“Whores never tell the truth, do we?”
Pillar of civilization: the sign reads “Rashomon.”
Lamp post to a whorehouse: the sign reads “Nishinaka shima” (literally “West-mid island”).
Death by water: the pond in which Masago fails to drown herself.
Bodies of dead pregnant women floating on a pond.
Narrative I — Melodrama: Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The woman’s outstretched hand appeals for the viewer’s pity.
Narrative II — Sexploitation: Norifumi Suzuki’s Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom. The woman’s outstretched hand exposes her bare breasts to the viewer.
Narrative III — Horror: Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on 2. The woman’s outstretched hand menaces the viewer.
All strung up – womanhood in three phases: Childbirth …
… Prostitution …
… and Abortion.
The romantic pursuit …
… of Masago by Tajomaru in Rashomon.
An emissary of “heaven” (Rashomon’s priest).
An emissary of “hell” (Imprint’s priest).
Woman and her Sister.
A demonically active woman's hand ...
... inside a demonically active woman's brain.
From woman to demon —
Masago's tears change into laughter …
… as she rises to challenge Tajomaru and Takehiro.
From woman to demon —
Woman raises her head …
… to reveal Sister to Christopher.
Not quite Sayuri —
Christopher’s murdered sister as a blue-eyed little Japanese girl
It is precisely in articulating another version of how Rashomon enshrines a dichotomy between male judgment and female guilt, however, that Imprint takes issue with Rashomon. Sidestepping Rashomon’s elaborate process of exposing its central woman as a whore, Imprint takes as its premise the idea that its central woman is a whore. After establishing this premise, however, Imprint then allows its whore to do all the talking, which in turn graphically exposes the conditions that have caused her to become a whore in the first place. The effect is to challenge Rashomon’s view that a woman is responsible for her own whoredom merely by failing to kill herself, and to destabilize the “objective” assumption that men have the right to pass judgment on women.[45a] [open endnotes in new window] If Rashomon seeks to examine what happens when patriarchal morality is corrupted by “human beings,” Imprint turns this premise inside out and presents an indictment of the corruption of patriarchal morality itself.
Imprint’s radical revision begins with the central symbol, Rashomon Gate, which underpins Kurosawa’s film. Imprint transposes the time of the story from the late Heian period to the early-mid Meiji period (Akutagawa and Kurosawa were born in 1892 and 1910 respectively). Miike relocates the setting of the story from the dilapidated Rashomon Gate, offered by Akutagawa as a symbol of men’s moral deterioration, to a seedy island-bound brothel, offered by Iwai as a symbol of a reality from which women have no escape. It hardly makes any difference by what name we call these women — harlots, whores, comfort women, sex slaves — it is obvious that the only choice for them, as evident from the pregnant corpses floating on the putrid pond at the start of the film, is to stay in the brothel or to drown in the pond. All in all, the fate of these women grimly fulfils Rashomon’s instruction that any sexually violated woman who doesn’t want to be called a whore must kill herself immediately.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa offers his art as an “objective” platform upon which we can ponder and observe the subjectivity of human actions. The characters' direct-to-camera testimonies have the effect of transforming audiences into fair-minded members of a jury. By positioning audiences this way, Rashomon implicitly enshrines its representation of truth-seeking and law-making as the audiences' own vocation and responsibility. “Truth” and “justice,” the film invites audiences to concur, may be difficult and imperfect. But the philosophical and judicial systems which combine to discredit Masago remain unchallenged as legitimate systems for philosophers and law-makers to go about establishing objectivity, rationality and neutrality. If there is a moral lesson to come out of Rashomon, the lesson is most probably this. Human beings are inevitably duplicitous and self-serving, but if only they would develop the courage and decency to admit the “truth” about themselves, the world would be a better place.
In Imprint, however, Miike casts into doubt not just the attainability of “truth” or the subjectivity of “human beings.” Rather, it is the presupposition underlying the philosopher’s own quest for “truth.” As Woman observes on hearing Christopher’s claim that what he wants is the truth:
If a woman had said this in Rashomon, the explanation most consistent with that film’s philosophy probably would be that women are too weak and corrupt to handle the “truth.” But, in Imprint, this remark is made by a world-weary Woman who has obviously learnt the hard way that the quest for “truth” is never as innocuous as the truth-seekers themselves assume.
