JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A famous imprint of Japan: Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” from the ukiyo-e series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.

A geisha girl in kimono: the cover of a recent edition of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.

Rashomon won Master Kurosawa the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

Honoring the Emperor: Kurosawa with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at the 62nd (1989) Academy Awards, where Kurosawa received an honorary Oscar.

Kurosawa with Francis Ford Coppola.

Kurosawa directs Toshiro Mifune on the set of Yojimbo.

Miike directs Billy Drago and Youki Kudoh on the set of Imprint.

Miike with Quentin Tarantino and Kaori Momoi in a press conference for Django: “We wanted to show the world that Japanese actors could make movies in English and not ‘lose’ to Memoirs of a Geisha."

Miike with Eli Roth and chainsaws.

DVD cover of Masters of Horror: Imprint (U.S. release).

The truth-seeking Western male: Billy Drago as Christopher.

The truth-hiding Eastern female: Youki Kudoh as Woman.

Eiko Matsuda as Sada in Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.

Arguably the second most famous Japanese film after Rashomon ...

... In the Realm can be understood as “an outgrowth not only of Oshima’s concern with sexuality, politics, and identity, but also in its relationship to ... the ‘pink’ film.”

Kurosawa’s Red Beard has a confronting surgery scene which uses the body of a bound naked woman to display the male hero/doctor’s medical skills (Red Beard is played by Toshiro Mifune).

Komomo is bound and tortured by her fellow prostitutes.

 

Imprinting Orientalism:
white USA and Kurosawa-philia

"Imprint, n 1.a  A figure impressed or imprinted upon something; a mark produced by pressure on a surface; an impression, stamp. b. Fig. A character impressed upon something; an attribute communicated by, and constituting evidence of, some agency; ‘stamp’, ‘impression’. c. A representation or type of something .... 5. An onset, assault, charge." — Oxford English Dictionary

Apart from its concerns with gender and sexual violence, Imprint has another polemical aspect, which stems partly from the film’s anomalous entity as a Japanese film funded by a mainstream U.S. cable network specifically for U.S. viewers. The meaning of Imprint’s English title may seem cryptic at first, since there is nothing explicit in the story to indicate how it is about “imprint.” However, an analysis of that title can reveal how forcefully and succinctly it expresses the film's polemical concerns.

Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions of “imprint” (both as a noun and a verb) and the most relevant two definitions are: “the condition of being printed” and “a representation or type of something.” We can further dissect the word “imprint” into two parts: “im-” and “print.” First, the word “print” can suggest the pages of a book or the rolls of a film. But in relation to Japan, the word also evokes culturally specific images such as the printed scrolls of Japanese art/calligraphy and the printed patterns on a geisha’s kimono. Second, the prefix “im-” summons many other associative words pertaining to visualization and representation: e.g. “im-age,” “im-position,” “im-pression,” “im-primatur.” In sum, the word “imprint” signals that a major theme of the film is about the way Japanese culture (as mediated through literary and cinematic texts) is “imprinted” in the minds of the film’s target audience. More explicitly, the film is about the way that white America has utilized “impressions” of Japanese culture for their fetishist enjoyment. Imprint challenges Showtime viewers to ask themselves: How much do Americans know and care about Japan beyond what it is comfortable and convenient for Americans to know and care?

And no discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Japan is complete without saying something about Akira Kurosawa. Since making his name in the West by winning the Golden Lion for Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Kurosawa has been hailed as an icon not only of Asian cinema but also of world cinema, enjoying such honorific titles as “Father,” “Master” and “Emperor.”[19][open endnotes in new window] Yet, against what amounts to a popular and critical consensus on the universality of Kurosawa’s greatness, it is worth noting that Rashomon had a far less enthusiastic initial reception in Japan than in the West.[20]Donald Richie has identified several Japanese reviewers who were puzzled by Rashomon's acclaim and who sought to explain Westerners' embrace of the film as symptomatic of Westerners' fascination with Japan’s “exoticism” (Richie, Rashomon 20). Whether these responses are attributable to Rashomon’s being too “analytic, logical and speculative” to be compatible with “patterns of Japanese thought” (Richie, Rashomon 20) is debatable. Yet, Rashomon's subsequent canonization as one of world cinema’s greatest masterpieces raises an interesting question about the process of cinematic canonization. Could Western critics all along have understood better than Japanese critics what constitutes “great” cinema, or could other factors (cultural, economic, political, for example) determine what films would become masterpieces of world cinema?

