of her spouse, perhaps guilty of involvement in other high profile vices. She writes,
The long and changing tradition of writing about female criminals began with the rise of the newspaper serial. With such colourful nicknames as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin, to name only a few, the first poison women appeared as anti-heroes in Japan’s earliest serialized newspaper stories. These serials were based on the lives and crimes of real women. (Marran, 2007, p. xv)
The media furor around the activities of female criminals far exceeded the number and frequency of their activities, such was the public appetite for this new sensational fiction. Fiction and reality intermingled from the outset. As Marran asks ‘What national obsessions are articulated through this interest in the female convicts?’ (Ibid.). The rise of the poison woman archetype in Meiji period culture coincides with substantial changes in the representation of women in the woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artists. These changes would complicate the rhetoric surrounding such controversial women. In the Genroku era (1688–1704) the artist Hishikawa Moronobu,(1618–1694) was one of the pioneers of the ukiyo-e printmaking craft, and was known for his portraits of women and lifestyle scenes. In his imagery the women are voluptuous and feminine, shown in brightly coloured, voluminous robes (fig.2). In the later An’ei-Tenmei era (1772–1781; 1781–1789) the work of artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) departs from this archetypal, highly feminised aesthetic, and instead portrays women with long, slender bodies, demure faces and a spiritual intensity (fig.3). Kisho Kurokawa writes that,
This trend is of particular interest because it suggests the progressive denial of the generous voluptuousness that symbolized the prosperity and material abundance of pre-modern Japan up until Genroku. The An’ei/Tenmei aesthetic, on the other hand, was characterised by a nonsensual, eccentric, and non-physical beauty, expressing the spirit of an age of more refined ambiguity and a sophisticated rhetoric. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 161)
This new aesthetic of ambiguity, which pervades Harunobu’s prints, becomes the face of the poison woman. Her crimes and misdemeanours are complicated and intensified by the aesthetic coding of this new feminine rhetoric. Marius B. Jensen writes of these ukiyo-e prints that, ‘The ladies they portray are not full faced, something the carver could not provide, but minimalist sketches; they return our stares unblinking and uninvolved. We admire them but do not relate to them, somewhat the way Saikaku’s readers regarded his characters’ (Jensen, 2002, 180). Earlier trends in popular aesthetics inform the recurrent representation of the poison woman in ukiyo-e printworks and in newspaper stories of the period. In the period preceding the Genroku era, a sudden fashion for the colour grey emerged in Japanese society, as a result of the cultural reforms to the tea ceremony introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Jensen writes, ‘Sen no Rikyu, who served as chief tea master to both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi […] was a figure who combined considerable personal wealth with a cult of simplicity and modesty that he codified in the tea ceremony of his day’ (Jensen, 2002, 117). Part of this revision of the ceremony was the advocation of the colour grey in clothing and décor. Kurokawa confirms the connection between tea ceremony reforms and the emerging taste for minimalism and grey,
Whereas until this time grey had been considered a vile colour conjuring up the image of rats and ashes, upon becoming known as Rikyu grey it was better appreciated. In the mid-Edo era it gained tremendous popularity—along with brown and indigo—as the embodiment of the aesthetic ideal of iki. Iki in this period is a complex concept but may be conveniently described as “richness in sobriety.” As the cult of tea spread beyond the upper classes to be practiced in the homes of ordinary people, so did the taste for grey. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 160)
In his rehabilitation of Rikyu grey as an aesthetic category in its own right, Kurokawa emphasises the colour’s essential ambiguity, at times sinister, charming and charismatic. He describes how, ‘In contrast to the grey in the West, which is a combination of black and white, Rikyu grey was a combination of four opposing colours: red, blue, yellow and white’ (Kurokawa, 1991, p. 70). And so, the construction of the ‘poison woman’ in Meiji period mass culture intersects with two crucial aesthetic reforms, the adoption of Harunobu’s slender, ambiguous figure in the representation of women, and the rise of the widespread fashion for Rikyu grey, which emerged from reforms to the tea ceremony which emphasised simplicity, austerity and sobriety.
