JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Masago succumbs to a kiss by her rapist Tajomaru.

Komomo has knitting needles inserted into her gum by a sadistic prostitute, played by author Shimako Iwai.

Masago’s eyes widen in ecstasy.

Komomo’s eyes widen in agony.

Masago’s fingers loosen on her defensive dagger against a backdrop of sunlight.

Komomo’s mutilated fingers stretch out against a backdrop of shadows.

Masago’s hand lovingly fondles Tajomaru’s back.

Komomo's hand struggles against her strangler, and detects the presence of "Sister" inside Woman's head.

History of Meiji taught through anime costumes …

Imprint’s colorful coiffures and Western-style kimonos.

Spectator immunity: the Priest and the Woodcutter sit in disinterested judgment of Masago.

Spectator complicity: a syphilitic midget (played by Mame Yamada) ogle at Komomo.

A case of “they said, she said.”

The Commoner, the Woodcutter and the Priest deplore the frailty of women.

Tajomaru and Takehiro stand over the prostrate and weeping Masago.

The camera completes Masago’s humiliation by filming her through Tajomaru’s legs.

Aspects of a woman: in version 1 of the story, Masago is soiled goods and a whore.

In version 2 of the story, she is soiled goods and a weakling.

In version 4 of the story, she is soiled goods, a whore and a shrew.

In version 3 of the story, she is a whore, shrew, liar, traitor, soiled goods and instigator of murder.

 

 

Rashomon's centerpiece is a scene depicting the rape of a woman, Masago. Similarly, Imprint's centerpiece is a scene depicting the sexualized torture of a woman, Komomo. However, Imprint replaces Rashomon’s stately “objective” depiction of sexual violence with a sadistic “subjective” depiction of sexual violence: Rashomon’s measured rhythm and stately monochromism give way to Imprint’s disorientating frame-jumping and exaggerated colorfulness. Kurosawa’s classical restraint — enabled by omitting Masago's rape in favor of the sexual metaphor of a phallic dagger and circling sunlight — becomes Miike’s sumptuous visual feast of aesthetic sadomasochism. Unlike Kurosawa’s camera, which politely averts our view from the violence, Miike’s camera closes in on the violence right down to the droplets of blood welling underneath Komomo’s fingernails.

And the point of Imprint’s radical revision of Rashomon’s rape scene is arguably to ask the question: should audiences be more troubled by a strategy that exploitatively depicts the victimization of women (Imprint), or by a strategy that naturalizes violence to the extent that violence becomes non-violence and victims become non-victims (Rashomon)? Kurosawa’s strategy of normalizing Masago’s rape as romantic and natural — suggesting that Masago asked to be raped all along; that a woman saying “no” is really a woman meaning “yes” — is replaced by Miike’s strategy of blatant objectification which renders Komomo’s consent irrelevant and “objective” viewing impossible. The spectacle of a woman perfectly dressed in white succumbing to lust for her rapist is caricatured in the spectacle of a woman scantily dressed in red being graphically mutilated by ropes, incense sticks and knitting needles. Yet, if Rashomon suppresses violence to the point of suggesting that rape is not really rape, Imprint is so exaggerated in its insistence on violence that it draws attention to its own devices, and ultimately, the violence in the film functions as a radical critique of the strategy of suppression in Rashomon.

In Rashomon, an “objective” system of criminal law is introduced to show a guilty woman manipulating the “truth” and thereby incriminating herself. In Imprint, a perverse system of criminal law is introduced to force an innocent woman to fabricate her guilt in order to save herself from inhumane persecution. Komomo clearly did not steal the ring, but the “justice” being dealt upon her is such that the “truth” really did not matter. Komomo pleads with her torturers:

“I’m sorry. I was me. I took it … Please forgive me … It hurts … Have mercy” (Tengan 19-20).

By juxtaposing a perverse system of law against a system of law that presents itself as “objective,” Imprint thus draws attention to Rashomon's construction of “objectivity.” Imprint makes no pretence about the exploitative nature of what it presents: Komomo’s torture explicitly gratifies male desire by portraying erotic girl-on-girl actions even as it exonerates male responsibility by making all the torturers female. What Imprint does not do, though, is to construct rape as romantic and natural, and then “objectively” blame the victim for being a liar and an agent of her own violation!

