JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Prisoner, persecutor, prosecutor — the defiantly unrepentant captive Tajomaru …

... and a shackled Christopher sitting inside a rain-soaked prison cell.

Imprints of Kurosawa: a male woodcutter and a male priest cradling a healthy baby boy.

Imprints of Miike: a dead little girl, a dead prostitute and an incarcerated gaijin cradling a bowl of aborted fetus.

The Woodcutter and the baby boy.

The aborted fetus.

The baby boy from Dead or Alive 2: Birds — No, the question, “Where are you going?” is not relevant to women with “no place to escape.”

Closing Imprints: Rashomon ends with the Chinese character Shuu (“End”) written in classical calligraphy superimposed over an image of Rashomon Gate.

Imprint ends with the word “Imprint” written in Oriental font superimposed over a black-and-white background.

The woman is raped, denounced and excommunicated in Rashomon.

The woman is objectified into a crazy penis-worshipper in In the Realm of the Senses.

 

One-eyed fish = one-eyed monster?

Returning the audience’s gaze: Woman acknowledges the camera as she happily grills the one-eyed fish in the “mysterious” epilogue of Imprint.

A lasting “imprint”

After the monster is destroyed, the final scene of Imprint shows Christopher sitting on the floor behind the bars of a rain-drenched prison cell. In symbolic terms, this ending reverses the clearing of the rain and the restoration of the men’s freedom of movement at the end of Rashomon. But even though the incarceration of Christopher suggests that some sort of “justice” has been served, one question remains. Is Christopher locked up for taking a precious human life, or is he locked up for spoiling a lucrative commodity of the brothel? Whatever the answer, it is obvious that the distinction between prosecution and persecution means little in this infernal world, since the prison guards openly joke among themselves that they will “have some fun” with Christopher for killing “that whore” (Tengan 39). Prison is an appropriate motif on which to conclude Imprint, given that the elusiveness of justice is also one of Rashomon's central concerns.[65][open endnotes in new window] However, it shouldn’t take long for audiences to realize what drastically different perspectives Rashomon and Imprint offer on the efficacy of “justice.”

After telling a tale of human corruption and fallacy in Rashomon, Kurosawa famously takes it upon himself to soften the cynicism of Akutagawa’s original story — in which the only redemption comes from the stoicism of the Samurai’s suicide in the wake of his wife’s sinfulness. The director adds an optimistic humanist coda. In Kurosawa’s version of Rashomon, the Priest, Woodcutter and Commoner discover a crying baby in a remote corner of Rashomon Gate. Unconscionably, the Commoner strips the baby of its swaddling and runs off with them. But the Woodcutter takes pity on the baby and resolves to take it home and raise it among his own children. The Priest is moved by this spontaneous act of kindness and apologizes to the Woodcutter for misjudging him:

“I’m grateful to you …. [T]hanks to you, I think I will be able to keep my faith in men” (Richie, Rashomon 91).

In short, faith in universal humanity is salvaged by the salvation of an innocent child.

For all the talk about universal humanity, however, one crucial detail may strike many viewers as too natural to even require exposition: the baby is most emphatically a male.[66] However, in a story about the rape of a woman, this normative coda harbors a troubling connotation which Kurosawa may or may not have intended: namely, that heterosexual sex, irrespective of female consent, is a positive, life-affirming act on the grounds that heterosexual sex is the means by which “mankind” renews the cycle of life. Through the baby boy,[67] Rashomon’s Priest discovers a renewed faith in life despite knowing that “mankind” will inevitably go on distorting “truth” and “justice” to save its own skin.

In contrast, Imprint offers a savage parody of Rashomon’s comforting humanist coda. Instead of a healthy baby boy representing our universal humanity, Christopher finds in his water bowl an aborted fetus: possibly an unwanted female fetus.[68] And the grotesque image of Christopher’s blow-kissing and coddling the fetus, which parodies the beatific expression on Rashomon’s Woodcutter’s face as he makes his way home with the baby boy in his arms, is a reminder that, ultimately, the male is still in control of the female. A life that has been ripped out of a woman’s womb is still just the plaything of a man. With this image imprinted in our mind, Imprint thus compels us to confront a question missing altogether from Rashomon’s terms of reference. What hope is there for “women” to expect justice in a world ruled by “men,” who are more interested in aloof philosophies of justice than in shocking realities of injustice?