The Blizzard from the Netherworld
I want to make a leap now to postwar Japan, where the domestic influence of American occupation was having an effect on popular culture. Tensions arising from wartime defeat, aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation and a sense of cultural dissipation motivated media producers to rehabilitate narratives and character archetypes from the Edo period, as a means of cultural recovery and national reflection. The three tropes of the poison woman archetype, Harunobu’s willowy bodies, and the aesthetic sobriety of Rikyu grey are consolidated in Yuki Kashima (fig.4), heroine of the Japanese exploitation film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973). Fujita’s film, based on the manga by Kazuo Koike, follows the journey of Yuki, played by Meiko Kaji, who seeks bloody vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother and father at the hand of a gang of bandits. She is the quintessential poison woman, and her exploits are publicised in the course of the film by newspaper reporter Ashio Ryuhei. The sophisticated and ambivalent quality of Yuki, and also the actress Meiko Kaji, is captured by Rikke Schubart, who writes,
The star persona of Meiko Kaji is located between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, but by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the mythic hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but lose track of life. (Schubert, 2007, p. 119)
The cult appeal of Asian exploitation heroines such as Yuki had the effect of reenergizing the antiquated archetype of the poison woman, along with the sensibility of Rikyu and the aesthetics of Harunobu. Poison women exist in every age, but the sword wielding she- demon of the Edo period had a romantic appeal all of its own. The unsettling and arresting beauty of her skin, and the ghostly perfection of Yuki’s ‘whitewashed-wall weave’ kabe shijira kimono, dominate the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, she breaks her repose to flip into action and attack; fountains of blood arc across the frame, her kimono drips wet, marking her as victorious in auspicious red and white.
Lady Snowblood marks the overlap between the icon of poison woman and what I call the ‘single female intruder’. Concealed within her umbrella, her secret sword is idiosyncratic, and operates within a sophisticated rhetoric that emphasises not only martial power, but also skills in deception, persuasion and elegance. The attraction of the character arises from repeated emphases on sharp contrasts, and this is continuous with the expanded principle of Rikyu offered by Kurokawa. Her subordinate shuffle is broken by sudden and supernatural agility; her sword strikes are unwavering, and land with the spirit of hissho (absolute victory). The vacillation between opposites characterise the single female intruder; she has brutality and elegance, bloodlust and sobriety, movement and stillness in equal measure. Kurokawa connects this principle to the baroque, he writes, ‘In his book on the baroque, Eugenio D’ors states that when conflicting intentions are bound together in a single motion, the resulting style is by definition baroque’ (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 170). Later he adds that, ‘The “baroque” essence to which I refer is represented by the mutual resistance and harmony of weight and drift, stillness and movement, straight and curves lines’ (p. 175).
Post-war industrialisation and the rise of commodity culture have placed technology at the centre of the Japanese popular imagination. At the same time as filmmakers like Fujita withdrew into the images of Edo Japan to draw sustenance, others, like manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka, were thinking forward into imaginary futures, populated by the dream of robot, cyborg and alien life. The ‘single female intruder’ is the recombination of these two sensibilities, at once strongly reminiscent of her Edo counterparts, and also situated within film or gameworlds that are nonetheless ostensibly works of science fiction. She emerges as a coherent iconic figure in the 1980s. The transformation of the poison woman in to the single female intruder takes place in the figure of Molly Millions in William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (1981), and in the character of Pris in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Gibson’s lifelong obsession with Japanese culture is evident throughout his literature to date, and traces of the influences of the multifaceted concept of the poison woman are evident. Taken for granted, moreover, is the place of Rikyu grey, both literally as a colour sense, and as a philosophy of ambiguity and contrasts, and the idealism of Harunobu’s slender courtesans. The entrance of Molly Millions echoes that of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. The same emphasis on concealed technology, and a lethal capability, shroud the character in a mist of ambiguity and tightly wound sexuality.
‘Hey,’ said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time.’
‘Pack it, bitch,’ Lewis said, his tanned face very still.
Ralfi looked blank.
‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?’
She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black.
‘Eight thou a gram weight.’
Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.
But hadn’t her hand been empty? (Gibson, 1981, p. 18)
The description of Molly emphasises her stature and costume, and the scene is characterised by an anxious stillness, which breaks into sudden action. Like Yuki’s hidden sword, Molly’s ‘weapons’ aren’t disclosed, but their effect enjoys a glorious description, again reminiscent of the exploitation film aesthetic of bloody carnage found in Lady Snowblood. Later, the secrets of Molly’s fatal frame are laid bare:
‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too.’ And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel. (p. 21)
Molly’s finger blades are like Yuki’s concealed sword, in that they form a highly personalised accessory crucial to their survival in a world that is largely hostile to them. Through them their bodies become ‘trick machines’ designed to entrap, confuse, and terrorise their opponents. The complex rhetoric of hidden capability runs through the single female intruder, and is most apparent in the gynoid half-machine characters that have appeared since Molly first took to the streets of Chiba.
Within the generic reality of convergent media culture, the tropes of the single female intruder have folded in on themselves, and, while the poison woman was penned in direct relation to the changes in society, the single female intruder of recent film and game texts is not so motivated to comment on changes in culture. She operates, like Beatrix in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, within the “movie-world”, that is, within the circular distribution of generic styles, codes and conventions.
