JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Manuscript of Akutagawa’s short novel, Haha (“Mother”), from the U.C. Berkeley Library’s collection.

Penguin Classics’ edition of Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, with a new translation by Jay Rubin.

Akira Kurosawa – director, Rashomon.

Takashi Miike – director, Imprint.

 

Shinobu Hashimoto – scriptwriter, Rashomon.

Daisuke Tengan – scriptwriter, Imprint.

“Woman is the angel outside and demon within”: Machiko Kyo as Masago.

“[T]he heroine is blameless”: Youki Kudoh as Woman.

“She deserves our sympathy:” Michie Ito as Komomo.

The final shot of Dead or Alive 2: Birds leaves audiences to ponder a universal existential question: “Where are you going?”  But is such a question relevant to women with “no place to escape”?

 

 

The second story, “In a Bamboo Grove” (1921), from which Kurosawa borrowed his film's plot, is an eclectic record of seven witness statements about an incident surrounding a theft, a sexual assault, and a suspicious death. The three main players in the event are a bandit (arrested for theft, rape, and murder), a samurai (dead), and the samurai’s wife (claiming to be raped). At critical points the seven testimonies are incompatible, even contradictory. But the story's strongest impact derives from a shocking revelation that Akutagawa delays until the end. The dead man gives the final testimony through a spiritual medium, and what makes the dead man’s testimony so shocking is his revelation that the instigator of the crime is none other than the rape victim herself. According to the samurai, the woman has not only agreed to run away with the bandit but also incited the bandit to kill the samurai. Shocked and disgusted, the bandit kicks the woman to the ground, turns to the samurai, and asks:

“What do you want me to do with her? Kill her or let her go? Just nod to answer. Kill her?” (Akutagawa 18).

The samurai expresses gratitude to the bandit for a manly display of solidarity:

“For this if for nothing else, I am ready to forgive the bandit his crimes” (Akutagawa 18).

When the woman runs for her life, the bandit pursues her. The samurai, left alone in the bamboo grove, breaks down in tears and commits ritual suicide. The serenity and dignity of his self-sacrifice contrasts with the despicable determination of the woman to survive at any cost.

“I felt no pain at all …. The lonely glow of the sun lingered among the high branches of cedar and bamboo …. I lay there wrapped in a deep silence” (Akutagawa 19).

As with the earlier story “Rashomon,” many critics have argued that Akutagawa’s cynicism in “In a Bamboo Grove” objectively and indiscriminately expresses suspicion toward every speaker.[13][open endnotes in new window] However, this argument overlooks the story’s unmistakable insistence on the woman's cunning and depravity. The samurai’s final description of himself serenely fading into the bamboo grove brings the narrative arc back to the main title, and he leaves the inevitable impression that his account is more creditable than the woman’s account.

In summary, “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” express Akutagawa’s cynical philosophy about the fallibility of “human nature” from an unapologetically masculinist perspective. David Boyd writes that there is no correlation between the two stories apart from the fact that Akutagawa used the medieval text Konjaku Monogatari (155) as his source for both stories. However, another correlation is surely the misogynistic emphases with which Akutagawa had rewritten the stories from Konjaku.[14] In his modernist retelling of these medieval folktales, Akutagawa had infused both tales with a strong animus towards female nature, as personified by the two women who forgo morality and resort to dirty tricks to save themselves. “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” have an unnerving power that derives from Akutagawa’s masterful use of a classic technique in storytelling: the twist in the tail. And in both tales, the force and timing of the twists are calculated to unsettle the readers and to leave in their mind a contemptuous view of the witch-like crone and the faithless whore.[15]

A Japanese poster for Masters of Horror: Imprint. A U.S. poster for Masters of Horror: Imprint.
A Japanese poster for Rashomon. An European poster for Rashomon.

Returning to the films: if we place Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Takashi Miike’s Imprint side by side, we can see that the creative backgrounds of the two films constitute a most interesting parallel. On the one hand, Kurosawa in 1950 adaptated a 1921 short story by Japan’s most renowned short story writer in the first film of his to reach a mass Western audience. On the other hand, Miike in 2006 adaptated a 1999 short story by one of Japan’s most popular woman writers in his first English-language film made for an U.S. network as a “master of horror.”[16] In addition, we could extend the parallel to include the screenplays of the two films. If adapting the multiple testimonies of “In a Bamboo Grove” into Rashomon was challenging enough for Kurosawa and his co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto, then adapting the meandering dramatic monologue of “Bokkee, Kyotee” into Imprint was probably even more challenging for writer Daisuke Tengan. The story “Bokkee” had a reputation for being zettai ni eigaka fukanoo: “absolutely unfilmable” (Imprint Official Homepage, “Introduction” par. 3). In the end, what makes Shimako Iwai’s unfilmable short story “filmable” is the revision undertaken by Tengan. That script so impressed Iwai that she declared she was “very satisfied with the script” (“Imprinting” 6:17), and she judged the film to be “better than the book!” (“Imprinting” 5:57)[17] Significantly, one of the changes introduced by Tengan to make “Bokkee” filmable is to transform the story into an existential quest for “truth,” a plot structure similar to the one which underpins Kurosawa’s and Hashimoto’s adaptation of the Akutagawan stories.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa - author, “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove.” Shimako Iwai – author, “Bokkee, Kyotee.”