In a recent article, Rachael Hutchinson has challenged the popular view of Kurosawa as a politically neutral director who made films about the “universal human condition.” She finds that such a view overlooks elements in Kurosawa’s films which reflect his complex engagement from Western culture and politics:

 “The fact that Kurosawa worked under the constraints of Occupation censorship provides the opportunity to examine … questions of power structures and the possibility of counter-discourse” (173).

Still, if Western critics tend to speak in essentializing terms about Kurosawa, they might in part be following a tendency that Kurosawa himself encouraged. Kurosawa’s negative comments about the lukewarm reaction of his countrymen and countrywomen to Rashomon's international success demonstrate that Kurosawa’s talent as a foreign diplomat might have been every part as masterful as his talent as a filmmaker. He lamented that Japanese people “have no confidence in the worth of Japan,” “elevate everything foreign,” and “denigrate everything Japanese” (Kurosawa 187), a lamentation which expertly neutralizes Japanese rejection of Westerners' patronage by characterizing such dissent as a Japanese cultural weakness.

Without denying Kurosawa's genius as a filmmaker, one could still argue that by keeping the focus of his major films “universal” and any sensitive political commentary covert, Kurosawa has made it much easier for Westerners to embrace and celebrate his genius. The problem is that we cannot easily separate reverence and patronage. As Greg M. Smith observes, Rashomon's positive reception in the West was broadly definable in relation to three emphases:

  • emphasis on the “Japaneseness” of the film;
  • emphasis on the “universal” relevance of Kurosawa’s art; and
  • emphasis on the powerful (over)acting of Toshiro Mifune, who plays Tajomaru the bandit.

The strategy used in foreign promotion of Rashomon even included a blatant emphasis on the exotic beauty of Machiko Kyo, who plays Masago the wife (Smith par. 41). 

Accordingly: if it is not too simplistic and cynical to argue that U.S. interest in foreigners seldom reveals itself as anything more than an occasional tendency to satisfy U.S. fascination with the “other,” then the cult of Kurosawa-appreciation in the United States must be one of the most pervasive yet respectable manifestations of this tendency. White America loves Kurosawa, and no section of white America loves Kurosawa more than white male Hollywood filmmakers.[21] In fact, Hollywood’s general disregard and ignorance of all things non-American seem to run in curious parallel to Hollywood’s singular reverence and possessiveness of all things Kurosawa. Yet, underlying the adulation, there remains here an elitist, essentially paternalistic attitude: claiming one Japanese master as America’s darling is sufficient to pass for a complete, profound mastery of “Japan” and “Asia.” Even recent Hollywood fads towards the production of Asian-friendly cinema may simply be perpetuating Hollywood’s familiar habit of Japonism and J-ploitation. Examples of such production can be found, on the one hand, in gaudy period pieces such as Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003) and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and, on the other hand, in quirky genre pieces such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003)[22].

Against this background, a clearer view emerges as to why Imprint can be read as a satirical critique of white America’s fantasies about Japan. When Miike was asked by IGN.com to explain why he thinks Japanese horror films are catching on in the United States, he gave a rather intriguing answer. Though the English translation is obviously very poor here, his answer is still worth quoting in full because it represents a rare instance when he has addressed this issue directly:

"It’s very interesting because since I’m in Japan, the way that American people selected Japanese horror, is something I don’t understand why they [are] so attracted to Japanese horror these days, because I’m in Japan. And also it’s maybe the same for the other Japanese directors, why they are so popular in America now [is] that people pay so much attention to them. So it’s something like there’s a big wonder why. It just happens to be that way now. It might be the reason why, in Japanese horror, in the stories, it always has the 'hateness,' you always bring the feelings of the hate. It’s very new to American audience, that kind of feelings of hate that you don’t see in American cinema. But also Japanese horror has such lower budgets than the American film budget, in the way that the set or location is so simple that you can do so many things on the one location or one set. Maybe if we appear to the American Hollywood people, that’s it’s very new things that it’s taking place [in] only one place" (Otto par. 10).

From the above grammatical muddle it is possible to extract the following points:

  • Miike is surprised by the popularity of J-horror in the United States;
  • he thinks that a possible reason is Americans' fascination with something “new;”
  • he observes that the meager budget of Japanese films has created an environment which forces Japanese filmmakers to devise ways to do more with less.

