Kabuki, a multi-volume series of comic books by David Mack, tells the story of Ukiko, an operative within a secret government agency who carries out missions to stabilize the society and economy of Japan. Set in an ambiguous time-period where, instead of Big Brother, “Little Sister”1 is watching, the comic uses flashbacks, hallucinations, dreams, and visions to tell the story of Ukiko/Kabuki’s creation and development in a world where the formation of identity is heavily scripted by males. Although stretched over seven volumes,2 each with their own themes and plot-points, the Kabuki storyline primarily focuses on the (re)creation of self and the (trans)formation of identity. This essay will look at the way Ukiko navigates her construction of personhood and how she resists or participates in the scripting of male-defined womanhood. Like the female cyborg, she is figured as monstrous by her male-dominated culture and must reassemble herself within and against this depiction of monstrosity, actively negotiating the many impediments to her self-definition: she is literally and figuratively written by males, framed and reframed by the collision of lexical sign and artistic image, contained by the fetishizing power of her Noh mask, and prescribed by the genetic and active influence of her parents. Ultimately, Kabuki demonstrates that Ukiko can escape the confines of interpellative definition only through an alchemical kind of metamorphosis.
While the other Noh operatives and many of her opponents are women, the only female figure that Ukiko has had any significant interaction with when the story begins is her mother, Tsukiko, represented primarily through memory or as a ghost or vision. This is ironic, of course, because Tsukiko died while giving birth to Ukiko. Tsukiko was conscripted to be a comfort woman to Japanese troops during World War II. During this time, she was under the protection of a character known only as the General, who had the women perform as actors of Kabuki drama rather than as prostitutes for his men. After the war, the General takes Tsukiko into his home and eventually decides to marry her. The General’s son, Kai, ashamed to hear that his father plans to marry an Ainu “animal” (reflecting a race bias that some Japanese have against the indigenous people of the Japanese islands), rapes Tsukiko on the night before her wedding. His assault on her body continues as he carves the kanji for “kabuki” onto her back and cuts out her eyes.3 Tsukiko goes into a coma, pregnant with her rapist’s child; she later dies in childbirth, leaving Ukiko to be raised by the General. When her father Kai learns of her existence, he finds Ukiko and marks her as he did her mother, by carving the kabuki symbols onto her face (see Figure 2). Ukiko dies but is revived in the hospital. Because the scars, which are figured as grotesque, preclude normal life for Ukiko, the General trains her to become one of his elite government agents and renames her “Kabuki.”
Of particular interest is how Mack blends his visual elements with written words (both in English and Japanese), creating numerous instances where Ukiko’s body is read not only for its visual signature but also for the words that literally define her body (the scars marking her face being the first of many examples). The literal and figurative writing on Ukiko functions as an interesting visual metaphor in that the men within the story are constantly scripting their own interpretations on her body, from the scars that mar her face, to the Noh tattoo on her back, to the mask that erases her identity. One might be prompted to ask if Mack’s art and story reflect a similar sort of masculine control over the feminine: Mack (an American male) has complete control over the rendering and representation of Ukiko (an attractive Asian woman). Like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Ukiko appears at times to be a strong, independent character who resists the authority of men who would “glosen” (WBT 26) her. We must remember, however, that she herself has been conceived, drawn, scripted, and glossed by a male artist.4
Additionally, as an athletic, physically powerful character, Ukiko references certain cultural codes involving muscular female bodies, particularly those coming out of the cyberpunk tradition in which Asian martial arts skill is often combined with technological enhancement.5 All the masks worn by the Noh agents feature embedded sophisticated electronics, used to enhance vision and communications; several instances of point-of-view perspective from within the mask call to mind the mirrorshades of Molly the assassin from William Gibson’s Neuromancer.6 By borrowing from the cyberpunk aesthetic, Mack can further explore what Takayuki Tatsumi describes as cyberpunk’s “decomposition of boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical” wherein we may “perceive ‘semiotic ghosts'” (373). The importance of semiotic and imagistic ghosts in Kabuki will resurface later in this analysis, as will the decomposition of literal and metaphorical boundaries. For now, however, we might consider the cyberpunk preoccupation with technological ghosts and the resultant blurring of ontological boundaries, especially in terms of identity formation. Ukiko’s sublimation of her identity resonates with the cyberpunk idea of being a “meat puppet,” an individual who is suppressed (usually mentally) to serve specific physical functions from data storage to sex to killing.