Still, Komomo’s torture is so excessive that it remains necessary to explain how the scene differs from ordinary slasher porn. Even though one may not completely agree with Mes' generalization that “[t]he sex scenes in Takashi Miike’s films do not exist to arouse … but define the characters and the lives they lead” (Agitator 32), his observation is at least useful for revising the popular view that Miike mindlessly purveys gratuitous sex and violence. For one thing, the scene is unlike ordinary slasher porn which seeks to dehumanize its victims: on the contrary, the purpose of the scene is to show the very human Komomo being subjected to dehumanization. As Miike explains to Mick Garris:

“The worse the violence against [the victim], the more sympathetic we are to her” (Mes and Vuckovic 19).[37][open endnotes in new window]

In addition, by insisting on violence rather than censoring violence, the scene highlights and offsets the more subtle form of dehumanization that Masago undergoes in Rashomon.[38]

Furthermore, if Imprint treads a very thin line between polemic and porn, another factor helps tilt the film to the right side of the line: that factor is the cameo appearance by author Shimako Iwai as Komomo’s torturer. Cameos are not uncommon in Miike’s films — Izo, for example, is virtually a roll-call of big names from Japan’s entertainment industry — but sometimes they can come across as tacky. For example, in Agitator (2002), Miike provocatively cast himself as a gang leader who uses a microphone to sodomize a bargirl. And in Eli Roth’s The Hostel (2005), Miike plays a client emerging from a torture compound to deliver the self-mocking line: “You could spend all your money in there.” Unlike these gimmicky cameos, however, the appearance of the story's author Shimako Iwai in Imprint is a masterstroke of polemical precision and perspicacity.[39] The casting takes Foucault’s theory of the legitimizing functions of authorship (Foucault 159) and turns the actor playing the torturer into an active legitimizing strategy. With Iwai’s inclusion, the creative rationale of the scene changes from a questionable rationale involving a male filmmaker eroticizing sexual violence — Miike did admit that he cast Michie on the basis that she is someone he could “imagine falling in love with” (“Imprinting” 9:08) — into a legitimate rationale involving a male filmmaker assisting a female author to mount a radical polemic about sexual violence. In contrast, Rashomon’s message hinges on the audiences' complete obeisance to the objective authorities of the master-author Akutagawa and master-filmmaker Kurosawa. Even if Kurosawa could have resurrected the author of “In a Bamboo Grove” to play Tajomaru, the idea of master Akutagawa playing a liar, thief and rapist would still be too sacrilegious to entertain!

Shimako Iwai as Komomo's torturer. “I wonder about her past.”

Furthermore, as a film made for white U.S. audiences, Imprint appropriates two other mediums of J-pop that white America has taken to heart: manga and anime. Imprint’s combination of surrealistic fantasy, stylized eroticism and extreme violence brings to mind various anime films to have become popular in the West. Alternately, Imprint comes across every bit as enchanting as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), as thrilling as Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll (1993), as eerie as Hiroshi Harada’s Midori (1992), and as exploitative as Kan Fukumoto’s La Blue Girl (1992).[40] Yet, Imprint does more than just adopt anime's visual sensibilities. A central anime motif, one should note, is its exaggerated idealization of Euro-Caucasian beauty, personified by the ivory-skinned, kewpie-faced, saucer-eyed, rainbow-colored-haired humanoids who populate the anime medium. In keeping with its post-colonialist agenda, Imprint reverses the Occidental aspiration of anime, and this film presents an exaggerated Orientalist world to parody the West’s fetishistic delight in Japan’s homogeneity and Japan’s sensitivity about its own homogeneity. Imprint presents audiences with a nineteenth-century Japanese lower-class rural brothel in which the prostitutes — like characters out of anime — have rainbow-colored hair, talk in broken American-English, and dress in kimono-looking costumes which could have come straight off the catwalk of a Milan fashion show or the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.[41]

Finally, the torture scene in Imprint is also distinguishable from other similar scenes by virtue of its polemical rendering of gender as a subjective narrative issue: a strategy that challenges the narrative premise of Rashomon. In Rashomon, Kurosawa uses the device of three men discussing a rape to heighten the impression of “objectivity:” three women talking about a rape, one presumes, would not work so well as a trope of objectivity. In contrast, Imprint challenges Rashomon’s construction of “objectivity” as male by insisting on the complicity of its male protagonist. It is Christopher, the white male hero on his quest for “truth,” who brings up the story: it is he who demands to hear the tale from Woman. And Christopher’s obsessive search for the “truth” ensures not only that Komomo’s torture is brought up, but also that the torture is lengthened and repeated. In other words, it is Christopher’s male curiosity and obsession with “truth” which are directly responsible for producing more spectacles of female sufferings.