But more importantly, Miike’s explanation also raises a question: What would a Japanese director do if an U.S. network gives him a bigger than usual budget to make a horror film specifically to satisfy U.S. viewers' appetite for J-horror?  And he went on to provide a practical answer to such a question by making Imprint.

The correlation between text and creative context in this instance is, I think, even more fascinating than that of, say, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976). That film, like Imprint, is controversial and made by a big-name Japanese director who had the assistance of foreign investment. Oshima seems to have served his benefactors well by delivering a Japanese-language film about Japan offensive to Japan and delightful to the West. In contrast, Miike seems to have bitten the very hands that fed him. He has made a film in English and without subtitles for primary U.S. consumption. But he has also chosen a story in which the “listener” to the tale (the American) turns out be harboring a “secret” that the tale discloses. In other words, the basic story may be read allegorically against the very conditions of production that allowed Miike to make it. His production for U.S. television nominally enables the regular U.S. viewer to relish the sadomasochistic perversity of the Japanese “other,” but it turns out to be a satire on the obsessive perversity of the Americans themselves.

Indeed, it is tempting to make further conjectures on the basis of other information. On several occasions, Miike has shown signs of being both amused and annoyed that Western audiences are interested to know him only as an exotic shock-and-gore filmmaker.[23] Moreover, the irony that an U.S. studio should have invited him to participate in the Masters of Horror franchise as a “token Asian” amidst a straight lineup of Euro-American masters was probably not completely lost on him.[24] Some of this awareness could have informed his creative decisions and led him to use ironic commentary as a resistance strategy. Undoubtedly, the most conspicuous aspect of Imprint’s outlandishness is its language. Anyone watching Imprint is bound to wonder at some stage what on earth drove a non-English speaking filmmaker to do a Japanese period piece in English, especially when a major strength of “Bokkee, Kyotee” derives from Iwai’s effective use of the Okayama dialect.[25] While almost every critic has dismissed his using an English soundtrack as an outcome of Miike’s thoughtlessness or buckling to commercial pressure,[26] I'd like to offer a more critically responsive view.

Experimental multilingualism is a major device in many Miike films, and the only reason that it has not generally been perceived as a weakness by Western viewers is that the experimental multilingualism has mostly been done with Asian languages.[27] In Shinjuku Triad Society, Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive: Final, various characters speak in Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean. Yet Western fans have generally accepted these devices as uncontroversial and unproblematic. A good reason for their acceptance is that, for monolingual English-speakers who watch Miike’s films with subtitles, the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean may simply yield to the opaque impression that the languages are “non-English.” As far as these viewers are concerned, the experience of watching a Miike film is, at least in terms of its language, not very much different from the experience of watching any non-English film. The non-English film is deemed culturally “authentic” because the monolingual English-speaker has neither the knowledge nor the interest to authenticate the film. But something that monolingual English-speaking viewers seldom need to think about is that what strikes them as natural about their conception of English vs. non-English may not necessarily pertain to viewers who know English as a second language. In discussing this issue, Miike has used Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993) as an example of a mainstream Hollywood film which demonstrates this linguistic Anglo-centricism:

"For us Japanese people, it’s very strange to hear the Germans speak English in Schindler’s List. Of course for the market it’s better to make the movie in English, but with such a big budget movie you would imagine they would have no trouble hiring real German actors. So if we can accept Germans speaking English, why not a Japanese character who speaks Chinese?" (Mes, Agitator 368)

Imprint, accordingly, turns the table on the Anglo-centric monolingual English-speakers. It leads U.S. Showtime viewers to recognize that English is a global, heterogeneous language, and that no single audience can claim to have a monopoly on how that language is used. Rather than perpetuating the expectation that non-native English-speaking actors must learn how to speak English with “correct” U.S. accents, the film forces its native English-speaking viewers to adjust to a distinctive form of Japanized-English: a feat that Miike would develop further in his next film, Sukiyaki Western: Django (2007).[28] The result, I argue, does not indicate an artistic compromise or a lapse of creative judgment. Rather, it indicates a wickedly clever recognition of what it takes to create a satirical Japanese-Americana. Even as Imprint carries to absurd length the conceit that rural peasants in Meiji Japan would communicate in mangled American-English, the film is forcing this conceit upon its Showtime viewers (understood by perhaps a few viewers as “anachronism”) to swallow the conceit whole. The joke is on everyone who is prepared to watch Imprint and to pretend that the whole conceit does make sense.[29]