While not explicitly addressed in the character of Kabuki, the mask as a technological augmentation connects with the concept of the cyborg body and, thus, colors the representation of Ukiko and other elements of the story. For example, the twin agents “Siamese” – who share one name and one identity – have cyborg arms at the site where they were once joined. Like Kabuki and the other agents, Siamese’s identity is established and maintained through their individualized corporate-issue Noh masks; unlike the other agents, Siamese’s masks are mirror images of one another. Ukiko’s conflicting relationship between her two “faces” may intersect with Donna Haraway’s assertion that “cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate” (154). Like the two-headed, mechanized Siamese, Kabuki/Ukiko could be described as monstrous. Furthermore, her genesis through Kai’s rape of her mother makes her literally illegitimate. Thus, Ukiko’s physical and mental dependence on her mask casts her as a sort of metaphorical cyborg, epitomizing what Thomas Foster calls the “postmodern condition of inhabiting a body that functions as a signifying surface” (212). Ukiko’s scarred but emotive face is hidden by the fixed expression of her Kabuki mask where allies and opponents alike must read information onto it.7
Through the mechanics of her mask, Ukiko can see more detail about a person than is normally possible: heart rate and other vital signs, the presence of weapons, proximity to other targets around a room, extensive personnel files. In this regard, she is represented as dangerous through the power of her penetrating gaze, or what Rosalind Krauss has termed as the “uncanny gaze” (106). Kabuki can see almost literally into the heart of her opponent, and this information gives her privileged knowledge.8 Like the male-directed yet gender-defying violence of Kabuki’s martial arts, this penetrating gaze is complicated when one remembers that her mask was fashioned by men and that the data she receives from it is filtered through a masculine construct.
Could it be said then that Ukiko, trained to be a Noh agent from her childhood, performs a male gaze in lieu of and/or along with a female one? Given that Ukiko literally wears a mask as Kabuki and sees the identity of her mask as being her real identity superimposed over her biological face, her engagement in feminine masquerade through her “made body” becomes what Susan Bordo refers to as a “direct locus of social control” (165) for men like the General and Kai to shape her identity.9 Her feminine masquerade is also impacted by the continual presence of her deceased mother, who was herself a literal performer of masquerade as a Kabuki actress. Throughout her story and throughout her performance, Ukiko struggles with agency as she enacts various modes of female iconography. Doane suggests that “Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed” (25), but the reader must wonder if this possible for Ukiko, whose mask, face, and identity have been crafted by men and who recognizes the mask not as a façade, but as that which truly signifies her. If we consider Doane’s assertion that “Masquerade [?] involves the realignment of femininity” (25), then one of the major narrative components of Ukiko’s chronicles concerns her negotiation and ultimate integration of her femininity within her identity. As the creator of the series, Mack seems very conscious of the symbolic power of the mask and explores this dominant theme of mask-as-metonymical-Ukiko as an extended metaphor throughout all the Kabuki story arcs.10
The interesting thing about masks is that they hide things. Masks make things exotic, often erotic. Mack capitalizes on this exoticism by combining it with the already alien culture of Japan. Interestingly, the comics are drawn primarily in a Western style, generally without the elements of manga. Since Mack is a student of Japanese culture and language, he avoids some of the usual clichés (radioactive monsters or giant robots), but he does rely on a number of imported tropes (Japan as a land of advanced technology, Japan as a land of leftover imperialism, Japan as a land of Zen philosophy) in order to render the narrative. Thus, while Kabuki is westernized to a certain extent in terms of visual cues, it is linguistically, conceptually, and narratively tied to the east through Kabuki, Noh, origami, calligraphy, kanji, Ukiko. It is language, then, that imbues Ukiko with a sense of the exotic.
