I recently re-watched the new Tomb Raider (2018, starring Alicia Vikander), and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when I discovered the next morning that the Japanese queen whose tomb was the focus of the film had been a real person: Himiko, a Japanese queen reportedly responsible for ending 50 years of war.
According to Prof. Craig G Benjamin, lecturer in "Foundations of Eastern Civilization" with the Great Courses Plus, "the extraordinary and enigmatic" Himiko ruled the Japanese state of Yamatai in 235 CE (also known as AD).
According to classic Chinese texts[i]: "The country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler[ii]. Her name was Himiko [卑彌呼]…Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance." (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)
"After ascending to the throne, she went on to restore order and maintain peace for the next 50 or 60 years."[iii]
Queen Himiko had 1000 handmaidens and was apparently served dinner and had her wardrobe managed by one man. Others say "the only person that ever saw her in person was her brother…. In 238, the Wei sources tell us that Himiko sent a tribute to the Wei court in northern China seeking a tributary relationship. This request was accepted and Himiko was named as "Ruler of the Wa, friendly to the Wei." This was a powerful validation of her claims to leadership in the Yamatai."
"Yamatai kingdom prospered under Queen Himiko's rule and was observed in the Gishi no Wajinden records to have had more than seventy thousand households, well-organized laws and taxation system and thriving trade."[iv]
It has been suggested that she was succeeded by a man, but that the people of her state would not follow his orders. "Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain" according to Gishi no Wajinden."[v] and so her 13-year-old[vi] niece Ichiyo[vii], was appointed ruler. The "Wei Dynasty Annals also inform us that Himiko was one of at least two – perhaps more; the sources are ambiguous – female rulers of Yamatai." Queen Himiko died in 248 CE[viii] and was buried in a key-shaped mound that was three times the size of other tombs in the region.[ix]
Himiko: Gone But Not Forgotten
Unfortunately, the old Chinese texts were the last heard of both Himiko and the state of Yamati, and debate has raged since the late Edo Period regarding the specifics of her regency, and the location of the Yamatai state. The "Yamatai controversy", writes Keiji Imamura (1996:188), is "the greatest debate over the ancient history of Japan.[x]"
On the other hand, a current Japanese culture blog reports that "a recent survey by the Ministry of Education and Sciences, [discovers that] 99% of Japanese schoolchildren recognize and can identify her… The debate over the location of Yamatai has allowed "several cities in Japan [to] claim her as a sort of town mascot. In Kyushu, there are statues of her outside Kanzaki Station, near Miyazaki Takachiho Gorge, and on the grounds of the Himiko Shrine in Hayato. The city of Yoshinogari holds an annual bonfire festival that climaxes with the appearance of a costumed "Himiko" (also called Pimico); and a Kyushu brewery released "Himiko Fantasia" shochu. Sakurai City features the shamaness queen on signs, online…and in a mascot costume. City leaders have created online Himiko-themed anime shorts, and there's a municipal webpage devoted to her called "Himiko-chan's Page."[xi]
She's been the featured character in anime, novels, movies and erotica. "So whether you're looking for a despotic villain, a role model, a symbol of national or local identity, a naïve shrine attendant, or a sexual fantasy, there's a Himiko out there for you."
"Just a few years ago in 2009, a group of Japanese archeologists claimed that they had identified the great shamaness queen's tomb as the Hashihaka Kofun in Sakurai City near Nara. Radiocarbon-dated artifacts found on the periphery of the Hashihaka Kofun date to between 240 and 260 AD. In other words, the time of Himiko's death. Unfortunately, the Imperial Household Agency has designated Hashihaka a royal tomb and thereby forbids further excavation, so we may never know with certainty."[xii]
The Tomb Raider Re-write
A Queen who establishes peace? Sounds great. In the movie, however, she is cast as the evil queen who unleashes death on the world. My initial response when hearing that she was a real person was to be unhappy that the movie was painting her as evil. But spoiler alert: The turnaround of her as evil to benevolent is key to the story: it turns out that she had a fatal, contagious disease and walled herself up with the 1,000 maidens to save the world from contagion. Is that acceptable poetic license to make that change? On the one hand, her fate isn't actually known, or reported in the rudimentary sources I have seen so far, so all is fair, right? Should I be outraged that little girls will now associate her name with evil magic? Or should I be happy that her name has been brought to the fore at all?
[i] The c. 297 Records of the Three Kingdoms
[ii] Some sources suggest that she used magic to bewitch people into putting her on the throne. Interesting how women attaining the throne are usually said to have used either sex or magic. It couldn't be wisdom and hard work, could it? On the other hand, she is frequently called a shaman-queen because "as in many other ancient (and not so ancient) societies, religious authority was linked to spiritual authority. Luckily for Himiko, female shamans were highly regarded in the folk religion and proto-Shintoism of the time." https://www.tofugu.com/japan/queen-himiko/
[vii] "Foundations of Eastern Civilization", Prof. Craig G Benjamin, Grand Valley State University, the Great Courses Plus, Lecture 28, pg. 65 in Transcript/Workbook