[18 October 2010]
Akira Kurosawa is not known for his female characters, but for strong male characers torn between country and the individual, a particularly important theme in postwar Japan. On first impression, his female characters are at best meek, subservient and unable to escape their weak, feminine nature; at worst, they are torn apart, used and raped without pity or are irredeemably evil instruments of torture for their male protagonists. As Kurosawa himself admitted: “all my women are a little strange.” Occasionally, though, Kurosawa’s treatment of women goes deeper, revealing a more nuanced view of women throughout Japanese history.
“Given how deep and pervasive is the feudal spirit in Japan,” says author and critic Joan Mellen, “it is not surprising that women have internalized the degrading cultural assessment of their value.” The Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century brought little change from women’s previous place in society, save for the fact that a woman could no longer be immediately put to death for adultery. “Until 1945,” continues Mellen, the Japanese woman…bore a relation to the Japanese man as slave to master.” In this sense, women are an integral part of the political climate in which Kurosawa came into light as a filmmaker. “Kurosawa welcomed the changed political climate [in the post-war era] and sought to fashion films that would be responsive to it,” says Stephen Prince, “In doing so, he was able to find his own mature cinematic voice.” With westernization of postwar Japanese culture having such a drastic effect on women—and American postwar cinema not having that awesome of a relationship women in the first place, frankly—it’s no surprise that Kurosawa, too, would have an interesting cinematic relationship with them.
Rashomon, for those not familiar, surrounds an unsavory incident in the woods, involving an infamous bandit, a samurai and his wife, Masako, witnessed by a woodcutter. The bandit rapes the samurai’s wife, and the samurai dies, but it is unclear how—we hear four different accounts, all telling a different tale of how the samurai died, all conflicted as to the level of responsibility the woman held in her husband’s death. It’s not really clear who’s on trial for what, but at stake are the honor of samurai and Masako, and the credibility of each individual narrator.
When Masako gives testimony, she speaks directly to the audience, who serve as a substitute for a faceless judge. She is surrounded on all sides by men—even the mysterious judge whose seat we’re sitting in is, presumably, a man. It is easy to understand that the murdered samurai was subject to bushido, the samurai code—but harder to grasp that Masako was as well. Decked out as a samurai’s wife, she even carried the pocket dagger characteristic of samurai women, who were required to learn how to defend themselves, and, if necessary, perform seppuku. “If it would permit father, husband, or son better to serve their feudal master,” Mellen paraphrases from the Onna Daigaku, the book that instructed samurai girls on their place in the world, “women were instructed and expected to sacrifice their lives.”
Meanwhile, the woodcutter, a priest and a peasant hold humanity as a whole on trial while discussing the incident at Rashomon Gate. But in their judgments, men and women are treated separately, and not equally. “Men are weak that they lie, even to themselves,” states the priest. The commoner later makes a similar statement about women: “Women use their tears to fool everyone. They even fool themselves. So you have to beware of the woman’s story.”
For this reason alone, the testimony of the sole woman would be the most significant—but its importance doesn’t end there. Orit Kamir, in “Judgement by Film: Socio-Legal Functions of Rashomon,” evaluates the structure as Western judicial process. He points out that the third major presentation of evidence is the prosecution rebuttal: by the legal conventions that Western viewers are used to, when the woman steps up to speak, viewers are inclined to expect a rebuttal of the prosecution. “The film invites its implied viewer to construct the woman as the primary defendant,” says Kamir, “whose alleged crime involves inciting, soliciting [and] tempting.”
Mellen elaborates further: “in none of these versions, including her own, is the woman… granted self-respect, dignity, or spiritual value.” Masako doesn’t even dispute her fault, only going so far as to omit details that might indict her. Rashomon is the perfect demonstration of how Kurosawa explores Japanese women’s separation from feudal attitudes, despite its less-than-modern setting; in a way, it’s an appeal for women’s social agency in postwar Japan, a rejection of these leftover gender norms. To further illustrate this, Rashomon combines feudal expectations of women under bushido with something hauntingly familiar to Western viewers: the modern rape trial.
Since everyone who gives testimony against her is a man, gender bias is an obvious factor. Embedded in these testimonies are sad, familiar stories, a few of which Kamir, noting the work of Helen Benedict, claims that Rashomon exhibits: “Rape is Sex,” “The Assailant is Motivated by Lust,” “The Assailant is Perverted or Crazy,” “The Assailant is Usually Black or Lower Class,” “Women Provoke Rape,” “Women Deserve Rape,” and “Only ‘Loose’ Women Are Victimized.”
We can see, from Tajōmaru’s testimony, that he (as a lower-class male) employs a few of these–he was motivated by lust and couldn’t control himself. He was provoked by the victim when the wind blew her veil aside, and with it, her modesty. The samurai, during his testimony from beyond the grave, questions the woman’s virtue, calling her unworthy and a whore, enforcing the notion that she deserved to be raped.