While illustrations are used to tell the story, the images of Ukiko are often framed and constrained by text, which in turn form what normally would be the borders in a standard comic book. In this fashion, Mack departs from the standard convention of dialogue boxes used in mainstream comics. Instead, he experiments with Japanese (and Chinese) calligraphy, and these pictographs underscore the fact that eastern language systems bear meaning through the integration of appearance and semantics; that is, the lexical sign (written language) takes on the visual sign (physical shape) of what it signifies. Similarly, Ukiko’s body, as the signified, is reflexively formed and informed by the language around and on her. This relationship between word and image is often stressed through repetition in Mack’s work. For example, the title of the first Kabuki story arc, “Circle of Blood,” refers to the family circle between Ukiko, Kai, and the General; the cadre of Noh agents; the red lenses within the agents’ masks; the Rising Sun of Japan’s flag; a circle of bloody corpses; the circular structure of the narrative; and many other depictions of circles. Each word and image is stacked in a way that visually layers meaning on Ukiko, reframing sign and signification. Discussing the act of reading, Wolfgang Iser states that,
Each individual image therefore emerges against the background of a past image, which is thereby given its position in the overall continuity, and is also opened up to meanings not apparent when it was first built up. Thus the time axis basically conditions and arranges the overall meaning by making each image recede into the past, thus subjecting it to inevitable modifications, which, in turn, bring forth the new image. Consequently, all images cohere in the reader’s mind by a constant accumulation of references, which we have termed the snowball effect. (148)
Through a process Michel Foucault calls “retrospective encasement,” Ukiko is reinterpreted by this collusion of words and images. The reader of Kabuki begins to understand Ukiko through a layering of information, and it is this same layering within the story that Ukiko must learn to negotiate in order to discern her own identity.
These recurring signs continually alter the character of Ukiko, and we should note that many of the images that inform Ukiko’s identity come from her childhood and relate to her early formation of selfhood. Because of the trauma of her formative years, the scars on Ukiko’s face are reflected in her psyche, and the storyline partially functions as an extended Lacanian mirror-stage, depicting Ukiko’s (mis)apprehension of self. Integrated within the story, these physical and ideological mirrors threaten to override Ukiko’s identity as the alternate persona of Kabuki comes to dominate her (even the title of the series privileges this aspect of Ukiko’s character) through the insistent presence of the mirror and referenced by all the metaphors that circulate through the Lacanian universe of the subject. Ukiko has been interpellated by everyone around her – the General and the Noh Board of Directors, the other Noh agents, Kai, and even her mother’s ghost – as Kabuki. As a woman, Ukiko’s identity has already been written on her body like the name inscribed on her face. Throughout the storyline, she performs her social subjectivity, circulated as a sign, while struggling to construct her own identity as a sign producer, engaged in the type of identity-production described by Luce Irigaray, attempting “to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself simply to be reduced to it” (76).
Whether on a mission or just walking around the city, Ukiko constantly wears her Kabuki mask and comes to regard it as her true face saying, “Underneath the scarred flesh [of her biological face] there exists the perfect polished features of my mask.” She wears the mask while sleeping and even in her dreams. When captured and formally stripped of her mask in the “Skin Deep” story arc, Ukiko writes “Give me back my face” over and over on the walls of her cell (see Figure 3). Later, she admits, “I embraced the mask. It became my identity.” In “Metamorphosis,” the story arc in which Ukiko finally abandons her role as Kabuki, Ukiko learns that another Noh agent has assumed her Kabuki persona. She says, “I’ve been replaced. My replacement gets a mask like mine. I lose my face. My identity is taken from me. Who am I now?”11 By this time, Ukiko has begun to question her internalization of what Annette Michelson describes as the “impulse which claims the female body as the site of an analytic, mapping upon its landscape a poetics and an epistemology with all the perverse detail and somber ceremony of fetishism” (433).
Ukiko’s body is slender and powerful. Mack’s style does not depict any sort of overdefined musculature, avoiding a transgressive gender impersonation and instead creating an appearance that Bordo has commented on as “between a spare, ‘minimalist’ look and a solid, muscular, athletic, look” (191). While Ukiko is sometimes given a sensual appeal, any sort of overt sexuality in her is muted12 and the same might be said for Mack’s depiction of Ukiko as an exotic (Asian) body.13 As in other comics, what becomes charged with fetish is her costume – mask, clothing, weapons – while the rendition of her body tends to receive less attention within the frame than her face (although arguably one of the visual signatures of the Asian body would be the facial construction).14 Ukiko herself engages in fetishizing herself through her mask, paradoxically evading otherness through incorporating it into herself. As Foster notes, this is a strategy common to cyborgs: “the incorporation of otherness into the self through an investment in cyborg body imagery and cyborg identity can reproduce a classical fetishistic evasion of otherness” (218).
