In the movies, life is planned out for you. You meet someone special, you fall in love, and then you live happily ever after. But while you might be able to choose the love of your life, you don’t have so much luck with their family. And in Japan, there’s less likelihood that you’ll be sharing a love-nest for two than moving in with your new in-laws. In manga and live-action drama, the Cinderella story often does not begin until after the wedding, when our pretty young heroine gets the man of her dreams, only to find herself an unpaid slave to a vindictive mother-in-law. This is the ever-growing dramatic genre of “in-law appeasement,” likely to expand further as Japan’s population grows and house prices soar ever higher – and The Curse is one of its more famous examples.
Yoko (Noriko Kato) is a typical Japanese office lady, who looks forward to marriage and starting a family. When her boyfriend Takashi (Naoki Hosaka) pops the question, she readily agrees and he proudly takes her to meet his parents. She is warmly welcomed by her new mother-in-law Ayano (Yoko Yamamoto), but discovers that half-mad grandmother-in-law is kept prisoner in an annex of the house. Despite warnings from her sister-in-law Saeko, and threats from Takashi’s vindictive cousin Suzuka, Yoko resolves to go through with the marriage.
But within moments of their nuptials, Takashi is posted abroad, forcing Yoko to move in with her in-laws and experience their company first-hand. She soon discovers that Ayano is a “soul-eater,” a woman whose craving for attention suck up the energy and happiness of all the people around her – the ultimate Mother-in-Law from Hell. Yoko must deal with rancid miso soup and the presence of a cat in her bed, but such pranks are only the beginning. When Takashi neglects to mention his mother in a letter home, Ayano flies into a rage. Yoko discovers that she is pregnant, but loses the baby due to Ayano’s interference. Takashi grows increasingly distant, particularly after Ayano suggests that Yoko may have been having an affair with her own father-in-law, Takao!
Imagining that life cannot get any worse, Yoko finds a neighbor in the garden, diligently nailing a corn-doll to a tree. Inspired by this traditional method of stress-relief, Yoko copies her, thereby placing a curse on Ayano. However, Ayano fights back by slashing her own wrists in an attempt to keep Yoko at the family home.
Based on a manga by Chikae Ide whose original title was Gruesome! Bride vs Mother-in-Law War: House of Devils, The Curse combines in-law appeasement with a grand guignol of tortures that make Stephen King’s Misery look like a picnic. Ayano is TV drama’s most remorseless enemy, prepared to use bribery, violence and threats to get her own way, but she is by no means the only “soul-eater” in the show who makes others’ lives a living hell. The titular affliction is not merely a magical spell, but growing old in an uncaring society, with no-one to rely upon but resentful relatives. It takes Jean-Paul Sartre’s maxim that “hell is other people,” and asks if even that is preferable to loneliness – playing on the primal fears of the 20th century yuppie by presenting marriage as a deal with the Devil, destroying young freedoms with a series of invasive obligations, infidelities and betrayals.
Chikae Ide’s other manga works all seem to contain some combination of unhappiness and family ties. Scandal Taste of Honey luxuriates in others’ misfortunes, while Pandora’s Wife puts another innocent through the mill of family torments. However, not all of Ide’s manga set up in-laws as agents of Satan. In Bride and Mother-in-Law: Super Famous Detectives, a pair of relatives team up to solve crimes – their relationship might be friendly, but they wander through a world where other family crises often end in murder and foul play.
The Curse has an extra advantage, which became more obvious when all 12 episodes of the 1998 series were subtitled in English for broadcast on Hawaii’s KIKU TV. While it does feature an endless cavalcade of tortures and agonies, it also has a cast whose excessive, fearful politeness causes them to converse at all times in beautifully clear, standard Japanese. The Curse is very low on slang, and very high on a series of social situations that every Japanese student could do with revising – no, not nailing your mother-in-law’s voodoo doll to a tree, but family dinners, weddings and other social occasions. The Curse thereby gained a new lease of life as an inadvertent language aid, as students got the chance to practice the niceties of complimenting the lady of the house on a beautiful meal, shortly before prising a kitchen knife from her gnarled hands as she hurls herself at them in a fit of jealous rage. You never know when such vocabulary might come in handy, and you won’t find it in the average phrasebook.
(This article originally appeared in Newtype USA, July 2003)