In keeping with the polemics of this savage parody, the final image is framed to look like a beautiful exotic ukiyo-e: a final “imprint.” But imitating Rashomon’s tableau of a male priest and a male woodcutter cradling a healthy baby boy, Imprint offers an alternative tableau of a little girl, a prostitute and an incarcerated gaijin (“foreigner”) cradling a bowl of aborted fetus. This blasphemous “imprint” visually summarizes the film’s radical critique of Rashomon’s unspoken misogyny and U.S. audiences' complicity in condoning Rashomon’s misogyny. Finally, we can recapitulate the various meanings of the film’s title:

  • “imprint” is a metaphor for the fetishistic appropriation of Japan by the West;
  • “imprint” is a metaphor for the phallocentric narrative traditions laid down by two masculinist masters of twentieth-century Japanese literature and cinema;
  • “imprint” is also a metaphor for mankind’s entrenched practices of exploiting womankind, who should have every reason to be “really scared” of the things that powerful men uphold to be “sacred.”[69]

If U.S. audiences (for whatever reason) find watching Imprint a torturous experience, that too might be in keeping with the tenor and structure (another “imprint”) of the film, which reverses the voyeuristic view of “pity on me” sadomasochism that some Westerners think is inherent in the soul of Japanese culture, and reveals the true villain to be the American who claims to be seeking “truth” and his lost love.

In an article exploring the rise and fall of J-horror, Midnight Eye’s co-founder Nicholas Rucka has endorsed a comment by Patrick Macias about Miike’s most famous film Audition:

"In Audition’s final moments, Miike goes beyond the limits .... The fact is that for the last 90 minutes or so, we’ve gone and given away the keys to the car and made a filmmaker our god. And like a revelation of Gnostic proportions, the peeling back of truth hurts even as it sets you free." (“Death” par. 56)

After this quote, Rucka goes on to offer a personal anecdote. He recounts an incident in 2001 when he overheard a conversation between two passers-by in New York City. One of the passers-by turned to his friend when they saw a poster of Audition on the wall and said:

“That’s the fucking scariest movie I’ve ever seen.”

On hearing this remark, Rucka describes that he “smiled” and felt “oddly proud” (“Death” par. 58). Yet, if Audition made Rucka smile with pride, it is interesting that Imprint should have removed his smile. His review of Imprint concludes with the disparaging criticism that he would have preferred “better storytelling” (“Review” par. 13).

Yet, Rucka’s criticism itself raises two questions: what is “storytelling,” and what are the criteria for judging that one kind of storytelling is “better” than another? I suggest that the main reasons why Rucka didn’t “get” Imprint could be these. Not only is Imprint’s storytelling so deviously crafted as to frustrate and mislead conventional expectations about storytelling, but its satirical thrust also undermines the ideological premise on which Rucka develops his own critical practice. That practice operates under the premise that he is an ultra-cool Western connoisseur of old and new Japanese cinema, but unmistakably, a male connoisseur of male narratives by male storytellers about male Japan. However, Imprint has defied Rucka’s masculinist assumptions about storytelling and raised the stakes above Audition’s grotesque role-reversal fantasy (in which Cinderella changes into Dominatrix at the stroke of midnight[70] ) to offer a stinging polemical argument about female victimization from a woman’s perspective. And the butt of the joke includes the same Western male audiences who uphold Akira Kurosawa as the “Father,” “Emperor,” “Master” and “God” of world cinema.

To borrow another phrase from Rucka: if the “truth” in Audition hurts, then the “truth” in Imprint should hurt even more. This is because Imprint has pushed its radical argument beyond the comfort zone of Miike’s regular fans, who have championed Miike mostly because they think they could rely on this sunglasses-wearing, cool alpha-male dude from the East to take the piss out of priggish, prissy and politically correct people on their behalf.[71] To the extent that these viewers were expecting a politically incorrect film, Imprint has met their expectations and delivered political incorrectness in spades. Yet, the target of the film’s political incorrectness is also the chauvinism and egotism of heterosexual white men, the very demographic who could hitherto nominate without any irony or inconsistency Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy as their all-time favorite films. After Imprint, the challenge for these fans is whether they are still prepared to call Miike “cool” for making a film that laughs at rather than with them.