Interpreting Imprint:
“objective” aestheticism
versus “sadistic” aestheticism

At this point, I would like to offer a close reading of Imprint to clarify the film’s radical, visceral argument. The most noticeable change the script made to the short story “Bokkee, Kyotee” is the addition of a new major character, Christopher Karges. In “Bokkee,” the narrator’s patron exists offstage throughout her monologue. In the film, Karges is portrayed as a fair-skinned, blond-haired, welkin-eyed U.S. traveler by the actor Billy Drago, whom Miike handpicked for the role on account of his “distinctive features” (“Imprinting” 6:30).[30] Christopher’s namesake is possibly Christopher Columbus, the great European explorer who braved the treacherous seas to “discover America” but had no similar luck with Japan, for which he famously mistook Haiti.[31] Our Columbus, though, is an unexceptional U.S. newspaperman traveling on a leaky boat to find Komomo (played by Michie Ito), the Japanese girl he loved and lost. At the outset, the narrative premise involves an Arian Last Samurai seeking to reclaim his Madame Butterfly,[32] or at least, to claim control of the “truth” about her.

Christopher’s journey takes him to a seedy rural brothel. Interestingly, the brothel is set on a desolate island, which could be a metaphor for Japan’s geographic status as an island country. In the brothel, he encounters a disfigured prostitute (played by Youki Kudoh), known only as “Woman” (Onna). When Christopher hears from Woman that Komomo was working in the brothel and passed away a short while ago, he demands to be told the “truth” about Komomo’s death. Woman then proceeds to tell Christopher three versions of the story. This multiple narrative structure explicitly mirrors the narrative structure of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Like Rashomon, Imprint tells a story about a central event concerning a theft, a sexual assault and a suspicious death. Like Rashomon, Imprint uses conflicting versions of the central event to offer an argument about the elusiveness of truth and justice. But one significant way in which Imprint differs from Rashomon is the way it uses sexual violence to express its central argument about women.

Before I examine this issue in relation to the most controversial scene in Imprint (i.e. the torture of Komomo), it is useful to make some general comments about the portrayal of sexual violence in Japanese cinema. That Japanese cinema has a rich subculture of bizarre, violent erotica should be obvious to anyone who has opened a copy of Jack Hunter’s Eros in Hell: Sex, Blood and Madness in Japanese Cinema (1998). One of the most prominent expressions of this subculture is the pinku eiga, or the “pink film:” a popular genre of sexploitation films which arose in the 1960s and which specialized in portraying almost every variety of sexual fetishes even as the films themselves skirted around actual displays of genitals and copulation.[33] Although most pink films are clearly exploitative in their portrayal of women, some filmmakers such as Shohei Imamura, Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima have also been known to use the pinku eiga genre to “[question] the establishment” and to “pursu[e] revolutionary politics of the extreme left” (Harritz par. 21). And the most famous erotic film in Japanese cinema is undoubtedly Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, first screened unedited in the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. It is arguably the next most famous Japanese film in the West after Rashomon. As David Desser observes, we should seek to understand In the Realm

“as an outgrowth not only of Oshima’s concern with sexuality, politics, and identity, but also in its relationship to … the ‘pink’ film” (Eros 98).

For Western audiences familiar with In the Realm, the Komomo torture scene is likely to trigger associations with Oshima’s film. For example, Komomo's red kimono is reminiscent of the red kimono worn by Sada in In the Realm's final scene,[34] and Komomo’s torture by the gang of prostitutes is reminiscent of the first film's mock wedding scene in which a young geisha is raped by her fellow geishas using a bird-shaped dildo. Yet, as radical as Oshima’s film is in its representation of a woman as a dominant desiring agent, numerous critics have argued that In the Realm’s construction of female desire as solely dependent on the phallus makes the film unmistakably phallocentric.[35] If this criticism is valid, then something that the two most celebrated “masterpieces” of Japanese cinema — Rashomon and In the Realm — have in common with the less reputable pinku eiga genre is their male-centered examination of female sexuality. Yet, as I shall argue, while Imprint explicitly appropriates this tradition of phallocentricism, it also departs from the tradition by leading audiences to question their own phallocentric voyeurism.[36]

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