Drag You to Hell: Gender in Jigoku Shoujo

Don’t worry – I don’t mention Judith Butler.

As I watched the first two seasons of Jigoku Shoujo, I often wondered to myself why there was such a lack of males in the show; specifically, why we didn’t see more episodes about boys or men who found themselves driven into a corner and consulting Our Lady of Hell. This pattern of heavy female usage of the Jigoku Tsuushin lightened up a bit in the third season, although we saw the resurrection of the female recurring character as a primary means of observation point (although, truthfully, our observation of the entire reality of Jigoku Shoujo and the Jigoku Tsuushin system hinged in part upon Hajime as well as Tsugumi). However, it was the third season which also forced a re-thinking of the prior seasons in a sense, shifting from viewing them solely as means of (sadistic) entertainment to questioning whether they had a sliver of intent to engage in social criticism. While after thought I am still more willing to commit to the notion of the third season being a vehicle for social commentary, I nevertheless feel that it is in this that we can find part of the reason for such a female-heavy line-up of vengeance takers.

The premise of Jigoku Shoujo is this – we have a victim, a person who is driven into a corner and who lacks the empowerment to truly mount a counter-attack. But they’re desperate, and want the suffering to cease, and the pressure continues to mount. In their desperation, they grab for any means of salvation. Because this is Jigoku Shoujo, this means they end up sending their tormentor to hell, even as it also means they themselves will be damned eternally.

What is important here is the lack of empowerment that the victim has. Otherwise, they wouldn’t turn to the Jigoku Tsuushin for help; they would be able to help themselves, either through their own direct actions or through the enlisted aid of others. But the system is stacked against these people, by and large; they are the weakest members of society in a social sense, so they must rely on other means of salvation.

The fact is that women and girls in Japan are in a weaker position than the men and boys of Japan. In the Japanese system, men are at the top of the power structure, with women and children existing within the lower levels. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is in the way in which rape is treated within Japanese society. Although explicitly most Japanese people do not blame the victim, there still persists a notion that a raped girl or woman is a ruined girl or woman. She is, quite simply, no longer whole. And even as there isn’t a lot of direct blaming of the victim, the mitigating factors still creep in – well, she was dressed a bit sexually, she was walking in a dangerous neighborhood, she was continuing to socialize with him… The notion of mitigating factors exist in many industrialized societies, but it doesn’t quite play out as disturbingly in many places as it does in Japan – that is, the idea of the ruined woman or girl isn’t as blatant (granted, this can be fairly problematic as well). However, the point here isn’t to debate the realities of sexual assault within cultures throughout the world; the point is that males still dominate in Japanese society.

Given this weaker social position, it should come as no surprise that the characters we see week in and week out in Jigoku Shoujo’s tales of revenge are largely female. Women and girls are necessarily disempowered by their very conception within society, and so they are more likely to have to utilize more drastic means in order to defend themselves and halt a dangerous situation. And, yes, this holds true even in the cases where the tormentor is female – for in all the cases with a female tormentor, the victim, too, is female, and the female tormentor is either a. seizing the only form of supremacy she can possess, or b. is backed by a male system/hierarchy.

For instance, there are the ‘bully’ episodes – in fact, the first episode of the first season is one of these, wherein a girl is being bullied by female peers. ┬áThese teenage girls are near the bottom of the totem pole in terms of power in their society; in reaction, they turn on those they sense as being potentially even weaker than they are, creating their own position of power. If they never create a victim, then they cannot possess any power themselves.

With females in positions of power there is a different, yet related, dynamic at work. These women have their positions in large part because they have managed to scratch out a place for themselves in a patriarchal system. As such, there is an incentive to cooperate within that system, for to buck it in any form would be to risk losing that system’s favor. This explains the bullying female teacher, the businesswomen, and the litany of cases involving mothers and mothers-in-law.

The mothers and mothers-in-law hold power because they have fulfilled the demanded duty of women – to procreate; they, then, have been given some crumbs by the system and don’t want to lose what little they have. So the only way to expand their own influence is to enforce their will upon those who possess less power than they do – daughters and daughter-in-laws (and, in some cases, sons and son-in-laws). The bullying female teacher likewise has been permitted some power in the system, and can only increase that by furthering her power over her students, or, rather, by controlling those students. The businesswoman does have some greater freedom of movement than do the teacher and the mother, but she is still limited by the fact that she is a woman in a man’s world. She also has the attendant issue of tokenism – essentially, another woman is distinctly threatening to her because only one of them can come out on top. So she asserts her own power and prevents herself from losing it by bullying her female subordinates.

