Ghosts in the Machine: Spectral Technologies, Haunting Affects, and Virtual-Feminine Ghosts

by Raechel Dumas

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 49] In the early 1990s, as Japan was facing the devastating collapse of its economic bubble, a new motif surfaced in the realm of supernatural fiction. Informed on the one hand by a centuries-old tradition of ghost stories featuring female spirits, and on the other by an emergent pop cultural fascination with technology, the trope of virtual-feminine haunting was born. To situate this topic within the context of the grander mass media landscape, I would like to remark briefly on a trend that has permeated Japanese pop cultural texts in recent decades. The media sphere in Japan is saturated with science fictional visions that explore the complex relationships between the human and technological domains. Many works in this vein align technology with the hyper-masculine realm of militarism, imagining the potentialities of advanced weaponry as a means of sustaining the Japanese state. Contrastingly, other narratives anticipate the subjugation of humanity to the technological will. Many of these works explicitly identify technology as a feminine-coded threat to the autonomous human subject, reflecting Sharalyn Orbaugh’s observation that “as the imagined social body has become increasingly more perfect and controlled—more closely fitting the modernist model of (male) autonomous subjectivity—the likelihood of the eruption of the repressed body, in all its abject, excessive, imperfect, uncontrolled, boundary-challenged ‘female-ness,’ increases” (443).

Japan’s deeply ambivalent relationship with technology as expressed through this gendered imagery is undeniably informed by the nation’s modern history—comprised of a series of military conquests on the one hand, and what many critics have identified as an emasculating WWII defeat on the other. And yet, this vast corpus of fictions demonstrates a refusal to fully acknowledge, or perhaps an inability to resolve, the complex historical conditions that have informed the trajectory of the nation-state. Thus, the question arises: Who speaks for the past?

One answer is located in the increasing number of ghosts that have come to haunt the contemporary Japanese media landscape. Collectively, supernatural fictions are deeply concerned with the tumultuous and sometimes traumatic historical conditions that have informed the evolution of the nation-state, as well as with Japan’s future in an era of shifting and dissolving ideological and geopolitical borders. As noted, many works of horror center on the iconic image of the female ghost, a figure that is deeply embedded in Japanese folklore, and whose continued [page 50] presence in the popular imagination speaks to the enduring appeal of the early modern kaidan, or ghost story, tradition. In contemporary Japan, the female specter appears in myriad shapes. Sometimes she is a gentle presence (often a child) who emerges from the spirit realm in a quest for companionship; at others, she is driven by a desire for revenge, engaging in the relentless haunting, possession, or murder of the living. Moreover, in recent decades haunting has become heavily associated with the indeterminate virtual domain, often as a potent signifier of the potential for the past and present to co-exist, and of the possibilities entailed by plugging into the network. Some such fictions explicitly identify technology as a point of origin for female specters, linking the feminine with a fluid configuration of subjectivity that stands in stark contrast with the humanist subject. Other tales of virtual haunting eschew this expressly gendered model while retaining the trope of what might called the “virtual feminine,” a concept that Rosi Braidotti describes as “intensive, multiple and it functions in a net of inter-connections. It is rhizomatic, which means it is non-unitary, nomadic, non-linear, web-like, embodied, and therefore perfectly artificial. As an artifact this subject is machinic, complex, and thus endowed with multiple capacities for interconnectedness in the impersonal mode” (100).

Japanese horror commonly frames masculinity and femininity in terms of emotional stability, circumspection, and social order on the one hand, and psychosis, indiscretion, and communal fragmentation on the other. That being said, the overwhelming critical focus on this vantage elides another dimension of many supernatural fictions. In their subversion of hegemonic configurations of subjectivity (epitomized by the autonomous male subject), female ghosts frequently serve to render visible narratives that have been excised from history; furthermore, these specters of the past urge us to explore modes of overcoming seemingly shattered selfhoods and communities. Stories of haunted technologies ascribe a similar role to the virtual domain, which functions not merely as a conduit for the resurgence of the past, but also as a setting for encounters that transgress the clearly delineated categories of Self and Other. Thus, the virtual-feminine ghost emerges in contemporary Japanese horror as a challenge to aggressively patriarchal systems of knowledge, countering discourses on the fracturing of subjectivity and national identity by exploring the possibilities of interconnectivity.

