Defining the Most Beautiful: Women in the Films of Kurosawa, 1940-1970
Kurosawa walked a fine line in his treatment and portrayal of women in his films, and he didn’t always walk it without stumbling.
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.