Imitating Rashomon’s narrative technique, Imprint offers multiple versions of an unsolved crime concerning a theft, a sexual assault and a suspicious death. Woman herself anticipates Christopher’s suspicion of her duplicity by asking him sarcastically:
In appearance, then, Imprint’s narrative multiplicity upholds the conventional wisdom that truth-telling is antithetical to female nature, particularly to the nature of a sexually impure female. But, unlike the voice of Masago, Imprint does not construct the voice of Woman as “objectively” unreliable as mediated through a male-dominated court, two male participants, three male bystanders, and three male master-philosophers. In Imprint, Woman does all the talking, and the three accounts she offers combine to destabilize traditional male-centered views of the world:
Account I: “Madame Butterfly” — woman recounts a sanitized version of her childhood
Account II: “Woman Beware Woman” — woman gives an alternative version of the story about the missing jade ring
Account III: “Woman as Monster” — woman recounts the “true” story of her childhood
In Rashomon, the multiple narratives have a purported function of exposing the blind spots inherent in human nature. Nominally, each narrator has an equal say in the story, and the fact that each narrator should offer an account favoring themselves is used to demonstrate the subjective egoism of human nature. As previously argued, however, the trope of equality and neutrality in Rashomon functions merely as a smokescreen, since the literary, philosophical and legal conventions that Rashomon invokes and presents as neutral operate in unison to discredit and incriminate the central woman, Masago. As Orit Kamir argues:
Targeting this objectified bias in Rashomon, Imprint appropriates Rashomon’s narrative structure in order to expose the blind spots inherent in the patriarchal conception of “human nature.” The way Imprint achieves this is by having Woman knowingly adopt the traditional structures (or “imprints”) of various standard male narratives in the three versions of the story she tells.
The first version is a melodrama in the tradition of Madame Butterfly or Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a tragic-idyllic narrative about the misfortune of women, in the course of which female suffering is presented as a sumptuous spectacle for male enjoyment. The second version is a cautionary tale about the corruption of women, presented in the tradition of respectable erotic films such as Seijun Suzuki’s Gates of Flesh (1964) or pinku eiga such as Norifumi Suzuki’s Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973). It shows the betrayal of a good woman by a gang of bad women and empowers male audiences to sexualize and condemn women at the same time: “How can you live with yourself?” Christopher denounces Woman:
The third version is a horror fantasy in the kaidan tradition of Japanese folklore, which recent films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (2000) have so cleverly modernized for their adolescent male demographics. It offers a grimly realistic portrait of violence, abuse and revenge, ending with the obligatory appearance of a terrifying she-monster who represents a cathartic expression (or, if the monster is destroyed, a symbolic exorcism) of the male fear of women.
By having Woman self-consciously present these narratives as versions of the “truth” which the male hero is seeking, Imprint explicitly presents “truth” as a male narrative construct. The three narratives destabilizes the “objectivity” of the inquest which Rashomon uses to incriminate Masago. Beyond their function as narrative references, however, there is a subtle interconnectedness between the three versions of the story. The focus and timing of Woman’s successive revelations — moving from male fantasy, to male judgment, to male nightmare — combine to destablize the methodology of the epistemological quest in Rashomon. If David Desser is correct to argue that Rashomon’s interest “leans not toward who did it, but how” (Samurai 67), what Imprint does is to expose the inadequacy of asking how, and to reinstate the need to ask why: why did Komomo die? Once why becomes a relevant question, the objective quest for “truth,” which Rashomon presents as noble and essential for mankind’s salvation, is no longer as relevant, important or universally applicable as it appears. Nor does the status of truth-telling as a moral duty appear as absolute as it appears in Rashomon.
To illustrate, we need look no further than the counter moral lesson taught by the story of Komomo, who has “a heart of gold” (Tengan 16) and who always tells the “truth.” Komomo declares, with the frankest naivety, that she would have been born a “princess” in another age, and has a man who “loves me” and promises to “take me away from here” (Tengan 18). Nevertheless, telling the “truth” most certainly has done Komomo more harm than good by instigating the malice and jealousy of the other prostitutes. More relevantly, to seek “truth” for the sole purpose of satisfying Christopher’s personal obsession with Komomo is to narrow the terms of reference of the inquest. For how would satisfying Christopher’s personal obsession redeem the plight of women (to quote Iwai again) “with no place to escape”?