This essay will explore the trope of virtual-feminine haunting in two works that have gained a strong foothold in both the Japanese and global popular imaginations. The first of these is Suzuki Kōji’s 1991 novel Ringu (The Ring), which combines the image of the “dead wet girl,” an iconic embodiment of Japanese ghostliness, with the (admittedly now-obsolete) trope of a haunted VHS tape. The second is Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s 2001 [page 51] film Kairo (Pulse), which depicts the Internet as a haunted landscape through which fixed identity is subsumed to an ontology of co-presence—or a “hauntology,” to borrow from Jacques Derrida. I will consider the following questions: How might we think about female or feminine-coded ghosts beyond the rhetoric of the “monstrous-feminine” so commonly deployed? Might stories of haunted technologies challenge claims concerning the postmodern demise of history and erosion of meaning? And finally, what is the appeal of these fictions?

Matrixial Affects: Traversing the Screen of Ringu

I would like to open my discussion of Ringu with reference to a key scene, in which the narrator describes the contents of the haunted videotape at the center of the novel’s plot:

You will be eaten by the dead. The characters expanded, chasing the black from the screen. The transformation was lackluster, from black to milky white. The uneven, cloudy hue couldn’t be called natural, and it began to resemble a series of concepts painted on a canvas, one superimposed on top of another. Wriggling, worrying, seeking an exit, an unconscious set to come hurtling forth—or perhaps the throb of life. (86)

As the video continues, this montage gives way to a sequence of audio-visual images: a volcanic eruption, a pair of dice, an old woman speaking in a dying dialect, a newborn baby, a crowd of human faces screaming accusations, a television set, the face of an unknown man, and an encroaching blackness that forms the shape of a ring.

After linking the video to a series of mysterious deaths, Ringu’s protagonist, journalist Asakawa Kazuyuki, traces the origins of the film to a woman named Yamamura Sadako. Eventually, Asakawa learns that Sadako had been raped and thrown into a well to die a slow, agonizing death years earlier. He also discovers that the images in the video represent a series of Sadako’s memories, psychically projected onto the film from the depths of her watery grave—and fatal to any viewer who fails to copy and show the tape to another person within seven days of viewing it.

Psychoanalytic thought has naturally revealed itself to be an apt framework for thinking about Ringu, in which the female ghost, emerging from its entombment in the depths of the well, is constructed as a return of the quite literally repressed. Colette Balmain emphasizes this theme in her analysis of Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ringu, writing that through the video virus the ghostly Sadako “returns to wreck her dreadful revenge against the world of the living, and the restraints of the [page 52] patriarchal society that demanded the repression of her ‘otherness’” (par. 14). Valerie Wee echoes this sentiment, arguing that Ringu “exaggerates the selfish, irresponsible connotations of the shōjo to monstrous extremes": "Sadako’s seeming arrogance, and her refusal to respect patriarchal representatives and structures, hint at contemporary Japanese society’s growing anxieties and concerns regarding the rise of the shōjo” (156). In his ambitious study of Japanese horror cinema, Jay McRoy, in another analysis of Nakata’s film, concludes that “to break a contemporary cycle of literal (within the film’s diegesis) and figurative (socio-cultural) fear, tragically and historically repressed woman must forever be acknowledged, their silenced voices perpetually recognized if never fully understood” (88).

