From Grey Boxes to Silver Screens, The Single Female Intruder as High Trash Heroine

David Surman


Within the generic realities of film, animation, games and comic books, there are many
varied female archetypes. Indeed, the representation of women in the media inevitably
segues into the active discussion of typologies. The distribution of such types fall within
the predefined boundaries of high and low, popular and peripheral, men’s and women’s
culture. The effect and ideology of certain types has been actively debated in the
humanities, and in particular in feminist criticism. Tanya Krzywinska has outlined the
way in which cultural analyses of action heroines has orientated toward the critique of
such icons as role models, within the frame of identity politics (Krzywinska, 2005, p. 3).
In her critique of action heroines within videogames, she suggests that the critique of
representation is limited insofar as it fails to describe the dimensions of play and control
that underpin the videogame experience.

In this paper I want to examine a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct
media boundaries, as a transmedia archetype. I am interested in what I shall call the
‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural
forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth
century. With the recentring of globalisation that has come as a consequence of sustained
growth in Japan’s media and cultural industries, such icons have been disseminated to
receptive western audiences. The characteristics of the single female intruder are defined
as a consequence of the media that converge to form the transmedia space of
contemporary popular culture. Their positioning as low cultural forms unifies the
constituent fields that converge in the figure of the ‘single female intruder’.

You know the type; she wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her
body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of
powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and
combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. These
will usually include computer programming, reconnaissance, research and investigation.
She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured
against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is
characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit
any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the
physical body, and never encumber her. She is an amalgam of high trash clichés and
narrative conceits; often orphaned, wracked by bereavement, seeking vengeance, driven
by the urgency of an incurable illness. Such melodramatic tropes are buried beneath the
sobriety and perfection of grey-white skin, expressionless and captivating. She is two
people in one body; the face of an angel, the heart of a demon; but never duplicitous, her
expressions of emotion are sincere and forthright, often taking place in secluded
confessionals away from the song of carnage. She is never the homemaker, though the
riddle of such happiness might emerge in moments of reprieve. She is a nomad,
constantly on the move, often moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. She is more
a heroine of generic reality than everyday life, a celebration of the seductive tropes of
contemporary fiction and the intermingling of technology, imagination and desire.

The single female intruder is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture that an
examination of her sophisticated rhetoric is necessary. In the course of this paper, I want
to show how such an internationalised, post-modern archetype, which seemingly operates
outside of any clearly defined cultural boundaries, has origins in pre-modern Japanese
culture. I shall argue that the history of this archetype can be seen as metonymic of the
changing post-war relationship between American hegemony and the rise of Japanese
popular culture as a new global centre. The proliferation of this archetype follows a very
particular path, and its movement can be traced from aesthetic reforms in Japanese
antiquity, subsequently retrieved in the 1970s by filmmakers and mangaka eager to
revisit the culture of the Edo period. Hiroki Azuma has described how this internal
reappropriation of Edo period aesthetic and cultural values comes as a consequence of the
cultural anxieties arising as a response to wartime defeat and American occupation. He

Their preference toward the association between the 80s postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the abovementioned process of “domestication” of the postwar American culture. In the mid 80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in World War Two. The re-evaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere (Azuma, 2001, np).

As I will explain, the tropes of ‘rikyu grey aesthetics’ and ‘the poison woman’ are
retrieved and then celebrated within the generic reality of Japanese popular culture from
the 1970s onwards. The ambiguous, seductive and controversial qualities of this
historical figure consequently circulate within the growing international fandom for
Japanese popular culture. From there, contemporary influences imbibe this peculiarly
Japanese anti-heroine with a new agency, to embody principles of control and beauty in
an age of technological anonymity and information terrorism. Influences that
immediately spring to mind include videogames, action cinema, exploitation cinema,
science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, fetish clothing and the goth, techno and
electronic music scenes. Contemporary single female intruders reveal the traces of their
Japanese antecedents in their sober demeanour, snow-white skin and mobile
technologies. Like the massively successful franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! the
single female intruder is an ambassador for an alternative set of generic parameters in
popular culture that assert the Japanese aesthetic, and is resolved in the interaction of
multiple cultural centres.

In the first section of this paper, I will explore the Japanese antecedents to the single
female intruder, with an emphasis on the relationship between simultaneous reforms in
attitude to both colour and femininity. From there, I examine how Japanese film and
literature of the mid-to-late twentieth century transformed this figure into a modern
heroine first through exploitation, and then science fiction. I then want to examine briefly
the transformation of this figure in the science fiction film and literature of 1980s
America and Europe. The representations and descriptions generated by the likes of
Ridley Scott and William Gibson play a central role in Japan’s imagining of itself and its
iconography. To conclude, I examine how digital culture and convergence have effected
the transformation of the single female intruder, and how her sophisticated rhetoric has
been transformed to speak to our contemporary environment.