Yet even without the mask, Ukiko’s face is often not her own. Throughout Kabuki, Ukiko’s face constantly supplants and is supplanted by that of her mother, as in the nightmare in which she, instead of her mother, is raped by Kai (see Figure 4). It is interesting to note that in this sequence she is not only stripped of her Kabuki mask, but also loses both her hands in a swordfight, depriving her of her combat skills and rendering her unable to resist Kai’s sexual assault. Perhaps this reveals the fact that Kai haunts Ukiko as well. In one dream, he peels off his human face to reveal the demon-mask face beneath. In a later episode, Ukiko is shown cards with Rorschach inkblots. In the first one, she sees the demon mask of her father. In the second card, referred to as “defective” since it is misprinted with an asymmetrical pattern, Ukiko sees her own scarred face. At this point in the story, she has been referred to as a “defective agent” by the shadow government. It is tempting to read part of Ukiko’s “defect” as her female body, not merely in her face, thinking particularly of psychoanalysis and female otherness cast in terms of lack, and hence defective, when compared to the male normative body. Not insignificantly, this self-identification with defect comes when Ukiko is being “reprogrammed.” The “re” in reprogramming emphasizes the fact that for the (male) government that is trying to reassert its control over Ukiko, independent female thought is dangerous and unacceptable. Perhaps this reflects the kind of “castration anxiety” that Huyssen claims to inform the film Metropolis. In such a milieu, cyborg-like women become a threat to male dominance and identity through their connections to nature and machine: “Woman, nature, machine had become a mesh of significations all of which had one thing in common: otherness; by their very existence they raised fears and threatened male authority and control” (70).
Before Ukiko was programmed by the Noh, however, her identity was formed by other, still external, forces. For example, we might note that both of Ukiko’s names are derived from her mother. Ukiko means “girl (or child) of the rain.” In his afterword to “Circle of Blood,” Takashi Hattori suggests that the opening line, “The rainy season has begun,” could be read as “Welcome to the story of Ukiko.” This may be true, but as Ukiko’s name is formed through apheresis from her mother’s name, Tsukiko, which means “daughter (or child) of the moon,” the story being told does not only belong to Ukiko, but to her mother as well (see Figure 5). This elision continues to problematize Ukiko’s identity in that her presumed individuality is explicitly intertwined with her mother’s identity. This is reinforced in many ways, such as in the incorporation of the Japanese national flag’s design into her costume (in much the same way that her mother used an actual Japanese flag as a kimono during her final kabuki performance), or in the adoption of her mother’s theatrical style as her Noh-name. Additionally, when Kai first encounters Ukiko as a child, he identifies her as “Kabuki” and he carves the word into her face, just as he did on Tsukiko’s back. But the strongest imprint of Tsukiko’s identity on Ukiko comes after Kai’s attack, when Ukiko lies lifeless for nine minutes in the hospital. During this time, Ukiko meets the spirit of her dead mother, who charges her with returning “as a ghost like her own role in the Kabuki dramas.” Many traditional Kabuki plays feature an oiwa, a woman who returns from the grave to take revenge against the man who wronged her; Tsukiko would have performed this role for the General and his men.15 Ukiko then becomes a ghost, both in the sense of her training and covert status for the Noh and in the implication that her raison d’être has now been written, like a theatrical role, by her dead mother.