For all of these critics, Sadako takes the shape of a kind of uncanny return, discontinuous with the living and with the present. As Michael Dylan Foster observes, it is precisely this sort of temporal contradiction that produces the effect of haunting:

The phenomenon of simultaneously being physically present in one time but affectively connected to another time can cause the cognitive and contextual disorientation of haunting. In other words, haunting articulates an impossible copresence; it is the bewilderment a subject feels when two times are simultaneously experienced in the same place. (16)

With this in mind, I would like to explore more fully the “impossible copresence” that emerges in Ringu from the vantage of what might be called a virtual-feminine aesthetics. In doing so, I will argue that while Ringu (and its cinema adaptation) clearly plays on cultural anxieties centered on the figure of the shōjo, or adolescent girl, the novel, by exchanging the enfleshed body for virtual embodiment, also invites us to consider the monstrous-feminine beyond the rhetoric of repression and return that commonly emerges in horror narratives through an engagement with the technological domain—and specifically the haptic site of the screen—as an instrument of heterogeneity that transgresses the rigid categories of Self and Other.

In rethinking the problem of vision in Ringu I would first like to introduce the work of Israeli critic Bracha L. Ettinger, an artist and theoretician working at the intersections of feminist theory, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics. Ettinger’s most significant contribution to these dialogues is her concept of the matrixial borderspace, which challenges the rhetoric of repression and return that pervades conventional psychoanalytic thought by focusing on the potential for the feminine to reveal itself as a jointly experienced recurrence of the affective traces of an event. Owing to Ettinger’s deep concern with affect, I should qualify this term before delving into her theory. As Brian Massumi notes, the concept [page 53] of affect should be distinguished from that of emotion, which represents “qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning” (28). By contrast, affect connotes

a participation of the senses in each other: the measure of a living thing’s potential interactions is its ability to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another . . . The autonomy of affect is in its participation in the virtual. Autonomy is openness. Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is. (35)

Affect, characterized by synesthesia, openness, potentiality, and excess, lies at the foundation of Ettinger’s matrixial borderspace, a concept that fuses Lacanian psychoanalytic thought with the Deleuzian model of a residual subject—the subject of “eternal return,” an “assemblage of singularities, affects, intensities, experiences, and experiments” (Lorraine 145). The matrixial borderspace is modeled on the late prenatal period of fetal development, prior to the infant’s separation from the womb. This dimension of the psyche, Ettinger writes, “engenders shared traces, traumas, pictograms, and fantasies in several partners conjointly but differently, accompanied and partially created by diffuse matrixial affects; it engenders nonconscious readjustments of their connectivity and reattunements of transsubjectivity” (The Matrixial Borderspace 65). Ettinger’s focus on the possibility of transsubjectivity departs radically from established models of psychic life. Here, the feminine is not a site of violent rupture that is henceforth foreclosed; rather, it is linked to an affective paradigm of encounter that remains available to the post-Oedipal subject.

For Ettinger, the artwork embodies especially great potential to generate matrixial encounters in that the aesthetic is a privileged point of access for affective experience and exchange. Creating reciprocal passageways between seemingly discrete moments, spaces, bodies, and memories, the artwork, she claims, enables the expansion of an event beyond its own temporal, spatial, and corporeal limits to encompass multiple subjects (inclusive of the subject of the artwork, the artist, and the viewer). Importantly, for Ettinger, the possibility for such an encounter is highest on a visual plane, with the artistic canvas constituting a fertile space for the construction of blurred landscapes, temporal cracks, fractured bodies, and disparate emotional states.

Ettinger’s work provides an unconventional framework for thinking about Ringu’s concern with the lingering—or haunting—effects of [page 54] viewing. As noted, Sadako has been consistently characterized in terms of her unintelligibility, marking her as an embodiment of “otherness,” the “monstrous,” and the “tragically and historically repressed.” Yet described as “the throb of life [sei no yakudō],” the filmic canvas of Ringu seems to elude its own foreclosure, seeping beyond the limits of the screen to implicate the viewer—through the incitement of disgust and desire—in the video’s endless proliferation. The screen in the novel is thus framed as a site of matrixial encounter that facilitates the affective de-isolation of traumatic memory.

Consider the novel’s opening pages, in which Sadako’s first victim, Tomoko, experiences the haunting aftereffects of the dynamic scenes imprinted on the videotape. “It was strangely humid, although it hadn’t rained in several days,” the narrator writes.