Masako responds to any accusation or tribulation with tears, even when the story paints her as feisty and assertive, lending unfortunate credibility to the commoner’s bold statement on women—and directly violating bushido, which trained women to keep a cool distance. Women under the code were expected to overcome their “frailty” and to not show emotion.
The Most Beautiful
In his earlier work, Kurosawa often uses crying to illustrate an inescapable femininity—one example of this is his 1944 propaganda film The Most Beautiful. While Japanese men are off fighting World War II, as with many countries, women were left to work in the factories. With a sudden demand increase for the lenses produced at their factory, quota increases are imposed by the (male) managers—100% for men, 50% for women. The women find this insulting, and, to the shock and awe of their superiors, it’s not because the quota increase is too high. They demand an increase equal to two-thirds of the men’s, acknowledging that, while they can’t do as much as men—this whole film is one giant baby step for women—they are eager to serve Japan.
While this narrative is somewhat parallel to what America was experiencing at the time with women in the workforce, these women hardly fit the Rosie the Riveter mold. Most appear to be in their late teens and are frequently referred to as children. They speak to their parents nightly by kneeling in front of their photographs, and most live in a dormitory under strict supervision by a “dorm mother.”
Miss Watanabe, the president of the women workers, is a little older and rougher around the edges and, although she’s an attractive woman, she is portrayed as somewhat dumpy. “The title refers not to the most beautiful of the girls,” explains Donald Richie, “but…to the girl who has the most beautiful kokoro (a word which defies translation but might be called ‘spirit’)...The title obviously refers to [Miss Watanabe]” . Watanabe, like Masako, is held up to the standards of bushido—but unlike Masako, these standards are self-imposed in a modern way, and, as Mellen points out, she adheres to the side of the code usually reserved for men. When she hears her mother is ailing, she briefly pores over a train schedule, until she remembers her duty is to her country, not to her family, in a striking gender-reversal: “On the battlefield a woman was expected to contribute little, at home everything,” says Nitobe, “For the woman in the Bushido ethic, life focused on the home as the center of the universe. The man focused his life on service to his lord and his Emperor.”
Miss Watanabe eventually proves herself to her male superiors by, despite everyone’s insistence that she get some sleep, staying up all night searching for a lens that was not fully calibrated, out of fear that a soldier would be killed because of her error, earning a pat on the back and the news of her mother’s death. Watanabe refuses an offer to go home and pay final respects to her mother, saying that another girl in the factory who is sickly deserves it more—but when she goes back to her post, she struggles to see the lenses she’s supposed to calibrate through her tears. “Although she may have exhibited the qualities of the bushi in these times of stress,” says Mellen, when she cries, “we perceive that the strain of the warrior life is not wholly compatible with her nature; it must be forced. She is finally only a woman.”
It’s difficult to draw political conclusions from The Most Beautiful, as it’s a propaganda film subject to the wartime censorship that Kurosawa “chafed” under and “recalled with extreme bitterness”—especially viewing it next to No Regrets For Our Youth, one of the first films that Kurosawa made with a significant degree of creative freedom.
Released in 1946, No Regrets For Our Youth deals with Yukie, a woman caught between tradition and individualism. Raised in a family of means by her professor father, she’s educated in piano and flower-arranging. When her father is fired from the university for his radical beliefs, she inevitably comes along for the ride.
There aren’t a whole lot of other women in this film; she mostly pals around with her father’s students, who flock around him like disciples. She has a crush on two of them: the relatively boring, but nice and safe Ikotawa, and the radical firecracker Noge. At one point, she actually tells Ikotawa that she’d marry him, but he’d be a boring alternative to Noge.
At first glance, Yukie appears to be a strong, politically savvy woman, though she doesn’t follow the politics as much as the excitement. There are a few good moments for women here: for example, when she’s told “express yourself freely” while flower-arranging, she crushes her arrangement and throws it in a bucket of water. She runs around with the boys on the hillside, and gets her extremely Western outfit (waist-high skirt, white blouse, sweater vest) dirty—although, when trying to impress a man of interest, no matter how radical, she changes into a kimono. She moves out of her parents’ house at the tender age of 25 (“look at you, running around like a homeless person,” comments her father), moves to Tokyo, gets a bunch of different jobs and supports herself. But she doesn’t find what she’s truly looking for until a few years later, when now-married Ikotowa tells her that Noge has moved to Tokyo, and is now a famous consultant on Chinese politics. They get married, like, two seconds later, and another two seconds later he’s arrested for treason, then after what seems like another two seconds he dies in prison.
No Regrets For Our Youth
Yukie, after a brief prison stay, bucks tradition and does not move back in with her parents. She announces to her father that she’s moving in with Noge’s parents—who he hadn’t talked to in ten years. Partially to defend Noge’s memory and partially to find her own place, she starts toiling alongside the elder Mr. and Mrs. Noge, who are members of, and active participants in, a rural community that really hates traitors. As she helps them bury his remains, they murmur about how ungrateful he is, but she stays silent and works diligently on the family rice paddies, and, in a series of montages in which Yukie begins to look scrappier and scrappier, she eventually restores her parents-in-law’s faith in their son by proxy.