Seeking “truth” on Christopher’s terms, in other words, is to focus on the symptom and ignore the cause. To address the cause, it is necessary to recast the question and widen the terms of the inquiry. We must go right to the root of the problem, and ask: Why do women become prostitutes? Why do women get raped? Why do women seek abortion? Why do women get bashed at home? Why do beautiful women get exploited for their beauty? Why do ugly women get persecuted for their ugliness? Rashomon is interested in none of these questions, and the film’s portrayal of Masago does away with the need to ask any of these questions by offering a moral generalization:
Yet, Imprint challenges audiences into confronting the phallocentric implications behind such moral generalizations. When Christopher’s obsession with how one particular woman died is contrasted with the urgency and reality of the questions regarding why all women suffer, Christopher’s quest quickly reveals itself to be a meretricious, self-indulgent exercise. Indeed, even if Christopher were to get the “truth” he wanted, and the prostitutes who tortured Komomo were brought to trial in a judicial court resembling the one being held in Rashomon, this would hardly change the fact that the world remains a very ugly place. This is because the plague of suffering spreads far beyond the confines of one whorehouse. Surely, a more fundamental injustice is at play, and the source of injustice is pointedly identified by Imprint from a radical perspective: patriarchal oppression. Imprint renders explicit Rashomon's implicit phallocentricism, which constructs a woman’s rape not as an event significant in itself but as an event significant only insofar as it provides a context for rational, objective male philosophers to rationally and objectively philosophize about “truth,” “justice” and “human nature.”
By the time the third version of the “truth” emerges, Komomo’s torture, which initially came across as the most horrific example of “human” cruelty, falls into perspective. A particular form of fetishtic, stylized female suffering gives way to a more general, prosaic form of female suffering. The narrative movement is such that, instead of supporting the wishful thinking of men like Christopher that the origin of “evil” is traceable to a few ugly bad women behaving nastily towards one beautiful virtuous woman, the “truth” turns out to be an indictment of the entire social structure that oppresses all women. Komomo’s suffering is merely one isolated imprint on a larger canvas of existential female sufferings. Reversing Rashomon’s universalist argument about the sins of the “universal female,” Imprint posits a counter universalist argument about the sins of the “universal male.”
“Mother,” impregnation, procreation
The first two versions of the story, as mentioned, are told by Woman to satisfy Christopher’s personal obsession with his Komomo. By the time Woman reaches the third and final version, however, Woman goes into much greater details about the true story of her own “Mother” (Haha). The fact that Mother, like Woman, is nameless indicates that Mother is also an archetype of her sex. And the story of Mother serves to remind us that there are indeed other narratives — other “truths” — worth telling and knowing besides Komomo’s story.
As a pleasure-seeking man, Christopher is not expected to care a lot about Mother's plight. Unlike his beautiful Komomo, Mother is old, shabby and ugly, and therefore would never have qualified as an object of a male erotic fetish. Regardless of this, Mother's sufferings are real enough, and the film creates counterpoints between the erotic image of Komomo being tortured, and prosaic images of women giving birth and undergoing abortions; that juxtaposition brings home the “truth” that these experiences are all common to women. The life of Mother follows a pattern — an “imprint,” if you will — that is only too predictable.
Mother is born into a poor rural family, is raped by her Brother, and runs off to live with him in a riverside hovel. “Despite his cruelty and drinking,” Woman recalls, “momma did her duties as a good wife” (Tengan 29). Mother is kicked and punched by her Brother-Husband for having no money to buy him sake. And Brother-Husband is played by Houka Kinoshita as an uncouth, inarticulate idiot to parody the feral charisma of Toshiro Mifune’s Tajomaru, in a scene that presents us not only with a savage reenactment of the chase scene in Rashomon,[53a] but also with a grimly realistic picture of what Masago’s life would have looked like had she really run off with Tajomaru. Mother makes a living out of helping other sisters, mothers, daughters and wives terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Mother becomes pregnant herself, and gives birth to a baby girl, whom she initially abandons to die in the river. But when against all the odds the baby girl survives, Mother is overcome by her maternal instincts, and makes up her mind to bring up “Daughter.”
The moment that Mother makes up her mind to bring up Daughter, however, is also the moment that Daughter inherits the sin of being female. Daughter spends her childhood helping Mother help other sisters, mothers, daughters and wives terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Daughter grows up with a facial deformity and is branded a “freak” and “baby killer” (Tengan 32) by the neighborhood’s male children, who, it is not hard to predict, will grow into another generation of violent men who impregnate another generation of pliant women in order that the whole cycle of violence and oppression could continue. Daughter is raped by Father and sexually abused by the local Priest, who promises to lead her to spiritual salvation. On reaching puberty, Daughter enters a whorehouse, using her body to serve the pleasure of men: “Tonight I am yours,” she tells Christopher, “You may do what you wish with me” (Tengan 7). Finally, Daughter is asked by a rich white Daddy to recount her miseries in order that his “truth” could be told and his broken heart could be nursed.