Imprint ends with the word “Imprint” written in Oriental fonts superimposed over a black-and-white background. Jokingly or otherwise, the following disclaimer also appears at the end of Imprint’s credit: “The events, characters and firms depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons living, or dead, or to actual firms is purely coincidental.”

Before I conclude, I want to draw attention to a scene that might have been overlooked even by the viewers who didn’t eject and discard their DVD of Imprint after the first twenty minutes. I am referring to the brief epilogue that occurs towards the end of the credits. This epilogue stands in contrast to Rashomon’s traditional ending, which pronounces that the narrative has reached an “End” and broaches no possibility for negotiation or revision. Here Imprint’s mysterious epilogue breaks with the temporal and spatial logic of the main narrative to surprise audiences with an unexpected final “imprint.” Even though the main narrative has suggested that Christopher has killed Woman, the epilogue shows that she is not only alive but also doing very well. Miike explains the origin of this mysterious epilogue:

"This time, it was supposed to be a scene with Kudoh-san, the lead …. We talked about what we should do. 'What should she be doing?' we discussed. I said maybe she’s grilling fish. She said, 'Grilling a fish, that’s good.' There’s no particular reason. She said it should be rockfish. It’s a fish with scary eyes. She happily grills this. These are things she likes not depicted in the movie. She doesn’t get to eat too often. So she got her hands on rockfish which she likes. So she has an expression not seen in the movie. I tried it and it was a mysterious scene." (“Imprinting” 36.51-38.02)

Apart from revealing the flexibility of Miike’s method and his congeniality with his lead actress,[72] this excerpt can also be used to advance my above reading of Imprint. For why should the fish be one-eyed? I have two proposals. On the one hand, the one-eyed fish could suggest a limited vision and an inability to see what one doesn’t want to see. On the other hand, the one-eyed fish could be a visual pun on the slang term for the phallus: one-eyed monster. That the final image of Imprint should present a woman happily and confidently grilling a one-eyed monster indicates how the film differs from the other texts espoused by Western audiences as the greatest “masterpieces” of Japanese cinema: whether that masterpiece be Rashomon, in which a woman is raped, denounced and excommunicated, or In the Realm of the Senses, in which a woman is objectified into a crazy penis-worshipper wandering the streets of Tokyo with a severed penis in her hand and an ecstatic expression on her face.

In contrast to the endings of Kurosawa’s and Oshima’s phallocentric narratives, Imprint ends with the imprint of a woman doing something she likes rather than doing something to look bad, mad, sad or sexy for men. And the sole purpose of the epilogue, according to Miike, is to capture the expression on Woman’s face as she relishes the pleasure of doing what she likes: a state of mind which he doesn’t pretend to understand, but which he is satisfied simply to let her express. All in all, I suggest that the epilogue of Imprint reveals a level of respect for female desire which horror films by male directors rarely demonstrate, and which serves an important reminder to Western fans of Japanese media that apart from stories about ninjas, samurais, yakuza, nymphomaniacs and tentacle monsters, Japan has a very different tradition of grand narratives to offer audiences: narratives told by women, about women, and for women.[73] The subordination of female desire need not be a normative practice even in a genre as male-dominated as Japanese horror cinema:

"The paradox of pallocentricism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. ... [I]t is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies .... Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it" (Pulvey 14-15).

It is ironic yet oddly reassuring that the final imprint of a horror film made by a “post-moral,” “postmodernist,” and “misogynist” filmmaker should so definitively depict a woman transcending her “lack” and achieving her desire. That the empowered woman is a disfigured woman makes her empowerment all the more meaningful in contrast to the pathetic states in which the beautiful heroines in the two other Japanese “masterpieces” find themselves: Masago is chased off the screen by her rapist, and Sada is left clutching her lover’s severed penis to make good her lack.

Moreover, if feminist critics such as Linda Williams (“When”) and Laura Mulvey (19) are correct to criticize the problematic “male gaze” in horror films, their criticisms seem to have been answered by the epilogue of Imprint as well. As the camera closes in, Woman becomes conscious that she is being watched. Upon this, Woman turns her head around, looks into the camera and breaks into a happy smile. Though the scene is brief, we should not undervalue its importance because of its brevity. By having Woman acknowledge the camera and returning our gaze, the film has effected a subtle transfer of knowledge and power to the supposed object of our scrutiny, suggesting that Woman ultimately knows more than we do and is only letting us watch her because we are the stooges of her elaborate joke. As Jay McRoy writes,