Poison Woman Dressed in Rikyu Grey

The prehistory of the single female intruder archetype is much more culturally specific
than it might first seem, since such characters nowadays enjoy an international audience.
The archetype emerges from the changes in the construction of cultural attitudes to
beauty and femininity around the time of the Meiji reformation of Japan. Single female
intruders are invariably rebels, whether they are escaping societal reforms, in the case of
Trinity in The Matrix trilogy (1999; 2003; 2003) or the eponymous Aeon Flux (2005),
complex mercenaries like Vanessa Z. Schneider in the videogame P.N.03 (2003), or
living technologies driven by existential angst like Major Makoto Kusanagi of Ghost in
the Shell

Christine L. Marran has described the origins of what she has coined the ‘Poison
Woman’, in stories made popular during the Meiji reformation (1868–1912) of the
nineteenth century. They profile the lives of sensational women who had caused some
sort of scandal, more often than not though the murder of her spouse, perhaps guilty of
involvement in other high profile vices. She writes,

The long and changing tradition of writing about female criminals began with the rise of the newspaper serial. With such colourful nicknames as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin, to name only a few, the first poison women appeared as anti-heroes in Japan’s earliest serialized newspaper stories. These serials were based on the lives and crimes of real women. (Marran, 2007, p. xv)

The media furor around the activities of female criminals far exceeded the number and
frequency of their activities, such was the public appetite for this new sensational fiction.
Fiction and reality intermingled from the outset. As Marran asks ‘What national
obsessions are articulated through this interest in the female convicts?’ (Ibid.). The rise of
the poison woman archetype in Meiji period culture coincides with substantial changes in
the representation of women in the woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artists. These changes
would complicate the rhetoric surrounding such controversial women. In the Genroku era
(1688–1704) the artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) was one of the pioneers of the
ukiyo-e printmaking craft, and was known for his portraits of women and lifestyle scenes.
In his imagery the women are voluptuous and feminine, shown in brightly coloured,
voluminous robes. In the later An’ei-Tenmei era (1772–1781; 1781–1789) the work of
artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) departs from this archetypal, highly feminised
aesthetic, and instead portrays women with long, slender bodies, demure faces and a
spiritual intensity. Kisho Kurokawa writes that,

This trend is of particular interest because it suggests the progressive denial of the generous voluptuousness that symbolized the prosperity and material abundance of pre-modern Japan up until Genroku. The An’ei/Tenmei aesthetic, on the other hand, was characterised by a nonsensual, eccentric, and non-physical beauty, expressing the spirit of an age of more refined ambiguity and a sophisticated rhetoric. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 161)

This new aesthetic of ambiguity, which pervades Harunobu’s prints, becomes the face of
the poison woman. Her crimes and misdemeanours are complicated and intensified by the
aesthetic coding of this new feminine rhetoric. Marius B. Jensen writes of these ukiyo-e
prints that, ‘The ladies they portray are not full faced, something the carver could not
provide, but minimalist sketches; they return our stares unblinking and uninvolved. We
admire them but do not relate to them, somewhat the way Saikaku’s readers regarded his
characters’ (Jensen, 2002, 180). Earlier trends in popular aesthetics inform the recurrent
representation of the poison woman in ukiyo-e printworks and in newspaper stories of the period. In the period preceding the Genroku era, a sudden fashion for the colour grey
emerged in Japanese society, as a result of the cultural reforms to the tea ceremony
introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Jensen writes, ‘Sen no Rikyu, who served as
chief tea master to both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi […] was a figure who combined
considerable personal wealth with a cult of simplicity and modesty that he codified in the
tea ceremony of his day’ (Jensen, 2002, 117). Part of this revision of the ceremony was the advocation of the colour grey in clothing and décor. Kurokawa confirms the connection between tea ceremony reforms and the emerging taste for minimalism and grey,

Whereas until this time grey had been considered a vile colour conjuring up the image of rats and ashes, upon becoming known as Rikyu grey it was better appreciated. In the mid-Edo era it gained tremendous popularity—along with brown and indigo—as the embodiment of the aesthetic ideal of iki. Iki in this period is a complex concept but may be conveniently described as “richness in sobriety.” As the cult of tea spread beyond the upper classes to be practiced in the homes of ordinary people, so did the taste for grey. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 160)

In his rehabilitation of Rikyu grey as an aesthetic category in its own right, Kurokawa
emphasises the colour’s essential ambiguity, at times sinister, charming and charismatic.
He describes how, ‘In contrast to the grey in the West, which is a combination of black
and white, Rikyu grey was a combination of four opposing colours: red, blue, yellow and
white’ (Kurokawa, 1991, p. 70). And so, the construction of the ‘poison woman’ in Meiji
period mass culture intersects with two crucial aesthetic reforms, the adoption of
Harunobu’s slender, ambiguous figure in the representation of women, and the rise of the
widespread fashion for Rikyu grey, which emerged from reforms to the tea ceremony
which emphasised simplicity, austerity and sobriety.