If the lives of Mother and Daughter combine into an extreme yet disturbingly lucid summary of the universal plight of women, their experiences also point up the final meaning of “imprint:” Procreation. In the infernal world in which these suffering women struggle for survival, procreation is exclusively the outcome of violence, betrayal, manipulation, incest, rape, pedophilia and prostitution to which men subject women. Since procreative sex is responsible for producing life, and life for women can only mean abuse and exploitation by men, procreative sex which produces life must be a sin, and death cannot be worse than life when life already resembles the darkest pits of “hell.”
Following this reasoning, Woman reaches her own rationale as to why she had to kill Komomo. Strangling Komomo seems like an ultimate act of kindness because death would save Komomo from having to continue her hellish existence as a soiled object of male exploitation. Komomo might go to “heaven” if she dies rather than carries on living among the fallen women who are doomed to spend the rest of their lives using their bodies to serve callous, exploitative men. Accordingly, Woman explains to the morally outraged Christopher what drove a passive woman like her to “take action” for the first time in her life:
If Woman’s rationale sounds “demented” to Christopher (an early Wikipedia entry on the film sympathetically noted that Christopher “barely keep[s] his sanity after hearing this demented tale”), this is so because patriarchal morality and theology are too convoluted to accommodate a woman’s reality. How does a sexually exploited woman reconcile the moral code that “good” women are subservient to men and the theological code that only the “good” women deserve to go to heaven? As a philosophy of salvation, Woman’s explanation is a twisted parody of the traditional logic which Akutagawa’s young man uses to trump the hair-stealing crone in the tale “Rashomon,” and a twisted parody of the traditional concept of “heaven” which Kurosawa’s Priest accuses “human beings” of dishonoring in the film Rashomon. Kurosawa’s Priest says:
“Truth” and “trust,” we can work out by logical inference, set “men” on “earth” on the correct path to “heaven.”
However, Woman learns from her Priest, who uses catechisms on “heaven” and “hell” to reach her body — “If you don’t do as I say,” the Priest warns her, “you’ll go straight to hell” (Tengan 32). She learns that so long as a woman is subject to the physical control and cultural authority of “men,” it matters not if she is passive or active, innocent or guilty, trusting or treacherous, truthful or untruthful, she is doomed to go to hell anyway:
If this interpretation is correct, then an alternative “truth” emerges from this bastardized sister narrative to Rashomon. Contrary to what Christopher and his fellow “men” like to believe, hell on earth did not begin when several ugly nasty whores decide to gang up and bully one beautiful innocent woman. Rather, hell for women begins from the moment that women are born into a world ruled by men, who are themselves born of women, yet who also control and condemn women when they grow into men. As Woman summarizes this grotesque “universal” law:
“Woman,” “sister,” monster
The climax of the story coincides with the appearance of Woman’s twin “Sister” (Ane). Notably, this is the first time that an explicit supernatural element appears in the film. Until now, the narrative has suspended the very element that audiences expect from a traditional ghost story. The film kept viewers in the dark as to whether Woman was speaking literally or figuratively when she claimed that “demons and whores are the only ones living here” (Tengan 10). “It was and wasn’t Hell” (“Imprinting” 2:48) is how Iwai describes the setting of “Bokkee.” But with the film's climactic twist steering the story back onto its expected course as a tale of supernatural horror — a trope taken straight out of “Bokkee” — Imprint forces us to ponder the priority of the things that “really scare” us. If the reality of female suffering is already so horrifying, what else in the supernatural world could horrify us? Do rape, abortion and domestic violence become interesting to men only when these horrors have been sexualized into porn or sensationalized into supernatural thrillers?
The reference to “demons” is most probably a reference to a comment by the Commoner just before the Woodcutter offers his final account in Rashomon:
While Imprint would agree that “what men do” is horrible, Imprint invites audiences to become horrified by a rather different view of “what men do.” In Imprint, the “demon” turns out to be a deformed Siamese twin-sister of Woman living inside the brain of Woman. Symbolically, we may interpret “Sister,” whose right hand doubles as her face and her body, as a wry self-portrait of Shimako Iwai as a young female writer writing against the masculinist literary tradition set down by Japan’s “Father” of the short story, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Female imagination, female knowledge, and female ability to counter-reason threaten the authority of powerful men; such female traits are dangerous and monstrous and must be branded demonic.
The film uses Sister’s monstrosity in other ways to advance its radical polemic. On the one hand, Sister’s monstrosity aptly manifests itself as the monstrosity of a malformed fetus. This is because women alone must bear the consequence of sex (whether childbirth or abortion), even though men are directly responsible for impregnating women (whether through seduction or rape). On the other hand, Sister’s monstrosity aptly manifests itself in her aggressive femaleness (she has teeth in her mouth resembling a vagina dentata) and in her aggressive maleness (she speaks with a masculine voice, and has a tongue resembling a phallus). This is because androgyny and hermaphroditism defy traditional gender roles, making it possible for women to transcend their biological destiny as slaves of procreation.