And like the syphilitic midget voyeuristically watching Komomo’s torture with a cock (pun intended) perched high on his head, Showtime viewers become complicit in their act of watching Komomo’s torture. Unlike in Rashomon, though, viewers do not enjoy the kind of discreet distancing provided by Kurosawa to safely watch the overture and aftermath of Masago’s beautifully non-violent violation. Instead, viewers are placed by Miike right in the middle of Komomo’s beautifully violent violation and made to squirm in the discomfort of their unrestricted voyeurism.

Rashomon: multiple narratives
and the fib-telling woman

As crucial as Komomo’s torture is as a set piece of the film, the rest of Imprint is not just an overwrought patchwork to justify the existence of that set piece. Ultimately, Imprint is less about Komomo than it is about the interaction between Woman and Christopher. The positions of Christopher and Woman are striking in terms of the contrasting dichotomies they reveal: male and female; Caucasian and Asian; rich and poor; patron and servant; able and disfigured; listener and speaker; named and nameless. Yet, despite her apparent disadvantage, Woman holds the upper hand over her patron in their psychological and ideological game of cat-and-mouse. For, besides holding the key to the “truth” about Komomo, Woman also makes Christopher listen to stories about herself. This means that Christopher must agree to follow Woman’s lead if he wishes to reach the “truth” about Komomo.

To understand how Imprint replicates Rashomon’s narrative structure and uses this replication as a strategy to further its radical argument, it is necessary first to understand how Akutagawa’s “In a Bamboo Grove” and Kurosawa’s Rashomon depict its central woman, Masago. For a summary of the pivotal event in Rashomon, we may quote David Desser, who has described Rashomon as a cross between a “metaphysical mystery” and “classic detective story:”

"A bandit has tricked a Samurai, tied him up, and raped his wife. The Samurai’s death followed soon after. The major points of contention are the woman’s duplicity in the event following the rape and the manner in which the Samurai-husband met his death. The unsolved crime leans not toward who did it, but how" (Samurai 67).

This is an apt summary of Rashomon because it captures the way in which the film presents itself and the way in which the central event of the story is framed. Desser’s summary has several noteworthy aspects. First, it identifies Rashomon’s presentation of itself as a tale with universal relevance: at once “metaphysical” and “classic[al].” Second, it describes the rape of the woman as one event within a sequence of events rather than as an issue in itself. Third, it explicitly mentions the woman's “duplicity,” registering the film’s insistence that she is no passive victim. Fourth, it stresses the importance of the samurai’s death, indicating that this is the story's cardinal issue. Fifth, it identifies the film’s intellectual and philosophical interest, which is not who or what or why, but how.

We should examine in more detail the four different accounts of the story in Rashomon. Account I is by Tajomaru, the Bandit. Tajomaru was sitting under a tree when a samurai and his wife walked past him. A puff of wind lifted the woman’s veil, revealing her beauty, which made Tajomaru decide to rape her. He tricked the samurai by offering to take him to a place where some precious swords were buried. When the woman realized what had happened, she wielded her dagger to fight Tajomaru. But, in due course, she succumbed to him. Afterwards, Tajomaru turned to leave. The woman ran after him, begging him not to leave her. Tajomaru released the samurai, and the two men engaged in a heroic duel. Finally, Tajomaru delivered a fatal blow on the samurai. The frightened woman ran away.

Account II is by Masago, the samurai’s Wife. The bandit raped her, and ran off laughing. Masago tearfully threw herself on her husband’s chest. But in the next moment, she noticed his eyes, which were filled with cold hatred and contempt towards her. Heartbroken and bewildered, she ran to fetch her dagger, cut her husband loose, and offered him the dagger to kill her. When he continued to stare at her, she lunged at the dagger wildly, fainted, and woke up to find the dagger in her husband’s chest.

