I love urban legends, and I especially love them when they deal with ghosts.
A while back I did an entry about Toire no Hanako-san. You know, the tale of the ghost Hanako, who haunts a particular bathroom stall in a school somewhere here in Japan. With Halloween coming up this month, I want to write a few entries about supernatural Japan and with Hanako-san already out of the way, it's time to turn to Kuchisake-onna, the woman with the big smile.
About a week ago, during a discussion of Halloween and ghost stories, a student laughingly reminded me of Kuchisake-onna. While it's fun to read about Japanese ghost lore, it's even more fun to have someone here actually tell you a story. Somehow that makes it seem more authentic, more real. And, like all good Japanese ghost stories, there's a movie version:
Kuchisake-onna is a strange apparition-- according to lore, on some foggy night she may approach you wearing a surgical mask. That in itself isn't so strange. People wearing surgical masks are a common sight here, especially these days when everyone's talking about the "new influenza."
But you can tell you're dealing with Kuchisake-onna when, instead of merely passing by and going about her business, she stops you and asks you, "Am I beautiful?" The correct answer, of course, is, "Yes!" To make absolutely certain, Kuchisake-onna will then remove her mask...
Revealing a grinning mouth that stretches from ear to ear, full of wickedly sharp teeth.
"Am I beautiful, even like this?" she'll ask. And here's where it gets tricky.
Obviously, you don't want to say, "No." This is Kuchisake-onna and she will rip you to shreds instantly. You might think to answer, "Yes" again. But this only buys you a short reprieve. Because the Japanese word for pretty is kirei, which sounds a bit like kire, meaning "to cut," Kuchisake-onna will follow you home and slice you into little pieces right in front of your own house. You also shouldn't try to run away without answering, because Kuchisake-onna is a sprinter who makes Usain Bolt look he's like running underwater. She can cover 100 meters in 3 seconds!
What you want to do is say, "Ma-ma," which is Japanese for "so-so." Or tell her she's average. This pleases her enough for her to let you go. Another strategy is to ask her if she thinks you're beautiful as well. That really confuses her and gives you time to flee to safety, and perhaps you can exchange keitai information and go shopping together one day and maybe have crepes or om-rice in some cute little restaurant. You might even toss her some fruit. Carry some blueberries or a pineapple whenever you take a walk alone at night as a safety precaution. If you meet her in Shizuoka prefecture, try strawberries-- they're especially popular here.
While this story may date back to the Edo period-- Kuchisake-onna began as an ordinary woman, punished horrifically by her samurai husband for infidelity-- the modern take became popular around 1979, in a version where Kuchisake-onna preyed especially on children. In other versions, an inept plastic surgeon caused her disfigurement, or a motorcycle gang, or an auto accident. She may not kill you, but may instead simply cut you in the same way she is. And she might possibly attack you if you smell of pomade.