The scent of flesh, decayed and sour, infused the air, enveloping her. But it couldn’t be anything material . . . The sinister chill that had washed over her shoulders now expanded to her back, creeping down her spine, ever lower and lower. Cold sweat soaked her T-shirt. Pure and simple, these physical changes were too strong for it to be just her imagination. (11)

This scene alludes to the forceful dynamism of the image by accentuating the persistence of affect even long after the immediate effects of viewing have subsided. The inarticulable horrors surrounding Sadako’s death take the shape of an enfleshed memory, manifesting as something intellectually unfamiliar yet tangibly felt. The screen is thus constructed as a site at which that which cannot be symbolized nevertheless emerges as a kind of mutual cognizance, echoing Ettinger’s contention that in the artwork, “traces of a buried-alive trauma of the world are reborn from amnesia into a co-emerging memory” (152). This fragmentation of the self-substantiating gaze to create space for the gaze of the Other is further signaled by the synesthetic quality of this scene, which reflects the notion that matrixial encounters, unconstrained by visuality, disturb the gaze by penetrating and altering the scopic field, which is “inseparable from other unconscious dimensions of the psyche and informed by different sources of sensation (changes in pressure, movement, touch, sound, etc.), and also connected to the unconscious of others” (124).

The affective resonance of Sadako’s video is most potently demonstrated upon Asakawa’s initial encounter with the film. As the journalist commences his viewing of the tape, he is depicted as experiencing simultaneous feelings of horror and fascination, the latter of which compels him to continue in spite of his fear. “Amazingly, he felt no desire to press stop,” writes the narrator, interrupting the scene described at the outset of this analysis, “not because he was unafraid of the dead, but because this intense stream of energy felt good” (86). As the video [page 55] continues, the boundary separating the artificial and the real grows increasingly indistinct, implicating Asakawa in an affective exchange that transgresses the visual field to expand into a multi-sensory dimension of experience:

On-screen, he now saw hands embracing the baby . . . . His gaze fixed upon the screen, Asakawa found himself holding his own hands in the same position as the person in the image. Its birth cry was audible directly below his chin. Startled, Asakawa withdrew his hands. He had felt something. It was warm and wet—amniotic fluid, or blood—and the weight of a small amount of flesh . . . . An odor lingered. The faint smell of blood—had it flowed out from the womb, or . . . . His skin felt wet. But in reality, his hands weren’t even moist. Asakawa restored his gaze to the screen. (88-89)

This scene relays Sadako’s memory of the birth of her younger brother, whose death represents one of the most constitutive traumas in her life. Importantly, however, this is not a discrete recollection of the event; rather, it is a jointly constructed one in which Asakawa fulfills those roles that the artist alone cannot, contributing to the film a synesthetic dynamic that is practically unavailable to the artist. This expansion of the image beyond its own physical limits engenders a kind of temporal contradiction whereby the unknowable trauma of the past resurfaces as an affective trace at the intersection of the gaze and the image. What transpires here is something akin to Deleuze’s notion of “universal ungrounding,” a subordination of the unified viewing subject to the simulacrum, to the productive field of the image (80). In this way the screen of Ringu engages what Ettinger terms co-poiesis—a jointly inhabited psychic organization in which the self-substantiating gaze is subordinated to a feminine plurality.

I would like to turn now to a consideration of the broader implications of Ringu, whose viral videotape speaks to the perils and potentialities of the rapid integration of technology into every aspect of contemporary Japanese domestic and social life. Aided by the clues that comprise the videotape, Asakawa discovers the site of Sadako’s untimely death and, in an endeavor to put an end to the curse, excavates her body. Yet this recovery does not, as in the conventional horror story, serve to restore social order. Rather, as the novel approaches its conclusion, Asakawa is faced with a crucial decision: Should he allow his family to watch the tape and die, thereby concluding the life cycle of the virus? Or should he save his loved ones at the cost of the video’s endless proliferation? Ringu’s final scene implies that he has chosen the latter, thanks to the subliminal influence of the video itself. [page 56]