While the single female intruder certainly develops, in contemporary digital culture, the aesthetic, form and rhetoric of the femme fatale and other types of female killer (see Schubert, 2007), my interest lies with the long history that underpins her making, and the politics of globalisation she traverses. Her seductive deadly methods evoke fear outside of the textual worlds she inhabits, since she, like the ninja kids of Naruto, is an iconic player in the global media game, and is metonymic of the massive changes taking place in the landscape of media power. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that,
Japan’s hitherto odourless cultural presence in the world has become more recognizably ”Japanese” as computer games and animation from Japan have grabbed large shares of overseas markets. Japan’s success in exporting cultural products that are unmistakably perceived as “Japanese” have evoked a sense of yearning and threat overseas, including fear of cultural invasion (Iwabuchi, 2004, p. 59).
The single female intruder has emerged as the most prominent action heroine type in recent years, with films released that seek to comment on our technologically driven, information culture. Her independent agency, computer expertise and athletic finesse position the single female intruder as a dominant fantasy of control for our time. Connecting body politics, privacy issues, technology and gender relations in the actions of this subtly orientalized superhero, contemporary media producers have created a figure as pertinent to our time as the muscle-bound action hero was to the 1980s. While the ‘high trash’ of summer blockbusters, videogames and exploitation films might suggest that the single female intruder is nothing more and techno-fetish and titillation, I hope to have shown, through an emphasis on her origins in Japanese aesthetics, that such characters are playing an instrumental role in the reorganisation of gendered heroism within transmedial representation.
Bullet Witch (Cavia, Inc./Atari, AQ Interactive, 2007)
Final Fantasy 12 (SquareEnix, 2006)
Ghost in the Shell (Exact/THQ, 1998)
Gun Valkyrie (Smilebit/BigBen Interactive, 2002)
Ico (Team Ico/SCE, 2002)
Oni (Bungie Studios/Rockstar Games, 2001)
P.N.03 [Product Number Three] (Capcom Production Studio 4/Capcom, 2003)
Panzer Dragoon Orta (Smilebit/Sega, 2003)
Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda/Sega, 1998)
Perfect Dark (Rare/Rare, 2000)
Perfect Dark Zero (Rare/Rare, 2005)
Rez (United Game Artists/Sega, 2001)
Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2000)
Space Channel 5: Part 2 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2003)
Tenchu: Fatal Shadows [Tenchu: Kurenai] (K2 LLC/Sega, 2005)
Tomb Raider (Core Design/EIDOS, 1996)
Films and Anime
Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005)
Aeon Flux [Animated Series] (Peter Chung, 1995)
Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2003)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (Kenji Kamiyama, 2004-2005)
Shurayukihime [Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld] (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
Shurayukihime: Urami Renga [Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance] (Toshiya Fujita, 1974)
Sympathy for Lady Vengance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)
The Matrix: Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)
The Matrix: Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)
Kurata, H. Yamada, S. (2000 – present) Read or Die. Tokyo: Shueisha.
Shirow, M. (1989 – 1991) Ghost in the Shell. Tokyo: Kodansha.
Gibson, W. (1981) Burning Chrome. London: Voyager.
Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentring globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. London: Duke University Press.
Iwabuchi, K. (2004). How Japanese is Pokémon?. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Pikachu’s global adventure: The rise and fall of Pokemon. London: Duke University Press. pp. 53-79.
Jensen, M. B. (2000) The Making of Modern Japan. London: Harvard.
Krzywinska, T. (2005) ‘Demon Girl Power: Regimes of Form and Force in videogames Primal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, New Femininities Seminar Series, London, 9th
Kurokawa, K. (1991) Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Aia Press.
Kurokawa, K. (1997) Each One A Hero: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Kodansha International.
Schubart, R. (2007) Super Bitches and Action Babes. London: MacFarland & Company, Inc.
David Surman is an artist and designer, based in Melbourne, Australia after migrating from the UK. Over the past 10 years he has worked in many different creative environments, and he is currently creative director and co-founder of Pachinko Pictures, an award-winning boutique design studio based in Melbourne. David has also pursued a career as a scholar and teacher, which has given him many more opportunities and challenges. He developed a pioneering degree programme in games design at Newport School of Art (University of Wales), which focused on the principles and processes of art and design for games; and was Lecturer in Multimedia Design at Swinburne University of Technology. David is currently completing a PhD in videogame aesthetics at Brunel University, and holds a Masters in Film and Television from Warwick University and a Bachelors in Animation from the Newport School of Art, Media and Design.