The Blizzard from the Netherworld

I want to make a leap now to postwar Japan, where the domestic influence of American
occupation was having an effect on popular culture. Tensions arising from wartime
defeat, aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation and a sense of cultural dissipation
motivated media producers to rehabilitate narratives and character archetypes from the
Edo period, as a means of cultural recovery and national reflection. The three tropes of
the poison woman archetype, Harunobu’s willowy bodies, and the aesthetic sobriety of
Rikyu grey are consolidated in Yuki Kashima, heroine of the Japanese exploitation film
Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973). Fujita’s film, based on the
manga by Kazuo Koike, follows the journey of Yuki, played by Meiko Kaji, who seeks
bloody vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother and father at the hand of a gang
of bandits. She is the quintessential poison woman, and her exploits are publicised in the
course of the film by newspaper reporter Ashio Ryuhei. The sophisticated and ambivalent
quality of Yuki, and also the actress Meiko Kaji, is captured by Rikke Schubart, who

The star persona of Meiko Kaji is located between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, but by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the mythic hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but lose track of life. (Schubert, 2007, p. 119)

The cult appeal of Asian exploitation heroines such as Yuki had the effect of reenergizing
the antiquated archetype of the poison woman, along with the sensibility of Rikyu and the
aesthetics of Harunobu. Poison women exist in every age, but the sword wielding she-
demon of the Edo period had a romantic appeal all of its own. The unsettling and
arresting beauty of her skin, and the ghostly perfection of Yuki’s ‘whitewashed-wall
weave’ kabe shijira kimono, dominate the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, she breaks her
repose to flip into action and attack; fountains of blood arc across the frame, her kimono
drips wet, marking her as victorious in auspicious red and white.

Lady Snowblood marks the overlap between the icon of poison woman and what I call
the ‘single female intruder’. Concealed within her umbrella, her secret sword is
idiosyncratic, and operates within a sophisticated rhetoric that emphasises not only
martial power, but also skills in deception, persuasion and elegance. The attraction of the
character arises from repeated emphases on sharp contrasts, and this is continuous with
the expanded principle of Rikyu offered by Kurokawa. Her subordinate shuffle is broken
by sudden and supernatural agility; her sword strikes are unwavering, and land with the
spirit of hissho (absolute victory). The vacillation between opposites characterise the
single female intruder; she has brutality and elegance, bloodlust and sobriety, movement
and stillness in equal measure. Kurokawa connects this principle to the baroque, he
writes, ‘In his book on the baroque, Eugenio D’ors states that when conflicting intentions
are bound together in a single motion, the resulting style is by definition baroque’
(Kurokawa, 1997, p. 170). Later he adds that, ‘The “baroque” essence to which I refer is
represented by the mutual resistance and harmony of weight and drift, stillness and
movement, straight and curves lines’ (p. 175).

American Idols

Post-war industrialisation and the rise of commodity culture have placed technology at
the centre of the Japanese popular imagination. At the same time as filmmakers like
Fujita withdrew into the images of Edo Japan to draw sustenance, others, like manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka, were thinking forward into imaginary futures, populated by the dream of robot, cyborg and alien life. The ‘single female intruder’ is the
recombination of these two sensibilities, at once strongly reminiscent of her Edo
counterparts, and also situated within film or gameworlds that are nonetheless ostensibly
works of science fiction.

She emerges as a coherent iconic figure in the 1980s. The transformation of the poison
woman in to the single female intruder takes place in the figure of Molly Millions in
William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (1981), and in the character of Pris in
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Gibson’s lifelong obsession with Japanese culture is
evident throughout his literature to date, and traces of the influences of the multifaceted
concept of the poison woman are evident. Taken for granted, moreover, is the place of
Rikyu grey, both literally as a colour sense, and as a philosophy of ambiguity and
contrasts, and the idealism of Harunobu’s slender courtesans. The entrance of Molly
Millions echoes that of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. The same emphasis on concealed
technology, and a lethal capability, shroud the character in a mist of ambiguity and tightly
wound sexuality.

