The perfect portrait of marriage in pre-modern Japanese literature.
The image of an ideal husband and wife in Japan’s early literature was heavily influenced by strict societal order. Writings tell us that a wife is to obey her husband at all cost, revering his every word as wisdom to uphold, lest disaster strike. Mid twentieth century film directors and their preceding authors often strengthened this ideal by taking the “how not to do it” approach, offering flawed spousal relationships and their downfall as a lesson of caution, essentially telling the audience: there’ll be Hell to pay if you don’t follow the rules.
The perfect portrait of marriage in pre-modern Japan is that of a woman’s care in respect and duty to the man. In the short tale of “Demon at Agi Bridge,” one is warned that nothing good can come from a wife’s hesitation in fulfilling her husband’s demands. When, in a flurry of commotion, two brothers begin to fight, one man urges his wife to fetch a sword and her mere simple question of “why?” results in his tragic beheading. The author then offers the lesson “a woman’s wisdom is not worth counting on” (p78) which tells the reader that a good wife is one which is diligent in unflinching obedience, even in the face of great confusion.
Sakaguchi Ango’s “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom” takes an extreme route to show how societal harmony is contingent on filial piety. The story depicts a husband and wife whose relationship is greatly skewed from the rules which bind the ideal couple. In place of a dutiful wife and independent husband are a controlling, powerful woman with her compliant lackey. Through shaming comments and persuasive argument she sets her husband to fulfill her every decadent whim; this marriage without the necessary traditional order leads to both chaos in the city and their mutual demise.
By introducing “the acquitted” (felons tasked to capture felons) and their entanglement with the husband, Shinoda’s 1975 film inspired by “Cherries” similarly stresses and strengthens the argument that a husband and wife should uphold proper relationship structure for there to be societal order. Because the authoritative wife demands that her husband lop the heads off numerous citizens, the town is in a state of unrest and her husband becomes a wanted man. When the murderous husband is apprehended, the gang of “acquitted” seek justice, serving as society’s response to his actions, which were a direct product of his abnormal relationship. Our moral here: to ignore the unwritten behavioral guidelines set by the people will result in grave consequence.
Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968) dives deeper into the argument. Here we see a real, emotional love which transcends even death. When a man’s murdered wife takes the form of a vengeful demon, their bond is so strong that he cannot carry out his responsibility as a samurai to destroy her. Thinking only of themselves, this passionate indulgence leads to disquiet in the city and many vicious deaths at the demon’s hands. As the story comes to a close, the conflicted husband perishes in a fit of madness. The subtle message conveyed seems to be one of the married couple’s obligation to society itself; the samurai has a responsibility to the people which must supersede his own love and relationship, lest he suffer a brutal end.
As our modern tales of pre-modern Japanese relationships urge, a wife should follow the words of her husband while remaining diligent and faithful in her responsibilities to him. In reciprocation, the husband will provide for and protect his woman, and the two combined are to put their own wants aside for the greater needs of the people. These are admirable and correct properties of marital structure. If the greedy individual goes against these rules, society cannot run properly, people will suffer and the offender will succumb to great tragedy. In chaos, there is madness and death. Only in order can one find peace.