After a visit from Iokotowa on behalf of her mother, she throws her skirtsuit back on, combs her hair and visits her parents. She sits at the piano, commenting that her hands don’t feel natural there anymore. “I’ve put down roots in that village,” she tells her mother—and right when you’re worried that this film is all about her late husband, she goes on: “There’s so much work left to do there. Their lives—especially the women’s lives—are brutally hard. If I can improve their lot even a little, my life will be well spent.”
One thing that No Regrets and The Most Beautiful have in common is a distinct conflict between female sensuality and strength of character. Yukie and Miss Watanabe proved themselves as members of society (despite the occasional condescending remark), but ultimately were asexual, nonromantic beings. A strong theme in Kurosawa’s work was the conflict between love and duty, and obviously, women were no exception.
“In Kurosawa’s late work,” says Mellen in 1976, “men and women alike are perceived as victims.” Undoubtedly, this includes Dodeskaden, his 1970 ensemble piece set in a Tokyo junkyard shantytown, with a narrative driven by a mentally disabled boy who either is convinced he is, or is very committed to, driving an imaginary tram.
Women hold some agency in Dodeskaden—albeit a tentative, conflicted agency, but what really sets the film apart from its predecessors is its attitude toward gender exploration. In The Most Beautiful, the women rethink being women, in the context of being women, and the men rethink women’s roles from a male perspective. In the most poignant moments of Dodeskaden, gender is a two-way street.
When a pack of children surround their mother’s husband, who’s wearing a headscarf, serving food to his children out of a pot. One of the older boys asks if he’s their real dad, because, as is established in the first ten minutes of Dodeskaden, their mom sleeps around a lot—when we first see her pregnant belly, she’s surrounded by a swarm of men, all questioning the paternity of the child. The man makes no acknowledgement of where their mother is or whether what she does is appropriate—he just responds, “Dad thinks you are dad’s children, so I love you.”
Soon after, a husband arrives home with a passel of more upper-class friends from his work in the city in tow. His wife, very tired and not expecting company, serves them all food, rolls her eyes and, when introduced, just sighs at them. She then announces she’s going to take a shower, orders her husband to make her some warm wine, and slams the door.
The husband, until this point, has been docile and easygoing, but when one of the suits he’d brought home questions his relationship with his wife, calls her “rude and independent” and suggests he kicks her out, a pretty intense tussle ensues—after they’re pulled apart, he explains his anger: “What has my wife done wrong to you? Why do you ask me to kick her out? She is my wife. She may be nothing to you. Since she has been with me, even in the hard times…she can get through. What makes you ask me to kick her out? What rights do you have?”
What’s striking about these examples is, not only are the women allowed the luxuries traditionally granted to men—sleeping around holding a dominant role in a marriage—the men are given happiness while still being allowed moments of weakness and emotion.
Not that Dodeskaden is immune to the old stereotypes—while the pregnant, promiscuous wife is relatively feminine, the aggressive wife is hardened, masculine and described by other characters as exceedingly unpleasant-looking. A gaggle of gossiping women are a narrative staple, constantly putting down other women for being ugly, promiscuous or hard to understand. One woman, while crying to be forgiven for cheating just once, says, “even a serious murderer will be forgiven after jail”—a demonstration of attitudes leftover from when adultery was punishable by death for women.
What really sets Dodeskaden apart, though, is that its ideas of honor don’t directly revolve around struggling with bushido. Characters of both genders are dealing with modern problems dealt to them by their class first, creating an environment which frees Kurosawa to examine gender more freely than he had previously. Sometimes he even does so whimsically—one woman, part of a pair of polyamorous couples that switch off with one another, only wears a t-shirt with a breast motif on it. She chides whichever man she’s with for drinking too much, while the other, more generically-dressed, at one point gets drunk right alongside them. Women in Dodeskaden aren’t defending themselves as a whole, like the army of women proving themselves in The Most Beautiful, the woman submitting to the perceived weaknesses of womanhood in Rashomon or the girl coming of age in a new kind of Japan in No Regrets for our Youth. The girl who’s arrested for stabbing the delivery boy, the woman who’s asking for forgiveness for adultery—they’re defending themselves individually.
Kurosawa walked a fine line in his treatment and portrayal of women in his films, and he didn’t always walk it without stumbling. It’s easy, at first, to dismiss Kurosawa’s women as frivolous pawns or obstacles for men—because they are sometimes exactly that. But when he pays attention, he’s careful with his female characters. Kurosawa’s women aren’t just dealing with changes in their definition of honor or right and wrong as they leave feudal attitudes behind—they’re dealing with men, too.
Occasionally, this is hard for Kurosawa to fully grasp while exploring the inner conflicts of his primarily male protagonists. It can be problematic and complex to judge male filmmakers for not quite “getting” women when they make a genuine effort, especially in works like The Most Beautiful, made over 60 years ago and under strictly enforced government standards. But over a 30-year period of filmmaking, Kurosawa’s relationship with women in his films, just like Japan’s relationship with women in its society, changed dramatically—just as it should have.