Comments by Miike add weight to the theory that Rashomon is a relevant reference text for Imprint. In an interview for The Japan Times, Miike describes the themes of Imprint:

"People tell all sorts of lies …. You hide your instinctive self and instead create a social self with lies …. What’s scary is when you strip all the lies away to get at the essential you. What if it’s pure evil? You don’t want to face that. So lies aren’t all bad — we need them to live" (Schilling, “Takashi” par. 10).

As a philosophical reflection on truth and human nature, these ideas are almost identical to the conversation between the Priest and Commoner in Rashomon:

Commoner: "Men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth, not even to themselves."
Priest: "That may be true. But it’s because men are so weak. That’s why they lie. That’s why they must deceive themselves" (Richie, Rashomon 63).

Kurosawa’s comments about Rashomon are similar:

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves …. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing …. [They] cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are” (Kurosawa 183).

Accordingly, it is possible to see some common themes running through Imprint and Rashomon. Human nature is corrupt and egotistical; human beings disguise their own corruption with civilized lies; human beings are unable and unwilling to be completely honest with themselves. The similarity is so far, so good. The crucial difference, however, lies in the conclusion that Miike reaches in the interview:

"But the heroine is blameless …. She didn’t ask to be this way. She deserves our sympathy" (Schilling, “Takashi” par. 11).

Though it may be easier for us to believe that this comment came from a director famous for his benevolent humanism rather than from a director infamous for his radical misogyny, it is Kurosawa’s Commoner who goes on to explain:

“Women lead you on with their tears; they even fool themselves” (Richie, Rashomon 68).

In Rashomon, the woman Masago is depicted as no less complicitous in the cycle of duplicity and corruption than the bandit who rapes her and the samurai husband who spurns her. Significantly, an early draft of Hashimoto’s screenplay for Rashomon was called “Male-Female” (Kurosawa 181). The film teaches a masculinist lesson that women, beneath their veneer of virtue and chastity, are selfish at heart and whorish by nature. As Joan Mellen observes about the image of Masago,

“Woman is the angel outside and demon within” (Waves 47).

Even though Masago appears as flawless as a “bodhisattva” (Akutagawa 13), she reveals herself to be a lustful, treacherous and malevolent whore who hates men for knowing the awful “truth” about her. To save herself, this whorish woman would resort to any trickery and cruelty, even encourage men to kill one another.

This negative conclusion in Rashomon, however, is both acknowledged and challenged in Imprint. In one respect, Imprint takes up the story from where Rashomon leaves off: all its women are whores. But in another respect, Imprint also utilizes the first film's negative conclusion for its own purpose. It not only introduces us to a whore who is completely innocent but also proceeds to ask who and what are responsible for making women like her feel guilty about themselves. If my interpretation is correct, then Imprint as a horror film may be said to address a specifically female experience of horror. It shows that what’s “really scary” — more so than imaginary phantoms, demons and bogeymen — is the reality of male control and subjugation of women. To reinstate Iwai’s original question: what if women find that they have “no place to escape”? Short of killing herself, what could a woman subjected to male exploitation do to act “right” in the eyes of men?

When Miike was asked to comment on the frequent complaints about his films' “misogyny,” he offered an answer that is in part mea culpa and in part self-defense:

"Generally if the audience feel that it’s like that, then they are right …. I don’t think that there is only one way to look at a film. There isn’t one truth. I always try to have some kindness for the female characters. I allow them to try to realize their own desire for example. But generally I feel no need to explain my films to an audience …. I’m not always sure that I was able to make my feelings clear enough in a film, so if the audience misunderstands it, it’s okay. I accept the misunderstanding" (Mes, Agitator 363).