In this subversion of established genre convention—which maintains the possibility of resolution—Ringu achieves the apex of postmodern horror, implicating technology in the endless deferral of a return to routine. Many critics have identified the diverse corpus of popular engagements with the virtual as reflective of a kind of schizophrenic cultural condition rooted in the possibility that, to borrow from Jeffrey Sconce, “where there were once whole human subjects, there are now only fragmented and decentered subjectivities, metaphors of ‘simulation’ and ‘schizophrenia’” (18). With an acknowledgment of the deeply ambivalent role of the virtual in contemporary Japanese popular media and social life, I contend that an alternative framework might open up Ringu, and undoubtedly other texts, as well, to a subtly but importantly different reading. More pointedly, I argue, if we decline to pathologize the “symptoms”—the fluxes and flows—that characterize the virtual domain, we arrive at a more affirmative configuration of the postmodern subject whose instability yields an openness to experience beyond the contained self.

In rethinking the theme of technological proliferation in Ringu, I would like to turn first to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, for whom the simulacrum, as noted, embodies the promise of destabilizing hegemonic regimes. Rejecting conventional psychoanalysis on the basis of its reductive proclivities, in Anti-Oedipus they conceive of a schizoanalysis, whose task—an autocritique of history—is described as follows:

To discover beneath the familial reduction the nature of social investments of the unconscious. To discover beneath the individual fantasy the nature of group fantasies Or, what amounts to the same thing, to push the simulacrum to the point where it ceases to be the image of an image, so as to discover the abstract figures, the schizzes-flows that it harbors and conceals. (271)

This Deleuzian sensibility is highly visible in Ettinger’s concept of the matrixial, which likewise collapses the distinction between “original” and “ready-made” in order that the two, rather than standing in opposition, “make each other swerve further with new exchanges” (234). More plainly, Ettinger posits that the act of creating an original artwork and that of artistic borrowing do not represent fundamentally different points on the aesthetic spectrum. Rather, she contends, both seek to give form to something archaic, something that cannot be wholly captured by the individual artist owing to the constraints of available forms of representation. The act of reproducing an original artwork serves to sustain elements of the original’s vision while also adding to it a new dimension. Thus, through reproduction, the artwork is both continually [page 57] transformed and continually transformative, an event that encompasses a plurality of artists and viewers.

This notion offers not only a novel approach to the grander subject of post-traumatic artworking, but also important insights concerning Ringu’s central theme of viral reproduction. Technological reproduction in Ringu is not mimetic; rather, it is characterized by difference. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the abstract images that comprise Sadako’s videotape represent a series of traumatic events that transpired throughout the course of the young girl’s life: the death of her infant brother, her humiliation before a crowd of scientists demanding that she display her psychic powers, her rape at the hands of a trusted physician, and, finally, her untimely and violent death. Through the simulacratic repetition of these scenes, the spectator is rendered a participatory witness to each of these events, experiencing them affectively and differently to produce meaning beyond the scope of logical representation.

Certainly, technology emerges in Ringu as a threat to identity, functioning as a vehicle for subordinating the self-contained individual to a plurality of affects. This fracturing of the rational subject is further reinforced in the novel’s allusion to the impossibility of knowledge—and indeed, the impossibility of resolution—in the revelation that someone has recorded over the final scenes of Sadako’s video, concealing the “cure” for the virus from the infected viewer. As an aside, Nakata’s cinema adaptation of the novel, in one of its most disturbing scenes, incorporates a compelling play on this dissolution of the unified subject. After watching Sadako’s video, the film’s protagonist requests that her ex-husband photograph her with a Polaroid camera. In the photograph her face is so blurred as to be unrecognizable, connoting a loss of selfhood vis-à-vis the omnipresence of the image.

