JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Season 1 logo of Masters of Horror: “Thirteen famous horror movie directors direct a one hour short horror film for the Showtime television network.”

Exploitation or exposition? - sexualized violence in Imprint.

According to Donald Richie, Rashomon is “the most honored of all Japanese films.”

“In Europe and America, my work is limited on the abnormal side of the pendulum – extremely.”  Extremely abnormal activities from Miike’s Audition,

... Visitor Q,

... Full Metal Yakuza ...

... and Ichi the Killer.

“I have made films that are not so abnormal.”  The whimsical feel-good drama The Bird People of China.

The nostalgic action-hero comedy Zebraman.

The philosophical time-travelling samurai action film Izo.

The sweet children’s adventure fantasy The Great Yokai War.

The art-house homoerotic prison drama Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.

The stylish cross-cultural epic Western comedy Sukiyaki Western: Django.

 

Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint

by William Leung

"Me, a ‘Master of Horror’? I’m the guy that made Salaryman Kintaro!"  — Takashi Miike, “Japan Premiere of Big Bang Love, Juvenile A” (Brown, “Report” par. 6)

"Generally if the audience feel that it’s like that [i.e. misogynistic], then they are right." — Takashi Miike, “An Interview with Takashi Miike” (Mes, Agitator 363)

Claims that Japanese “cult” filmmaker Takashi Miike is “misogynistic” are hardly new. Miike’s detractors inevitably rely on his most controversial films — films such as Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Visitor Q (2001) — to justify their claims.[1][open endnotes in new window] Miike’s defenders, though they might acknowledge the evidence to support such claims, could perhaps remind the detractors that it is still open to debate whether Miike’s “misogyny” is brilliantly exploitative or brilliantly expositive. With Imprint (2005), however, the detractors may have found something at last to silence the defenders. Even Miike’s regular fans seem to have trouble making sense of — let alone defending — this one![2]

A half-naked, gagged and bound Japanese woman … … being singed with burning incense at her armpits …
… and having knitting needles inserted into her fingernails … … and gums.

Imprint is an hour-long episode commissioned by U.S. filmmaker Mick Garris for the debut season of his pet project Masters of Horror. Created by Garris, Masters of Horror is a cable television series featuring original short films by some of the world’s leading horror filmmakers: “a ground-breaking, award-winning series that redefined terror” is the official blurb that accompanies the recent release of the series' debut season as a DVD box-set (Anchor Bay 2007, par. 1). In the first season, thirteen films by thirteen “masters” were originally scheduled for broadcast between 28 October 2005 and 27 January 2006 on the U.S. cable network “Showtime.” However, only twelve episodes made it to air in North America. The reason is that the last episode (Miike’s) was withdrawn at the eleventh hour by Showtime on account of the episode’s extreme content.[3]

On paper, Imprint looks innocent enough. Some time in the late nineteenth century, an U.S. journalist travels to Japan in search of a Japanese woman he has loved and lost. His quest takes him to a seedy brothel located on a remote island, where he encounters a disfigured prostitute, who claims to know the woman he is seeking. On being told that his lover is dead, the U.S. traveler demands to know how she died. The disfigured prostitute then tells the American several versions of the “truth” about the events leading to his lover’s death. But there is a sting in the tale: a lavishly staged, five-minute, all-female torture sequence in which a half-naked, gagged and bound Japanese actress is shown being singed with burning incense at her armpits and having knitting needles inserted into her fingernails and gums. Various spectacles of grotesquerie and exoticism dominate other parts of the film. Grim realities of rural poverty are overlaid by a colorful parade of outlandish costumes. Moments of reflective beauty are set against graphic images of domestic violence, pedophilia, abortion, murder, putrid corpses and bloody fetuses. Not inaccurately, one critic has summed up the whole effect as an “infernal variation on Memoirs of a Geisha” (Kehr par. 8).

Although anyone who has seen Memoirs of a Geisha may want to argue that Memoirs is “infernal” enough on its own, at least Memoirs did not deliberately set out to be so. In contrast, Imprint is almost calculated to be offensive and controversial. To be sure, if being offensive and controversial is what it takes to be a master of horror, then Miike should probably be dubbed grandmaster of horror. Not even the horror academe’s distinguished fellows such as Tobe Hopper, John Carpenter and Dario Agento could claim to have done their homework so well that they had to be pulled into line by their network headmasters. Controversy, though, seldom enhances one’s credibility, and it is Miike’s credibility as a filmmaker which seems to have suffered from this project. While few critics have denied that Imprint is shocking, almost no one has been prepared to take Imprint seriously. The verdict has almost been unanimous that the film is a poor joke not particularly well told, representing, at best, a lurid overkill by an unpredictable provocateur who is performing way below his best.[4]

In this essay, I aim to play the angel’s advocate and present a case for a serious consideration of Miike’s film. Methodologically, I have decided against revisiting many of the topics which have become de rigeur in Miike criticism: for example, his status as a “cult” filmmaker; his “brilliance” as a stylist; his obsession with “meaningless” violence; his contribution to “radical” Asian cinema, particularly to “extreme” Asian cinema.[5] Instead, I shall focus on pursuing a close reading of Imprint based on my understanding of the film’s creative rationale, literary background and reception context. I regard Imprint as a serious polemical film (not just a cheap thrill dressed up as a class act) and argue that it has two main polemical objectives. First, Imprint could be interpreted as a horror satire exposing the unspoken phallocentric politics underlying Japanese cinema’s most revered masterpiece, Rashomon (1950), directed by Japanese cinema’s most revered master director, Akira Kurosawa. Second, Imprint could be interpreted as a radical critique of white America’s part-fawning, part-patronizing appropriation of Kurosawa and Japanese culture.