‘Hey,’ said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time.’
‘Pack it, bitch,’ Lewis said, his tanned face very still.
Ralfi looked blank.
‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?’
She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black.
‘Eight thou a gram weight.’
Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.
But hadn’t her hand been empty? (Gibson, 1981, p. 18)

The description of Molly emphasises her stature and costume, and the scene is
characterised by an anxious stillness, which breaks into sudden action. Like Yuki’s
hidden sword, Molly’s ‘weapons’ aren’t disclosed, but their effect enjoys a glorious
description, again reminiscent of the exploitation film aesthetic of bloody carnage found
in Lady Snowblood. Later, the secrets of Molly’s fatal frame are laid bare,

‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too.’ And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel. (p. 21)

Molly’s finger blades are like Yuki’s concealed sword, in that they form a highly
personalised accessory crucial to their survival in a world that is largely hostile to them.
Through them their bodies become ‘trick machines’ designed to entrap, confuse, and
terrorise their opponents. The complex rhetoric of hidden capability runs through the
single female intruder, and is most apparent in the gynoid half-machine characters that
have appeared since Molly first took to the streets of Chiba.

Transnational Assassins

Within the generic reality of convergent media culture, the tropes of the single female
intruder have folded in on themselves, and, while the poison woman was penned in direct
relation to the changes in society, the single female intruder of recent film and game texts
is not so motivated to comment on changes in culture. She operates, like Beatrix in
Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, within the “movie-world”, that is, within the circular
distribution of generic styles, codes and conventions.

While the single female intruder certainly develops, in contemporary digital culture, the
aesthetic, form and rhetoric of the femme fatale and other types of female killer (see
Schubert, 2007), my interest lies with the long history that underpins her making, and the
politics of globalisation she traverses. Her seductive deadly methods evoke fear outside
of the textual worlds she inhabits, since she, like the ninja kids of Naruto, is an iconic player in the global media game, and is metonymic of the massive changes taking place
in the landscape of media power. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that,

Japan’s hitherto odourless cultural presence in the world has become more recognizably ”Japanese” as computer games and animation from Japan have grabbed large shares of overseas markets. Japan’s success in exporting cultural products that are unmistakably perceived as “Japanese” have evoked a sense of yearning and threat overseas, including fear of cultural invasion (Iwabuchi, 2004, p. 59).

The single female intruder has emerged as the most prominent action heroine type in
recent years, with films released that seek to comment on our technologically driven,
information culture. Her independent agency, computer expertise and athletic finesse
position the single female intruder as a dominant fantasy of control for our time.
Connecting body politics, privacy issues, technology and gender relations in the actions
of this subtly orientalized superhero, contemporary media producers have created a figure
as pertinent to our time as the muscle-bound action hero was to the 1980s. While the
‘high trash’ of summer blockbusters, videogames and exploitation films might suggest
that the single female intruder is nothing more and techno-fetish and titillation, I hope to
have shown, through an emphasis on her origins in Japanese aesthetics, that such
characters are playing an instrumental role in the reorganisation of gendered heroism
within transmedial representation.


Bullet Witch (Cavia, Inc./Atari, AQ Interactive, 2007)
Final Fantasy 12 (SquareEnix, 2006)
Ghost in the Shell (Exact/THQ, 1998)
Gun Valkyrie (Smilebit/BigBen Interactive, 2002)
Ico (Team Ico/SCE, 2002)
Oni (Bungie Studios/Rockstar Games, 2001)
P.N.03 [Product Number Three] (Capcom Production Studio 4/Capcom, 2003)
Panzer Dragoon Orta (Smilebit/Sega, 2003)
Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda/Sega, 1998)
Perfect Dark (Rare/Rare, 2000)
Perfect Dark Zero (Rare/Rare, 2005)
Rez (United Game Artists/Sega, 2001)
Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2000)
Space Channel 5: Part 2 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2003)
Tenchu: Fatal Shadows [Tenchu: Kurenai] (K2 LLC/Sega, 2005)
Tomb Raider (Core Design/EIDOS, 1996)

Films and Anime

Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005)
Aeon Flux [Animated Series] (Peter Chung, 1995)
All is Full of Love [Music Video] (Chris Cunningham, 1999)
Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
Blade 2 (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004)
Coil – A Circle of Children [Dennõ Coil/ Dennõ Koiru] (Mitsuo Iso, 2007 – present)
Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)
Final Fantasy: Advent Children (Tetsuya Nomura, 2005)
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001)
Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2003)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (Kenji Kamiyama, 2004-2005)
Jin Roh (Hiroyuki Okiura)
La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990)
Read or Die OVA (Koji Masunari, 2001)
Serial Experiments Lain (Ryotaro Nakamura, 1998)
Shurayukihime [Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld] (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
Shurayukihime: Urami Renga [Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance] (Toshiya
Fujita, 1974)
Snake of June [Rokugatsu no Hebi] (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)
Sympathy for Lady Vengance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)
The Matrix: Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)
The Matrix: Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)
Ultraviolet (Kurt Wimmer, 2006)
Underworld (Len Wiseman, 2003)
Underworld: Evolution (Len Wiseman, 2006)


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