Account III is by Takehiro, the dead Samurai, speaking through a spiritual medium. After the rape, Takehiro’s wife was persuaded by the bandit to go with him. Before leaving, his wife pointed to Takehiro and passionately urged the bandit to kill Takehiro. Shocked by the woman’s savagery, the bandit kicked her to the ground. As the men were deciding what to do with her, the woman ran for her life. The bandit chased after her but failed to catch her. Takehiro cried and stabbed himself with his wife’s dagger. Before he lost consciousness, he felt someone remove the dagger from his chest.

Account IV is by the Woodcutter and is not found in Akutagawa’s short story. After the rape, the bandit asked the woman to go with him. She gave no answer, cut her husband loose, and waited for the men to fight for her. But the samurai retreated, saying he would not risk his life for a “shameless whore” (Richie, Rashomon 81). The bandit reconsidered, and turned to leave. The woman ran after the bandit, but he pushed her away. As the two men stood over the weeping woman, suddenly her weeping changed into hysterical laughter. She called both men cowards, and said only a real man deserves a woman’s love. The men were shamed into fighting. Their duel was tentative and incompetent. Finally, the bandit managed to defeat the samurai. The frightened woman ran away. The Woodcutter did not mention the dagger and was speechless when the Commoner accused him of stealing it from the samurai’s body.

A standard reading of Rashomon may go something like this: Human nature is inevitably subjective, and this subjectivity presents itself as an obstacle to the attempt to establish objective truth. Human beings are unwilling, maybe are even unable, to see their own faults, and they would always present events favoring themselves as the “truth.” Since truth-telling is inseparable from morality, this fallacy in human nature represents not only an intellectual but also a moral problem for mankind. The overarching symbol, the ruined Rashomon Gate, symbolizes this intellectual and moral crisis. If it is possible for human beings to redeem themselves, this redemption must come from the human capacity to be truthful and upright, and from the restoration of law, culture, and social order, for which Rashomon Gate once stood.

If a standard reading of Rashomon looks like this, what would a feminist reading of Rashomon look like? Anyone interested should read Orit Kamir’s essay “Judgment by Film: Socio-Legal Functions of Rashomon.”[42] Even though Rashomon presents “truth” and “morality” as inseparable, such a presentation not only simplifies the types of situations that are subject to morality, but it also overlooks the inappropriateness of applying moral assessment to subjects who lack the freedom and choice to act morally in the first place. In every account of the story, the men do have this freedom and choice. For Takehiro, acting morally would have meant not giving into the temptation to seek accidental fortune;[43] it would also have meant behaving in a more humane way towards his traumatized wife. For Tajomaru, the path to righteousness is even clearer: Tajomaru could have chosen not to sexually violate woman or to assault the samurai or to commit theft or to kill. These are genuine moral choices because the power lies squarely with the men to do or to not do: don’t covet your neighbor’s goods; don’t cast the first stone; don’t lie; don’t steal; don’t rape.

Yet, while Rashomon insists that Masago is at least as corrupt and culpable as Tajomaru and Takehiro, what Rashomon fails to do is to provide a convincing argument as to what Masago could have done to do “right.” That Masago was forced into sex with Tajomaru is established in every account of the story. As Tajomaru freely admits, Masago “fought like a cat” (Richie, Rashomon 53), even though her show of “spirit” only makes him want to conquer her all the more. If the trial in progress is one in which Tajomaru supposedly stands accused, however, Rashomon’s way of presenting the rape narrative is such that the person being subject to trial and discreditation is actually the raped woman, Masago.

As Orit Kamir observes, even though Tajomaru is the accused, Rashomon places him in a prosecutorial role by giving him the first, longest, and most detailed case to present. Played by Toshiro Mifune as an impressive noble savage, Tajomaru only recognizes killing as a crime, and he blames the woman for leading him to kill. Tajomaru considers rape to be natural, even honorable, and the single depiction of the rape in the film — against a lush backdrop of rocks, water, grass, bamboos and circling sunlight — would tend to support his view. In the course of the film, we are told about various aspects of rape:

  • that rape brings shame on a woman;
  • that rape is a crime against the husband’s honor;
  • that rape makes a husband hate his wife;
  • that rape is an expression of the rapist’s love;
  • that rape is enjoyable to a woman;
  • that rape makes a woman look beautiful;
  • that rape brings out the liar and inner whore in a woman;
  • that rape is the catalyst for a man’s death;
  • that rape is an interesting topic of conversation for three idle men on a rainy day.