Miike’s answer is double-edged. On the one hand, he accepts the blame; on the other hand, he blames his critics for misunderstanding him. One way of accounting for this dual explanation is to refer it back to Miike’s description of himself as an adaptable filmmaker (Mes and Sato par. 48). Since Miike’s approach to filmmaking is to “[do] one thing after another” and to “chang[e] himself” with every project, to accuse him of being “misogynistic” on account of his having made some undoubtedly misogynistic films would be both correct and incorrect.[18]

However, Kurosawa presents a different kind of case since he is a much more formal, auteurist filmmaker. Like Miike, Kurosawa has often been taken to task for his problematic depiction of women. To appreciate the justice of this criticism, one needs only to go through his long catalogue of stereotypical females, ranging from

  • the ice maiden Princess Yuki in The Hidden Fortress (1958) to
  • the vain seductress Shino in Seven Samurai (1954) to
  • the nameless mad woman in the attic in Red Beard (1965) to
  • the murderous harpies Asaji in Throne of Blood (1957) and Kaede in Ran (1985) to
  • the soft/hard-hearted harlots Oshin and Kikuno in The Sea is Watching (2002) (this last film is based on Kurosawa’s posthumous screenplay).

Kurosawa has frankly acknowledged that he had only made two films — No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Rashomon — in which he “ever fairly and fully portrayed a woman” (Richie and Mellen 40). In his autobiography, Kurosawa has almost nothing to say about women, and the little that he has to say are mostly sentimental reflections about his “gentle and kind” sister and “impossibly heroic” mother (Kurosawa 18; 21). Though Kurosawa’s avoidance of “chick flicks” may very well attract some fans, Stephen Prince's critique is apt: Kurosawa’s indifference to women is “a major limitation of his work” (Prince 78).

Thus, if neither Kurosawa nor Miike can claim to specialize in “women’s pictures,” I suggest that it is Miike’s postmodernist approach to filmmaking and lack of reservations about letting women “realize their own desire” that makes him capable of embracing a project as unusual as Imprint. In contrast, I think most people would agree that Kurosawa is what Miike calls the “first type” of director, i.e., a director

“very careful of himself and [who] chooses the subjects that fit him and that he really wants to do and ... does them carefully” (Mes and Sato par. 48).

As Kurosawa states in the final sentence of his autobiography:

“There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself” (Kurosawa 189).

And what Kurosawa’s work “says” about their creator can be inferred from the fact that none of his major films is about women or is based on material by women. And the only Kurosawa film (No Regrets for Our Youth) in which a woman takes centre stage may as well be gender-neutral since it

“merely extends the social roles and narrative functions usually assumed by men in his cinema to a woman” (Prince 78).

Even though Miike may seem worse than Kurosawa when it comes to “misogynistic” filmmaking, ironically many of the viewers who have condemned Imprint have embraced Miike’s other films. Yet the violence and misogyny in these other films is often much more exploitative and gratuitous. In Dead or Alive and Full Metal Yakuza (1997), for example, Mariko and Yukari's rape, torture and death are used exploitatively as showpieces and plot catalysts to drive the angst-ridden male heroes to take manly actions. Likewise in Ichi the Killer, Sara and Myu-myu have no reason to exist other than to lend themselves to being raped, beaten, tortured and killed. In addition, even Miike’s less violent films are not necessarily less misogynistic. For example, Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) is a relatively subdued film about two hit-men revisiting their old neighborhood, a film which film scholar Randolph Jordan has called Miike’s “finest work to date” (par. 31). The script leaves audiences to ponder an existential question in its final frame: “Where are you going?” However, an assumption which D/A 2: Birds entrenches, and which Jordan is happy to endorse, is that a script can unproblematically present a narrative exclusively for and about men as a universal narrative about

“regeneration through the cycle of birth and death, and the importance of understanding one’s own context in the world in order to facilitate change” (Jordan par. 27).

While, “Where are you going?” may be a relevant question for the film’s male protagonists (and by extension, the film’s male viewership), the question may be less relevant for female viewers and female characters who are controlled by men and have “no place to escape.” To problematize this issue is to challenge the naturalization of the male perspective that so many of Miike’s other films take for granted. And it is a challenge that Imprint has taken up with a vengeance.

Watching Imprint as an implicit commentary on Miike’s own films, then, is as profitable as watching it as an explicit commentary on Rashomon: “the most honored of all Japanese films” (Richie, A Hundred 139). Rashomon's aim is to draw audiences into a serene epistemological meditation upon truth, guilt and human nature. In contrast, Imprint's aim is to provoke audiences into questioning masculinist assumptions underlying established ways of perceiving truth, guilt and human nature. Placed side by side, the two films clear the field for an ideological contest between two different generations of Japanese thinkers. It is an ideological contest which pits three venerable Fathers (Akutagawa, Hashimoto, Kurosawa) against one unruly Daughter (Iwai) and two prodigal Sons (Tengan, Miike).

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