I could go into many more examples on this for the show since its sets of one-shot characters are much more commonly female. I would also note, though, that the male characters who do appear as victims in the show are either teenaged, and thus lack resources themselves, or not actually victims – there are a number of male characters who pull the string in an (mislead) attempt to either protect or avenge females.

In all of these scenarios, we are never made to believe that pulling the string is the good choice, ultimately. We can understand why these individuals made the choice, but the price paid is much too steep, for eternal damnation is… well, eternal damnation. Torture in this life is finite, even if it is utterly awful – it’ll end sometime, someday. But the torture of hell is everlasting. In this way, one could make the argument that Jigoku Shoujo is feminist in tone, for it is making an argument against the use of damnation as a proper way of dealing with empowerment issues.

I would like to for a moment in particular point out why this holds true for the episodes wherein a male pulls the string for what he believes is the benefit of a female. In a couple of these cases, the pulling of the string comes after harm has befallen the female. Thus, it is done in an act of avengeance – does this really do much for the victim herself? Hardly. She’s already suffered, and is going to continue to do so even if her attacker is gone. This vengenance, then, really only serves the purpose of comforting the male; he’s already failed to provide any protective support in the first place, and he continues to fail at providing support after the fact, for he isn’t trying to comfort the female victim or offer the support necessary for her to overcome what has happened (the fact that it is ‘support’ and not ‘saving’ – a very important distinction, for in this kind of case you can’t really save a person… they have to save themselves; the rape victim must stand up and say ‘no, you don’t have power over me’; a friend of hers or his can’t do that for them). So his is a deeply flawed action, even if the intent was ‘good’ – something foggy in and of itself because the cursing of someone to hell is an inherently immoral act, as demonstrated by the fact that it requires the payment of one’s own soul.

Thus, Jigoku Shoujo can be seen as an argument for societal change, even if it is heavily cloaked in entertainment and occasional fanservice. Again, I would like to mention, though, that I think the third season, Mitsuganae, makes the strongest case for being a case of social criticism.

Ok, Studio DEEN, I just argued that Jigoku Shoujo is way more complex than most would ever want to give it credit for – now where the fuck is my fourth season?

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5 Responses to Drag You to Hell: Gender in Jigoku Shoujo

  1. Baka-Raptor says:

    I never even realized that most of the episodes were about girls until you wrote this post and I verified it against Wikipedia. Way to ruin my gender-neutral view of the world.

  2. kadian1364 says:

    I’ve only seen a couple episodes, but it seems yours is an uncommon viewpoint to come away from this series with, but quite insightful nonetheless. So what do you read of Hell Girl herself, Ai, as the dispenser of punishment? Does her gender not matter in the narrative as she’s merely the face of supernatural retribution, or is there something more to the idea of a small girl granting eternal damnation to even the most powerful mortals?

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Ai herself is a fairly interesting case in that she possesses powers because a male entity has decided to endow her with them, and because of the fact that these powers were ones she gained as a result of punishment – originally, I started going into a subsection within the post on Ai, but I ended up deciding it was something that would be in need of its own post because it is something that would require a lot of discussion.

      I tend to think that the fact that Ai is female is tied to traditions of females as fate-givers, if you will – for example, the Three Fates come to mind most readily, but I think one could tie Hecate or Kali into it as well. I also think that there is an undercurrent of the creepy child trope in there as well – dimunitive females who are eerie are at least decently common in the horror genre as a whole.

      I also think it is possible that we are seeing the fear of females with power theme getting played out, as best represented in more general culture with the conception of witches.

      I do know I tend to take a viewpoint with Jigoku Shoujo the anime that is fairly counter to what most people walk away with – at least, what most English-language viewers apparently take from it. I think it all probably starts with the fact that I love it, and not a lot of folks outside of Japan do – so I’m more inclined to revisit it and reanalyze it to begin with.

  3. Sorry, random person on an old post, so I hope I’m not bugging anybody.
    I haven’t yet watched this series, but it’s been on my watch list for a while. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the series itself. But, this post did remind me of an interesting book I finished a few days ago, called Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. A few of the points brought up here mirrored some of the points in her book, at least for the female aggressors. Like the businesswomen who tried to make herself one of the guys, these women seem to be trying to prove themselves the exception rather than the rule. After all, it’s easier to go along with the patriarchy and say that only the masculine can rise than to change the system completely.
    Unfortunately, I have yet to get my brain back, so that’s all the relevant thought I can muster at the moment.

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