Yet Tsukiko is not the only parent scripting selfhood onto little Ukiko. One of the most important players in the drama of Ukiko’s identity-formation is Kai. He is responsible for her creation biologically and for her transformation into Kabuki. He then continues to influence her life in the guise of her Noh superior Oni, second only to the General. He has infiltrated the Noh and manipulates Ukiko’s assignments so that she assassinates his business rivals. In traditional Noh drama, an oni is a demon, and the significance is apt for the story. Ukiko obviously resembles her mother physically and has “Kabuki” carved into her face and marking her identity, but her father’s name is also written on Ukiko’s skin. Kai’s first name, Ryuichi, means “dragon-one,” and he has a dragon tattoo on his chest and stomach. Ukiko has a similar tattoo across her back. Kai has scarred Ukiko both physically and emotionally, marking her as both possession and adversary, but never as daughter. Her dualistic connections to her mother and father are illustrated several times. In one scene, Kabuki’s sickle merges with the crescent moon of her mother as she stands on a carving of a dragon (as shown in Figure 1). When Ukiko is dying on her mother’s grave after murdering her father, Kai appears as a ghostly dragon-skeleton (see Figure 6), bidding Ukiko farewell just as her mother did. Even more obvious is an image of Kai and Tsukiko, adapted from previous depictions, and combined to form Ukiko’s face.
The word “Kabuki” itself is made up of the three separate kanji for “song,” “dance,” and “action” (or “art”), and like the components of the ideograms combining to form a more complex meaning, so too is Ukiko’s identity created through three recurrent figures: the dove, which represents both her Ainu grandfather and her Noh commander (possibly the same person); the sun, which represents both her Japanese grandfather and her adoptive father the General (the same person); and the crescent, which represents both her mother (associated with the moon) and her sickle, her favored weapon. Each of these images also function in other symbolic ways, such as the dove meaning peace, the sun representing the military history of Japan, and the crescent denoting change and mystery.
Ukiko’s identity is divided between her sun and moon. Hattori describes this in his commentary on the “Through the Looking Glass” segment of “Circle of Blood”:
[…] we are introduced to a dichotomy of icons. Sun and moon become symbols for male/female, father/mother, Japanese/Ainu, warrior/poet, day/night, yin/yang. Kabuki is searching for an equinox between these icons; a balance between these dualities. Kabuki’s reflection is caught in her mother’s urn and shown “halfway between the sun and the moon.”
These dichotomies surface and resurface throughout the Kabuki story. In “Circle of Blood,” Dove tells Kabuki, “It’s time to master the duality of your nature” and her double nature is visually alluded to by the tension between her mask and her face. Once again, we see Ukiko’s constant quest for identity. Throughout the storyline, she is depicted as battling to reconcile the contradictions that infuse and surround her. Her continual misrecognition of self complicates this process. Traumatized by her childhood and subsequent life as a Noh Agent, Ukiko dies twice after confrontations with her contradictory alliances. Thematically, Ukiko’s deaths and subsequent resurrections via the intercession of medical procedures position her female body within the realm of cyborg reanimation and allows for what Anne Balsamo would describe as redefining her body “as an object for technological reconstruction” (57). Resurrection allows for redefinition and reconstruction, but for Kabuki these things can only be attained after honest recognition of the absence of self.
As part of her treatment (and de/reprogramming), a psychiatrist has Ukiko finger paint. Among the nine images she initially makes are one depicting an empty goldfish bowl, rendered like a crescent, and one that is a copy of “Zen,” a famous shoji (Japanese calligraphy), depicting an almost closed circle of black rendered in a single brushstroke on a white background (see Figure 7). These images are reminiscent of Kabuki’s scythes and of her mother’s moon, but visually, Mack is relating an idea that has been alluded to throughout the story: Ukiko is incomplete. By this point in the narrative, not only is she missing physical parts – the skin cut from her face, part of her little finger, nine feet of her small intestine, other smaller losses due to various wounds – she has also somehow lost a part of her essential nature. The psychiatrist analyzing Ukiko makes notes on the drawings and comments on the themes of loss, missing parts, and the lack of a “sense of wholeness.” In a Lacanian sense, the broken moon might represent Ukiko’s lack, a void in her to be filled by something entirely other or by something entirely her own. When Ukiko makes her second set of finger paintings for the doctor, she creates a set of abstract images that, when placed beside one another, incompletely coalesce into her face, retaining a more nebulous, less delineated concept of herself. The doctor notes that “After a slow, awkward arrangement, an image begins to emerge. A bigger picture. More than the sum of its parts. Her identity is complete.” Marked with the seal of scientific authority, this might be seen as too grand of a pronouncement to make, yet there is the sense that, conventions of character development in narrative structure acknowledged, Ukiko has progressed in terms of developing as an individual.
