It’s early evening in Japan, and you’re walking down a quiet street in the suburbs of Tokyo. There aren’t many people around, and the only thing on your mind is the bag you carry, a quick convenience store dinner from the local Family Mart. The sun is going down. The street lamps come on, a flicker in the fading light, until they are beacons calling out for the neighborhood’s abundant insect population. Something about a gritty shadow at the base of one of those poles makes you walk a little faster.
Then, you start to hear footsteps behind you.
The click of heels, the speed of the gait –– all suggest a woman. Nothing to be afraid of.
But when you turn the corner, so does she. When you speed up a little, so does she. When you finally slow down, giving her a chance to pass you, she stops, and the need to turn and look overcomes you.
It is a woman. And she is gorgeous. From her long black hair to her pale skin and shapely curves, there is no denying her attractiveness. Yet, she wears a surgical mask around her face. Maybe she has a cold, you think.
After all, the flu is going around.
But then, she asks you something. Her voice is odd. Grating.
“Am I pretty?”
Answer “no,” and the woman will dive at you with a pair of sewing shears. She will stab you to death, relishing in the violent shanks of her blunt weapon.
Answer “yes,” and the woman will take off her mask, revealing a hideous Joker’s grin, a gash cutting her jaw from ear to ear.
She’ll ask you again. “Am I still pretty?”
Answer “no,” and your bloody death is assured. Don’t bother running. This woman will catch you. Your fate is sealed.
Answer “yes,” and she will cut you as she was cut, taking her shears to your cheeks.
Because this woman is Kuchisake Onna, and she is a vengeful spirit. But why does she wait under street lights, and why does she ask that question before killing her victims?
The origins of the Kuchisake Onna are hard to trace to any single source, as can be expected from any urban legend. Some reports say that she can be found as far back as Heian Period, but most concur that the first stories of the slit-mouthed woman started in Edo, Japan, same as Rokurokubi, the Rubber-Necked Woman.
The original story goes that Kuchisake Onna was once a beautiful, if vain, woman, who obsessed so greatly over her looks that her samurai husband became jealous of her. Here accounts change depending on the source, which is interesting. In some cases, the story goes that she was cheating on him, but in others, they simply leave it at “he was jealous,” which suggests that her beauty was so great that even the husband was spiteful of how attractive she was. In a rage one night, he took his katana (sword) to her face, leaving her mouth cut from ear to ear. No matter what account you hear the story from though, his following line after the gruesome mutilation remains the same:
“Who will find you beautiful now?”
In despair, the woman committed suicide, a common tactic among female yurei in Japanese lore to purposefully tie their hatred to the world, and make their spirits ghosts. The concept of revenge after death is a curious and fascinating one. Here, we have a society that had complete control and subservience over its women, but the idea of an “unchained” female ghost coming back to return all of the injustices laid upon her is a repetitive and psychologically terrifying concept. In addition to being vengeful, these sorts of yurei often show themselves to be immortal, resisting all attempts to pacify, exorcise, or kill them.
The story of Kuchisake Onna fell into obscurity after the 1800s, until in the 1970s her story suddenly started making the rounds again. Rumors of a woman in a long brown trenchcoat and surgical mask waiting under street lamps followed grisly reports of a woman who had been stabbing children and chasing them into traffic. One day, a car hit the woman, cutting her jaw wide open. The reports were so frequent that schools had to start having teachers escort children home, and the police were convinced that there was a real, possibly unstable woman running loose around the city.
As well, there is a bit of a violent play-on-words happening with the woman’s question. In Japanese, she says “Watashi ga, kirei?” This means “Am I pretty?” However, after she drops her mask, she changes two syllables, distorting the meaning completely: Watashi wa kire? or “Shall I cut?”
According to the children who survived their encounters with the woman, there is only one way to escape the Slit-Mouthed Woman: when she asks her question, you can confuse her with unusual answers. Say she is average, or ask her the same question back, and she can become so disoriented that you might have a chance to run away before she can catch you with her sheers.
However you decide to answer, be wary of women in surgical masks. She could be any one of them.