While in Ringu the viewer is thus confronted by the looming specter of annihilation, this threat persists only insofar as humanity resists the ethical imperative to recall and reveal the trauma of the (spectral, feminine, technological) Other. That is to say, the novel also identifies the virtual as a promising site of affective exchange, suggesting that the machinic proliferation of the image might divulge a cache of meanings as it is experienced by an endless series of spectators. Ringu thus advances a vision of subjectivity whereby the human and technological are, to borrow from Scott Bukatman, “coextensive, codependent, and mutually defining” (22). Yet while for Bukatman becoming this new subject entails “the waning of affect, the erosion of meaning and representation, and the demise of history” (246), Ringu locates in the virtual the potential to excavate that which the postmodern, posttraumatic world would have us forget—namely, specters of the past and their lingering affects. [page 58]

In its haunting indeterminacy, Ringu refuses to espouse a clear-cut political agenda, instead alluding to the reality that there are pasts whose horror cannot be undone, and whose aftereffects cannot be fully resolved. Yet the novel also illuminates the potential for redemption in creating space for that which exceeds the self. Ringu’s implications thus extend beyond the aesthetic plane by imagining a future in which not relating to others is impossible. Here the female ghost is refigured not as a total Other, but as a signifier of humanity’s ethical responsibility to that which has been excised from cultural memory. The technological is likewise constructed as a site of resistance to hegemonic narratives, providing a conduit for the forgotten past to penetrate the contemporary landscape.

The specter of Sadako thus signals both the simultaneity of the past and present and the potential of the simulacrum as an avenue for the recovery of traumatic memory. What emerges here, I contend, is a virtual-feminist ethos, whereby the female body—doubly monstrous in its spectral absence and virtual excess—becomes, to borrow from Ettinger, “the site, physically, imaginatively, and symbolically, where a feminine difference emerges, and through which a ‘woman’ is interlaced as a figure that is not confined to one-body, but is rather a hybrid ‘webbing’ of links between several subjectivities, who by virtue of that webbing become partial” (140). In this way, the monstrous-feminine in Ringu materializes as an affirmation of the perilously volatile yet sublimely dynamic quality of the virtual as a topography of postmodern subjectivity and desire, as well as alluding to the urgency of an enhanced historical consciousness for a nation seeking to process both its catastrophic past and the uncertainty of its future.

Rhizomatic Visions: Breaching the Limits of Kairo

In the wake of Ringu’s publication, Japan witnessed an explosion of works that similarly deploy the trope of haunted technologies to envision the encroachment of the virtual on the real and the subjugation of fixed identity to plural configurations of subjectivity. While many such works feature explicitly gendered techno-specters, a virtual-feminist ethos is visible also in fictions that diverge from this model. One of the most remarkable works in this regard is Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s 2001 film Kairo (Pulse), which, like Nakata’s adaptation of Ringu, has since inspired an American remake.

In Kairo, which is comprised of two thematically linked plot lines, virtual ghosts begin to seep from the Internet into the living world at an alarming rate. For the vast majority of the film, the motive for this migration of specters remains unknown. Finally, one ghost reveals the catalyst for their haunting: “Death,” it explains, “is eternal loneliness.” [page 59] Like Suzuki, Kurosawa frames the ghost as an entity that expands beyond the confines of the technological apparatus in a movement that re-orients the gaze of the viewer. Once again, the dead refuse to be relegated to the cultural unconscious. And the living, denied the privilege of detached observation, become participatory witnesses to their suffering. That the source of this anguish remains unknown throughout much of the film serves not only to intensify its sense of mystery, but also to suggest the impossibility of total apprehension. Here, as in Ringu, the ghost stands in for that which breaches the limits of representation, manifesting as a series of affects.

