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Manuscript vs Myth: The Fox Woman

Updated: Jan 1

Kij Johnson’s ‘The Fox Woman’ is a gripping novel of magical realism and fairytale, set in the backdrop of Japan’s Heian period. It tells the story of Kaya no Yoshifuji – a lord who falls in love with a beautiful woman only to later discover that she was a fox in disguise.

Tales of foxes transforming into humans to trick unsuspecting people are common in Japan and East Asia. It is said that as the fox grows older, they gain more tails and greater abilities until they are at their most powerful, with nine tails. In Japan, these foxes are called Kitsune, in China, Huli Jing, and in Korea, Kumiho. These foxes may transform into humans for many reasons, to steal from them, to eat them, or, as in the case of ‘The Fox Woman,’ to seduce them.

This common theme can be found in many legends. The fox woman is said to have either replaced or possessed the lovers and concubines of several kings across China, India, and Japan under multiple names. In Japan, she was known as Tamamo no Mae, and she served as concubine to the emperor, using her magic to poison him until she was discovered and driven out. Another example is that of Abe no Seimei, a historical figure whose father, Abe no Yasuna is said to have fallen in love with a white fox named Kuzunoha. Abe no Yasuna had freed the white fox from a hunter. Later he met the beautiful woman Kuzunoha and fell hopelessly in love. The two were married and had a son, but when Abe no Seimei, caught sight of his mother’s tail her true nature was revealed and she had no choice but to leave.

The legend retold in ‘The Fox Woman’ falls somewhere between these two myths. It is the story of Kaya no Yoshifuji, a man enchanted by a fox to fall in love with her and forget his original home. The fox is less malicious than Tamamo no Mae, as she lives peacefully with Yoshifuji for what he perceives to be thirteen years, but it is not entirely good either, as unlike the story of Kazunoha and Abe no Yasuna, Yoshifuji is enchanted to remain.

The novel remains close to the fairytale – in particular the version translated by Royall Tyler in ‘Japanese tales’ for The Pantheon Fairytale and Folklore Library. In this version Yoshifuji who, by all accounts seems to be something of a cad, grows lonely after his wife departs for the capital. One evening while he was out for a walk he saw a beautiful young woman, who he desired. The woman refused to go home with him, instead inviting him to her own house, and he willingly followed. The two had sex, and in the morning the girl’s father insisted that the man must remain and marry his daughter. Yoshifuji willingly did so, forgetting all about his own wife and son. Yoshifuji remained with his new bride for thirteen years, fathering a new son and living quite happily, absolutely besotted with his new wife.

Back home, Yoshifuji’s servants had become concerned when they were unable to find him. They searched tirelessly for days before eventually invoking the goddess Kannon for aid. Kannon, in the guise of an old man, appeared in Yoshifuji’s beautiful home, driving him out. Yoshifuji found himself back in his original home, with his son and servants surrounding him. He told them where he had been, and when they asked him to show them Yoshifuji led them to the old storeroom. Looking beneath the floor, they discovered a family of foxes. His bride, it seemed had been a fox woman, who had enchanted and tricked him. The entire thing had been only an illusion, more than that, what Yoshifuji had believed to be thirteen years, had only been thirteen days.

These events play out near identically – if slightly more sympathetically to both Yoshifuji and the fox – in Johnson’s novel. The story places a greater emphasis on the events leading up to Yohifuji’s disappearance, as well as his recovery afterwards. The story is told through the perspectives of three different characters, Yoshifuji himself, his wife, Shikujo, and Kitsune – the fox who started it all.

After being embarrassed in court, Yoshifuji retreats from the capital to his family’s long abandoned countryside home. Disillusioned with life in the city, Yoshifuji finds himself growing enchanted with the seeming freedom of the countryside and, in particular, finds himself drawn to two young foxes which he finds living in the gardens. His wife, however, is far less happy with their move. She is more accustomed to the rules and structure of the city, and is terrified of the wildness of the countryside, and the dangers she fears lurk there. In particular she is terrified of the foxes, believing in superstitions of them as unlucky at best, and man-killing shapeshifters at worst.

As Yoshifuji’s fascination with the foxes grow, so too does his dissatisfaction with his seemingly perfect wife. While Shikujo is a dutiful wife, Yoshifuji finds himself struggling to connect with her on a genuine personal level when, from his perspective his passionate, romantic overtures are met with rigid courtesy. In contrast, Shikujo takes refuge and comfort in the set rules of courtesy, and often finds her husband’s seemingly irrational behaviour unsettling. Though Yoshifuji professes to want a genuine connection with his wife, rather than the perfect noble she presents herself to be, ironically the one area in which Shikujo is not perfect – her irrational and intense fear of foxes – Yoshifuji dismisses completely as ‘peasant superstitions.’ Every time Shikujo attempts to come to her husband with her fears, he refuses to listen. This inability to connect on both Yoshifuji and Shikujo’s part, with both of them succumbing to obsession or fear, leads to Shikujo leaving the country to return to the capital and safety. With her gone, the fox, Kitsune is free to take Yoshifuji for herself.

While Yoshifuji is seeking the passion and freedom that he perceives the wilderness as having – exemplified by the two young foxes he watches in the garden – Kitsune is looking for something very different. A young fox living with her brother, mother, and grandfather, Kitsune lived her whole life beneath the floors of the country manor until the return of the humans forced them to relocate beneath an old woodshed. Where her grandfather warns that humans are dangerous, and her brother shows no interest in them, Kitsune is fascinated with humans – their clothes, their relationships, their writing and, especially, their poetry. As she watches, she finds herself beginning to fall in love with Yoshifuji, despairing that she can never be with him.

Though Kitsune fancies herself in love with Yoshifuji, and perhaps even is, she also yearns for Yoshifuji because she sees him as a gateway to the thing she wants most in the world – humanity, and an escape from the brutality of the wild. Both Yoshifuji and Kitsune seek each other out because they see the other as exemplifying something that they deeply yearn for. Ironically, the very thing that makes them attractive to their partner, is the thing that they themselves are desperately trying to escape from.

As in the legend, Kitsune finds a way to become (or at least cast the illusion that she is) human and manages to entice Yoshifuji to follow her home. Kitsune and her family’s magic creates a world so much more vibrant and luxurious than Yoshifuji’s own home, and does encourage him to think less of his first wife and son, however the magic does not force Yoshifuji to remain, it merely offers a temptation – a temptation that Yoshifuji succumbs too every time. Outside of the fantastical world that Yoshifuji has found himself in, Shikujo searches for her husband, unwilling to give him up and unwilling to accept that he is dead without a body.

More than just a retelling of the legend, ‘Fox Woman’ also explores a story of yearning, duty, and freedom through the relationships of its main characters. Kitsune sees beauty in the life of humans but, once human herself, also finds herself constrained by the expectations of a human life – a life she does not fully understand.

Shikujo finds comfort in the rules of courtesy, but is so concerned with duty that she struggles to act on even the smallest of her genuine desires. Yoshifuji sees freedom from his own responsibilities, and from the life with which he has become disenchanted, in Kitsune’s arms, but his freedom is an illusion, his fine home a woodshed and his new wife a fox.

While remaining remarkably faithful to the legend it draws from, Johnson also weaves a story of womanhood, deception, politics, and exactly how far one will go for love.


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