The conclusion of “Metamorphosis” features Ukiko escaping from her captors. Outside in the rain, she encounters a character named Kageko (translated as “shadow child”), dressed in her old Kabuki garb. Kageko has learned to mimic Ukiko’s every movement and has become the “replacement” or body-double Kabuki, in essence learning to masquerade Ukiko’s masquerade. The two women’s faces mirror each other on the page with the caption “R is for Reflection” (this volume utilized an alphabetical listing scheme). Kageko tells Ukiko, “I remembered your haiku about the rain. […] You said once that you had a dream that you walked through the rain and it washed away your scars.”16 Ukiko responds, “It has.” She then walks away as the last page reads, “Z is for zero, a reset clock, the point of a new beginning.” If, as Russo suggests, “To put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off” (70), then perhaps Ukiko, as a former assassin, is now free to leave that part of her identity behind. Ukiko’s broken crescent, her scarred moon, has finally closed, and it is up to the reader to decide if this moon is new or full, since both suggest different possibilities for Ukiko’s future. Conversely, given the cyclical nature of this story, we might speculate that Ukiko will never completely slip free of the patterns that inform her identity. In many ways, her circles never close but rather continue their revolutions in a pattern that might be envisioned more properly as a spiral. Of course, since this is a comic with strong elements of the fantastic, we must recognize that this spiraling progression and resistance to closure reflects contemporary attitudes towards the condition of female identity. As Balsamo notes,
This is one of the contributions that science fiction literature in general makes to our understanding of contemporary situations. As works of fictions that generically extrapolate from the current moment to fictional futures (or pasts), these narratives offer readers a framework for understanding the preoccupations that infuse contemporary culture. (112)
The cultural situation concerning women has progressed, but the circle will never close. In the exploration of the status of women, Kabuki offers an arena in which Mack can engage in a level of social experimentation and commentary that illustrates the interesting and problematic nature of female representation in artistic media. The comic offers not only another depiction of the way that women have been written, but another way for them to be read.
As for Ukiko, her story continues in the latest spiral of Kabuki, “The Alchemy.” After her escape at the conclusion of “Metamorphosis,” she attempts to begin anew, in much the same way that Chinese calligraphers would change their names mid-career so they could start over: “They would change their signature, their identity, so they could remain free to evolve artistically.” Similarly, Ukiko has adopted the name and identity of her friend Akemi17 and is involved in her own artistic evolution. She cannot completely eschew her former identity, and this is highlighted by the fact that “The Alchemy” retains the series title, Kabuki. Moreover, the prosthetic limbs of her new veterinarian/artist/ally remind us in a strikingly visual manner that the ghosts and lacunae of Ukiko’s former life will never disappear. Yet Ukiko is in the process of constructing a new identity: thus far, her signature Noh mask has not appeared. Perhaps, then, what we are seeing in this latest story arc is the transmutation of an old character into new artistic creation in a process similar to that described by Ukiko’s new friend: “The outgrown prosthetics that are obsolete or unsalvageable have become the artifacts of the new work that I am known for.” It is significant that this latest installation of Kabuki is entitled “The Alchemy.” Like the alchemists, who sought to transform base metals into gold, Ukiko has taken the materials of her former self and is in the process of refining them into something new, something beautiful and full of hope. She can never completely discard her past, but like the veterinarian/artist who aids her, Ukiko must take the “obsolete or unsalvageable” artifacts of her former self and fashion them into a new persona, a new work of art. Perhaps in this reconstruction of self, Ukiko has finally found a way to evolve. Perhaps she has finally metamorphosed. Perhaps, just perhaps, she truly has found a way to turn base metal into gold.
 The oriental nature of the titular character was less obvious in the “Circle of Blood” arc. While the covers and later issues were rendered in a palette more indicative of Asian coloration, the first issue was drawn in black and white, with the whiteness representing skin tone. In later issues, Mack experiments with a mixed media approach, incorporating water colors, oil paints, found objects, and traditional inks.
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