The affective quality of Kairo’s virtual ghosts is suggested by the film’s focus on their inexplicable yet palpable effects on the viewer’s psyche and, eventually, the material world. In the opening story, a man named Taguchi grows progressively more reclusive while working on a project involving a computer disk. Soon, he commits suicide by hanging. The disk, we learn, holds an image of Taguchi staring at his computer monitor, which displays an image of Taguchi staring at his computer monitor, in perpetuity. The image also displays a spectral face staring back at Taguchi from within the computer screen. In the second plotline, a man named Ryosuke signs up for a new Internet provider only to access the web and encounter the message, “Would you like to meet a ghost?” Ryosuke is led to a website that displays individuals exhibiting erratic, depressive behaviors and suicidal tendencies. In subsequent scenes, he is unwittingly compelled to view these images again and again.

As each of these plot lines progresses, ghosts begin to cross over from the virtual world into the real one. Human beings disappear into thin air in quick succession, leaving behind black marks where they once stood. Doors sealed by red tape—signaling that the room within is haunted—appear across Tokyo. Neither of the film’s central mysteries is resolved. Rather, as Kairo approaches its conclusion, total chaos unfolds.

In its depiction of the Internet as a site of radical and even impossible interconnectivity, Kairo calls to mind Deleuze and Guatarri’s concept of the rhizome, described in Thousand Plateaus as an “acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states.” Deleuze and Guattari elaborate this concept with reference to a piece of musical notation, excerpted from Sylvano Bussotti’s 1959 graphic score pieces de chair II – Part XIV, which is part of his Five Piano Pieces for David Tudor. A sprawling tangle of notes and lines that breach the boundaries of their clefs (some of which are themselves bent into impossible shapes), the score is both visually shocking and designed such that it cannot but produce a different outcome each time it is performed. [page 60] The image perfectly demonstrates how a rhizome might emerge from within and interact with an established system of representation (in this case, the musical staff).

Kairo’s virtual specters behave in a similar manner, circulating throughout the virtual medium to establish unanticipated connections with Internet users. Eventually, the intensity of these flows can no longer be contained, causing them to breach the boundaries of the screen and permeate the living world. The eminently familiar domain of the Internet is thus transformed into an avenue for the unfamiliar to emerge. As in Ringu, this subversion of the optic to the haptic—of vision to sensation—suggests a kind of feminization whereby the individual is subsumed into the plurality, converging with that which lies beyond the contained self.

Kairo’s somewhat unusual cinematography mirrors this theme of nearly impossible encounter. When ghosts reveal themselves in virtual settings they are indistinct, exuding an uncanny presence on the computer monitor. As noted, when human characters in the film vanish, their identities are routinely distilled into a black smudge, marking the locations of their deaths as sites of enigmatic occurrence. Even those ghosts who do take on more material forms subvert the rules of the material world. Some are transparent. Others are partially concealed by shadow, vacillating between lethargic and erratic movements that further perturb the viewer’s vision. The film’s minimalist soundtrack accentuates this sense of disorientation, in turns employing total silence, haunting, wordless chants, and unsettling orchestral music irregularly punctuated by the sound of a dial-up modem, static, or beeping. There is, in other words, a compulsory ambiguity to the film’s aesthetic that suggests the nearly impossible confluence of life and death, past and present, absence and presence.

While Ringu centers on the deeply personal trauma of its ghostly antagonist, Kairo ultimately situates itself within a grander historical matrix. As the film approaches its conclusion, a catastrophic scene unfolds. The sky grows dark. Mass suicide transpires. Tokyo is devoured by flames. Ryosuke attempts to escape the carnage by ship, only to disintegrate into ash. Kairo’s transformation of the Tokyo cityscape into a dystopian vision is a familiar scene. As noted earlier, Japanese visual culture frequently summons the memory of the Tokyo fire-bombings and atomic nightmare that transpired during WWII. Kairo likewise recalls these atrocities, and, as Timothy Iles notes, perhaps especially in the disintegration of human beings into smudges—an image evocative of the shadows of atomic bombing victims that remain to this day in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (123). Yet importantly, Kairo resists the temptation of total apocalypse. Here the lonely ghosts are not annihilated to achieve a restoration of the status quo; rather, they assimilate themselves into the [page 61] modern landscape, signaling a connection between the failure to fully acknowledge the past and the compulsion toward traumatic repetition.