However, the impact of rape on the victim — the trauma resulting from her physical, psychological and emotional violation — is not an issue with which Rashomon concerns itself. Within the film's terms of reference, rape is primarily an issue about female dishonor and female dishonor’s effect on male honor. Moreover, Rashomon’s restriction of the woman’s voice to the lone voice of Masago ensures that men can collectively judge a woman, whereas a woman can only defend herself against male judgment. It also creates a paradigm in which each man acts as an individual, whereas one woman becomes representative of her entire sex.

By depersonalizing the woman’s experience of rape, and subordinating her experience to a “universal,” “objective” inquiry about the effects of nature and culture’s law on “human nature,” Rashomon enforces a double-bind on the woman. On the one hand, it is naturally sanctioned for men to want to have sex with women; on the other, it is culturally sanctioned for men to condemn women for being sexually dishonored. Trapped within an ethical paradigm which both justifies male violence and sanctifies male judgment, Masago cannot win. If she cannot escape Tajomaru’s “natural” determination to rape her, equally, she cannot escape the “cultural” consequences of the rape.

Among the several scenarios mentioned in the story, every scenario puts Masago at some sort of disadvantage. Whatever follows the rape, according to the code of honor of her society, Masago is a soiled commodity.[44] Therefore, the power lies with Takehiro or Tajomaru to claim her or to reject her; Masago is essentially bound to these men. Doing nothing will not undo her violation, and doing something will only deepen her incrimination. To be sure, when every course of action would attract a negative judgment, action may well be an afterthought instead of a basis for judgment.

Let me explain this last concept in greater depth: If Masago shows a sexual response to her rapist and begs him to redeem her (Account I), she is soiled goods and a whore. If Masago fails to act and only weeps and faints (Account II), she is soiled goods and a weakling. If Masago goads her men to a duel (Account IV), she is soiled goods, a whore and a shrew. The most incriminating account (Account III) invites audiences to see Masago as more corrupt than the men. That account shows Masago instructing Tajomaru to kill her husband (or held back by Akutagawa in the original tale to be exposed climactically as the mother of all evils). Here is a woman who combines whore, shrew, liar, traitor, soiled goods and instigator of murder in one cunning body! Since “In a Bamboo Grove” is a story which depicts the consequences when “human nature” deviates from patriarchal morality, it is easy to see why the story should present a wife driven by lust to instigate the murder of her master/husband as the mother of all evils. This is because this act transgresses two of the fundamental laws of patriarchal moral order: female chastity and female submission.

What neither “In a Bamboo Grove” nor Rashomon adequately explores, though, is whether any of the above scenarios provides Masago with a legitimate choice. Being hounded into a corner and forced to fight to survive is not the same as having the free will to make a genuine moral choice. Even if Account III were true and Masago did try to instigate the murder of her husband, it remains questionable what Masago has to gain from running away with Tajomaru. “[T]ake me anywhere you like” (Akutagawa 18), she tells Tajomaru. But how does letting a violent trickster, thief, rapist and possible murderer take her “anywhere he likes” constitute a “choice” for a woman? The narrative’s insistence that this particularly lurid view of Masago’s culpability be the last thing we remember distracts us from the reality that, whichever path she takes, Masago can only make the situation worse for herself. All this brings home the “truth” that, as a raped woman, there was never any “right” path for Masago except to commit suicide, which is what she acknowledges in her own account:

"I threw myself into [a pond]. I tried to kill myself. But, I failed. What could a poor helpless woman like me do?" (Richie, Rashomon 68)

If, for men, moral action entails their consciously refraining from breaching established moral codes such as don’t greed; don’t lie; don’t steal; don’t lust, then, for a sexually violated woman, moral action would appear to entail an additional moral code: don’t live. By showing Masago frame a lame excuse for failing to do what she could have done quite easily, Akutagawa’s and Kurosawa’s male narratives would seem to have settled on one thing about this woman: namely, that she is to blame for lacking the integrity and courage to kill herself after being raped.

If the only decent thing a woman can do after being raped is to kill herself, it follows that a woman who has the presumption to survive rape must have something indecent about her. It follows, too, that a woman who has the audacity to publish her shame by testifying in an open hearing must have something suspicious, unclean, even shameless about her. Knowing what havoc the tongue of a shameless woman can cause, Tajomaru expresses misgiving about the foolishness of letting Masago escape alive:

“Now I’ll have to worry about her talking” (Richie, Rashomon 76)

Go to page 5


To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.