Monday, 21 September 2009

Am I beautiful?

It`s Silver Week here in Japan, 5 consecutive days of late summer national holidays, an event that only occurs once in 20 years. However, like most Japanese, I had to work one day of the holidays. Teachers and staff at my university were supervising the first round of entrance examinations. Because of the new flu we all wore masks, and bottles of disinfectant were available outside the exam rooms. If it saves one life it`s a great idea but it made checking the students` identities impossible. Try looking at their eyes, I was told.

With us all masked up I was reminded of the Japanese legend of the Kuchisake Onna, the slit mouth woman. The traditional story is that a samurai took jealous revenge on a lover by taking his sword and slitting open her mouth from ear to ear. Her spirit continues to wander in modern Japanese urban myths and horror stories, particularly those used to warn children against talking to strangers or to discourage salarymen from picking up women in bars. She appears wearing a mask and asks "Am I beautiful?". If you answer yes, she removes her mask to reveal her slit mouth. She asks again, "Am I beautiful?". If you answer yes, you are safe, if you answer no, she kills the men and disfigures the women.

The slit mouth theme appears in Western stories as well, for example, the Joker in Batman. In his most recent portrayal by Heath Ledger he appears by Harvey Dent`s hospital bedside in a nurse`s uniform and wearing a mask.

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