Rashomon (1950)

Defining the Most Beautiful: Women in the Films of Akira Kurosawa, 1940-1970

Akira Kurosawa walked a fine line in his treatment and portrayal of women in his films, and he didn’t always walk it without stumbling.

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 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.

No Regrets For Our Youth

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.

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.

This article was originally published on 18 October 2010.