Japan is filled with strange and creepy creatures and I’m not just talking about the sleep-deprived salary men floating through the streets of Tokyo like underpaid zombies. Deeply rooted in its own culture, Japan has a rich history of ghosts and ghouls that go hundreds of years back and even today, the country has managed to keep the tradition going with its urban legends. One such legend is Kuchisake Onna: The Slit Mouthed Woman. A beautiful woman who sports a stylish Glasgow smile, she is rumored to approach unsuspecting victims and slit them from ear to ear. Her success has led to appearances in movies, manga, and anime, but what is Kuchisake’s real story? Did she ever really exist or was she a fever dream of a million over-worked students?
The modern version of The Slit-Mouthed Woman came from the seventies, but it’s also believed that an older version of her legend existed back in the Edo period. The original story spoke of a woman who was as beautiful as she was vain, which caused her jealous husband to think she was cheating. One day, when she asked him for the millionth time if she was beautiful, he slit her mouth in a fit of rage. After that, it was rumored that she would appear at night and ask strangers if they thought she was beautiful while hiding her face behind a mask. If they said yes, she would remove her mask and cut their mouths to match hers; if they said no, she would cut them for being assholes. In fact, the only real answer is to say “you’re okay” and run like hell while she ponders what that means or, if you don’t have an answer, you can tell her you have a previous engagement and she’ll excuse herself. She’s nothing if not polite.
While most ghost stories stay just that, stories, in 1979, the rumor of a Slit-Mouthed Woman blazed through Japan once more, though this time with real-life repercussions. Teachers began to walk their students home at night and police doubled up on patrols in case there really was a psycho woman running around cutting people up. Though there was no evidence to back up the panic, a coroner in 2007 did find obituary records about a woman who was chasing children around the time the rumor resurfaced; she was hit by a car and killed. It’s theorized that her death may have spurned a revival in the Slit-Mouthed Woman rumor. Oddly enough, the legend even hopped over to Korea in 2004, though their version had the woman wearing a red surgical mask and she was a victim of a plastic surgery gone wrong, most likely a response to the real life Korean obsession with surgery.
Kuchisake Onna may not have ever existed, but like her spooky contemporaries all over the world, she has made herself a staple in horror in and out of Japan. She has dozens of her own domestic movies, with the most popular being the 2007 movie Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, about the Kuchisake resurfacing after an earthquake and possessing women around to town to go around and do her dirty deeds. This reviewer has personally seen the movie and gives it a solid 3 out of 4 stars for its creepy tone and well-placed brutality. She has started to make appearances on US soil as well, with her most recent appearance on the show Constantine, where she hangs out in the New Orleans bayou giving people the willies.
Manga-wise, she has appeared in every horror collection and Halloween special that’ll take her. Among various works, she appears in her own manga, most notably Kuchisake Onna Denetsu, written and illustrated by Kanako Inuki, whose translated works include the three-part Presents and the horror collection School Zone about children trapped in a school overrun with Japanese urban legends and ghosts. If you are a French reader, there is a translated version of the Slit-Mouthed work titled La Femme Defiguree. For English translations, she is mostly included in supernatural-inspired works as a side character in such titles as Mob Psycho 100, Franken Fran, and Hanako and the Terror of Allegory (most likely a play on Hanako-Chan of the Toilet, another popular Japanese urban legend).
So, while perhaps Kuchisake Onna is still finding her footing abroad, she has helped change the landscape of Japanese horror. She has paved the way for modern yurei (Japanese ghosts) and has even inspired her own real-life panic. That’s like if the Lovers Lane hook killer actually got teens to stop necking in the woods!
If anything, she’s at least a good allegory of life as a Japanese woman where, even as of 2015, women make 40% less than men in their fields and are strongly expected to be a wife and mother, which further bars them from professional work. In Japan, domestic violence wasn’t formally addressed until 2001 and was usually seen at the fault of the victim. The Japanese beauty industry, on the other hand, is the second largest in the world, a reflection of the beauty standards for Japanese women. There’s so much social conformity pressure for women that an urban legend like The Slit-Mouthed Woman is almost inevitable. It’s hard to not almost see this woman as a type of anti-hero, the collected frustration of a gender that is limited simply by their birth sex. She is a former abuse victim, angry and rebelling against the world, like a crazy Harley Quinn. What’s not to love?
Hopefully, as time marches on, so does progression and there will be a time when The Slit-Mouthed Woman will not be needed anymore. Until then, watch your back; you never know what’s watching you from around the corner.