This theme is significant given the extent to which Japan’s WWII defeat has continued to inform discourses on national identity. As Marilyn Ivy observes, the use of the term “sengo” (postwar) to characterize Japan into the present day suggests that this defeat remains “the foundation of the contemporary state. Sengo repeats, compulsively, Japan’s point of departure; haisengo (‘after defeat’ or ‘post-defeat’) discloses this compulsion” (169). Moreover, political discourse in Japan has habitually returned during moments of perceived crisis to the issue of war. Just this year, in fact, the government under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō “reinterpreted” Article 9—the so-called “peace clause” of the constitution—in a move to reinstate the nation’s ability to engage in international conflict. This has been an especially contentious move in the wake of the 1990s emergence of a large-scale historical revisionism designed to minimize Japan’s own war responsibility by recapitulating a discourse of national victimhood.

In its haunting indeterminacy, Kairo refuses to espouse a clear-cut political agenda, instead alluding to the reality that there are pasts whose horror cannot be undone, and whose aftereffects cannot be resolved. For Iles, this thematic focus renders Kairo a film about “the preservation of individuality in the face of a subsuming, alienating nihilism” (123). Yet in my view, the film embodies a wholly contrasting meaning, suggesting that humanity might only begin to approach redemption by creating space for that which exceeds the self. This resonates with Ettinger’s notion that the matrixial is a domain of risks, in which the “I may disappear in a traumatic way or in a subtle way” to create “a void in which an other—or a world—will appear” (“Metramorphic Borderlinks” 153). Thus, while Kairo deviates from the expressly gendered model that has long guided the horror genre, it echoes a Japanese, and even a global, feminist consciousness, speaking to the urgency of historical engagement for a nation seeking to process both its catastrophic past and the uncertainty of its future.


In a 2014 interview with The Japan Times, mystery writer Miyabe Miyuki was asked to comment on the enduring popularity of ghost stories in contemporary Japan. Referencing the 1995 Kobe earthquake and multiple-disaster that transpired in the Tōhoku region in March of 2011, Miyabe replied that kaidan “act as a sort of requiem for the souls that were lost, and as a comfort for those left behind” (par. 11). Miyabe’s comment highlights a somewhat neglected element of contemporary Japanese [page 62] supernatural fiction, whose frightening qualities have been the principal focal point of scholarship. As I have argued, the unlikely convergence of this world and the other side does not give rise only to fear; it also creates space for voices that have been excised from dominant narratives.

In my view, ghostly feminine subjectivities emerge in Ringu and Kairo in defiance of the repressive and sometimes violent impulses of a patriarchal society seeking to evade its past. In the process, the technological domain—widely linked to the themes of individual isolation and communal fragmentation—is reconfigured as a site of dynamic interconnectivity. The haunted virtual-feminine zone reinvests history. And through the machinic proliferation of specters, it realizes a de-isolation of trauma and its lingering affects. The implications here are both aesthetic and ethical: The indeterminate is not relegated to the margins of artistic and political activity; rather, it bespeaks the possibility of a future in which social and political life are energized by memory, driven by empathy, and attuned to the potential for healing.

The tremendous popularity of such fictions suggests that audiences desire an alternative to the prevailing rhetoric surrounding Japanese postmodernity, and perhaps especially attempts to re-affirm the neo-nationalist project by omitting liminal narratives. These works suggest that if Japan is to resolve its status as a nation constituted by trauma—and moreover to curb its drive toward traumatic repetition—it must begin with an acknowledgment of responsibility to past and future injustices, as well as with a positive valuation of difference. This being the case, I contend that the appeal of these works, at least in part, lies in their penchant for that which eludes representation—that is, with pasts that may only be affirmed and worked-through, albeit intermittently, imperfectly, and frustratingly, via the act of collective witnessing.

Works Cited

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MLA citation (print):

Dumas, Raechel. "Ghosts in the Machine: Spectral Technologies, Haunting Affects, and Virtual-Feminine Ghosts." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 49-63.