“[I]n the Japanese popular imaginary, the gazing female eye (or eyes) is frequently associated with vaginal imagery.” (Nightmare 7)

If so, then the combined image of Woman grilling a phallic one-eye monster and returning our gaze with her eyes constitutes a radical affirmation of her vaginal completeness and integrity. Amidst the expected outcries from an international “Rashomon” of outraged critics (those “American newspapermen”) denouncing Imprint’s “misogyny,” perhaps two other questions that we should be asking ourselves are these:

  • Which director is misogynistic for directing which film?
  • Which audience is misogynistic for selecting which film as the greatest “masterpiece” of Japanese cinema?

Coda: banning Imprint

Inevitably, different viewers will approach Imprint in different ways: for example,

  • as a horror/slasher fantasy à la Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973);
  • as a macabre art house erotic thriller à la David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986);
  • as a cool cult film; as a hot pink film; as a hentai anime performed by live actresses, or even
  • as a nasty piece of flash trash.

Inevitably, too, Imprint will strike many viewers as a film that has exhausted its purpose once the sumptuous torture sequence starring Michie Ito is over, since kinky girl-on-girl S/M action has so much more sensational appeal for fanboys than realistic depictions of wife bashing, child abuse and abortion. Notwithstanding, I would hope to have presented a case for seeing Imprint as a serious polemical film which uses its graphically exploitative eroguro (“erotic grotesquerie”) to deliver a radical critique of male control and violence.

But the final masterstroke delivered by Imprint comes as a result of something that Miike didn’t anticipate (or did he?[74]): the film was withdrawn from broadcast on U.S. television by Showtime. From this act of executive self-censorship, a bizarre code of ethics emerges. On the one hand, a film about “truth” which relegates the trauma of a raped woman to a non-issue is a masterpiece. On the other hand, a film which dares to expose how the conception of “truth” relegates a woman’s trauma to a non-issue is an obscenity. Asked about the ban, Mick Garris has described Imprint as “definitely the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen” (Kehr par. 6) and defended the ban as a “cultural thing” (Jacobs pars 6, 10).[75] While no one can blame Garris for finding Imprint disturbing, it is odd that the creator and executive producer of a horror film series which purports to deliver horror filmmaking from corporate censorship (Kehr par. 3) should be so mindful about offending his local audiences. Come to think of it, though, if Imprint is truly the most disturbing film Garris has ever seen, then perhaps Garris should count himself fortunate that he has never had to see anything more disturbing.

True horrors: dead babies and mutilated women from the massacre of Nanjing, 1937-1938. How absurd that a work of fiction should inflame moral outrage …
… while the truth of what real men did to real women and children … … should still be brazenly denied by conservative Japan to this day.

Yet, just as Woman might have told Christopher, so we might tell ourselves. We reveal our limits by the things that disturb us, but we can also transcend our limits by the way we handle our disturbances. Do we censor and deny what disturbs us, or do we try to confront and understand it? If our comfort is the only thing we care about, no wonder that powerful men in government can still get away with claiming that some of the most horrific crimes men have perpetrated against women in human history are just fantasies and fabrications;[76] that victims of sex slavery are filthy harlots and mercenary liars;[77] that war criminals are heroic samurais who should be honored in Shinto Shrines and blessed with prayers of spiritual transcendence.[78] What point is there in having lofty discussions about “truth,” “egoism” and “human nature” when the master historian, politician and philosopher’s own truth, egoism and human nature are placed above criticism?[79] Such brazen denials, to borrow a line from Rashomon’s Priest, are indeed “more horrible than fires or wars or epidemics” (Richie, Rashomon 38). I suspect, though, that branding Takashi Miike a violator of women is probably easier than holding real violators of women accountable.

People interested in Miike’s work have reacted to the banning of Imprint in various ways: with curiosity, disappointment, puzzlement, or understanding.[80] But throughout the controversy, Miike has remained tantalizingly polite about the way in which his patrons have pulled the rug from under him. Yet, lurking beneath the polite diplomacy of a quiet non-American deferring to his American masters may well be the knowing grimace of a true sensei of horror. By pretending to play Hollywood’s game while still outwitting Hollywood, this misogynistic shock peddler from the East has arguably rendered all the more indelible the imprint of his sly exposure of Hollywood’s pretension to audacity and its predictable backslide into conformity.

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