The strongest reason for Sister's monstrosity, however, is her emphatic refusal to be a good little girl for men. Sister is active rather than passive; supernatural rather than cultural/natural; amoral rather than morally subservient. And, as Woman explains, Sister always gets what she “want[s]” (Tengan 37). In sum, Sister is a complete embodiment of Barbara Creed’s monstrous-feminine. She is at once a Freudian phallic mother, a Kristevan abject woman, a vampire, a ghoul, a witch, a psychopath, a possessed body, an animalistic human, a bleeding womb, a girl-boy and a femme castratrice (Creed 1). As a lawless she-monster, Sister wrecks havoc on the moral, judicial and cultural order maintained by the laws of the father. It is Sister who killed Father; it is Sister who stole Madam’s ring, and it is Sister who forces Woman to tell the real “truth” about Woman’s family history and how Komomo died. More important than how Komomo died, however, is why Komomo died. And the final truth, suppressed in Rashomon’s “objective” narrative about human subjectivity, is exposed by Sister in Imprint. What killed Komomo is “men” and the institution of patriarchy, which subordinates women, domesticates women, persecutes women, prostitutes women, all the while restricting access to “truth” and “justice” to men!
To emphasize this point, Sister goes on to expose a dark secret about our Occidental knight-errant. In Rashomon, Masago taunts and laughs at her men in the final account of the story. In Imprint, Sister also taunts and laughs at the truth-seeking Christopher as she rattles out the skeletons he is hiding in his closet. Early in the film, Christopher claimed that he fell in love with Komomo because “she reminded me of my little sister” (Tengan 10). But the real “truth,” finally exposed by Sister’s demonic clairvoyance, is that Christopher raped and killed his own little sister back in the United States. Tellingly, the question that the spirit of Christopher’s little sister wants answered is not how but why:
As a helpless little girl spirit, Christopher’s sister offers an alternative personification of victimhood to Rashomon’s aggressively self-righteous man spirit, Takehiro. Moreover, it is interesting that Christopher’s little sister should appear in flashback as a blue-eyed little Japanese girl. We may interpret this as a satirical nod to Arthur Golden’s improbable Euro-Asian geisha girl, Sayuri, who is yet another specimen in a long line of docile Asian females — Madame Butterfly, Suzie Wong, Miss Saigon. Such characters are created to be the fetishistic objects of fantasy for oversexed white men. Christopher, as representative of “men” who exploit women and representative of “Westerners” who exploit Easterners, is incriminated on both counts in Woman’s alternative “Rashomon.”
When Christopher is brought face to face with the “truth,” his response, tellingly, is to deny it and resort to physical violence. Christopher must destroy the disfigured woman who has exposed the offensive “truth” to him. It is entirely appropriate for Christopher that, at this juncture, Woman’s identity should converge with the identity of her monstrous Sister: this convergence provides him with the perfect justification to kill them both. In his agitation, Christopher produces a gun — an unambiguous phallic symbol. He aims it at the monster in his endeavor to restore the normative pattern in which he functions as the male hero slaying a terrifying she-monster on his heroic male quest for “truth.” Christopher yells before firing his gun twice at Woman/Sister — one bullet into their heart and one bullet into their brain:
Yet, the final “truth” that comes out is something that Christopher did not anticipate. The monster changes shape again, and reveals itself to be Komomo, who, with her brains blown out by Christopher’s gun, stretches out her arm and plaintively tells him, “I waited for you,” before collapsing at his feet. This ultimate act of female self-immolation mirrors the moment in Rashomon in which Masago throws herself at Tajomaru’s feet in order to trick him into helping her cover up her disgrace. In Rashomon, Masago is presented as a lustful, deceitful, treacherous “universal woman” for the audiences' judgment. But in Imprint, a radical counter-lesson is presented to expose the fallacy of Rashomon’s moral lesson. It matters not that a woman is as kind, virtuous, gentle, chaste, innocent, truthful, loyal and spiritually pure as Komomo. So long as “men” are in control of this woman, they can still find a way to make a whore of her, condemn her sins, and send her to hell. The imprint of this “truth” was evident all along but awaiting disclosure in this evil twin-sister version of Rashomon. Christopher’s quest for “truth” has led to his own incrimination by Woman and Sister. He was the rapist and killer of his own little sister, and he is the traitor and killer of his beloved Komomo!