Even though the similarities between Imprint and Rashomon have been noticed by more than a few critics, the comparison is almost never pursued beyond the casual remark that Imprint’s narrative is “Rashomon-like.”[6] Indeed, to many Kurosawa-fans, the comparison may even come across as arbitrary and sacrilegious: a bit like comparing a kitschy papier-mâché with a monolithic monument. However, I defend making the comparison on several grounds. First, Rashomon is such a fundamental visual text not only in Japan but also in the United States that its relevance to a Japanese-American project like Imprint is too important to ignore. Scott Nygren has called the film

“a hinge not just between Japanese isolation and world recognition, but between dominant Western assumptions and the possibility of a genuine world cinema” (100)

Second, I have traced a series of visual and thematic similarities between the two films, similarities which inform my argument and which I hope to demonstrate are purposive rather than incidental or accidental. Third, I will use the comparison to challenge a common criticism directed against Miike: namely, that he is an all flash, no substance trickster-filmmaker who has to employ shock tactics to disguise his inability to hold a coherent argument. Instead, I will try to make a case for a long overdue recognition of Miike’s capacity as a serious polemical filmmaker — no easy task considering how extensively Imprint has been deprecated and ridiculed by critics and fans alike.

Moreover, I have found it necessary to examine not just the reception of Imprint but also the reception of Miike’s other works. When Western critics discuss Miike, a tendency that many of them cannot seem to avoid is to bring up the Japanese “cultural-historical” preoccupation with sex, violence and death, and then to wheel out Miike as “Exhibit A” of the newest generation of extreme cult Japanese filmmakers who have portrayed sex, violence and death for the consumption of fascinated Western audiences. In her standard textbook A New History of Japanese Cinema (2005), for example, Isolde Standish has nominated Miike’s Triad Society Trilogy (1995-1999) alongside Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale films (2000; 2003) as exponents of a “postmodernist” sensibility of nihilism which infuses the newest wave of new Japanese cinema:

"Both groups of films register power in terms of violence and death. In Miike’s films it is the sexualized body of the prostitute .... In Miike’s film there is no redemptive humanism because his films form part of a posmodernist sensibility that, to draw on [Terry] Eagleton, portrays 'a world in which there is indeed no salvation, but on the other hand nothing to be saved.'" (338)

While I agree with Standish that the term “postmodernist” aptly applies to Miike, I am a bit uneasy that she should have equated postmodernism with nihilism and posited this particular aspect of postmodernism as Miike’s defining characteristic. When a critic remarks that Miike is a “cult director” whose “works are indicative of a ‘post-moral,’ postmodernist, generational consciousness” (Standish 332), I cannot help but wonder if she is painting with too broad a brush. The description may be appropriate enough for Miike’s “works” such as Dead or Alive (1999) and Ichi the Killer; but is the description still appropriate for Miike’s other “works,” which include, to name just a few recent examples:

  • the whimsical feel-good drama The Bird People of China (1998);
  • the wholesome family movie Salaryman Kintaro (1999);
  • the bizarre horror musical-comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris (2002);
  • the scenic historical buddy movie Sabu (2002);
  • the teenage J-horror thriller One Missed Call (2004);
  • the nostalgic action-hero comedy Zebraman (2004);
  • the philosophical time-travelling samurai action film Izo (2004);
  • the sweet children’s adventure fantasy The Great Yokai War (2005);
  • the art-house homoerotic prison drama Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006); and
  • the stylish cross-cultural epic Western comedy Sukiyaki Western: Django (2007).
The wholesome family movie Salaryman Kintaro. The teenage J-horror thriller One Missed Call.
The scenic historical buddy movie Sabu. The bizarre horror musical-comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris.

If a critic’s perspective is limited to just one or two of Miike’s films, what that indicates is probably the preoccupation of the critic rather than the preoccupation of Miike, who has understandably expressed both bemusement and impatience at the Western media's insistence on portraying him as an attention-seeking shock peddler from the East.[7]

Actually, I would go even further than this and argue that Miike may have made a more significant contribution to Japanese cinema than many of his critics have acknowledged. If conventional wisdom correctly posits that the history of Japanese cinema is divisible into “phases” of major movements and filmmakers,[8] I venture to propose that Takashi Miike may have as much importance for the last two decades of Japanese filmmaking as Akira Kurosawa has for the so-called “second golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s and Nagisa Oshima for the so-called “new wave” period of the 1960s and 1970s. I'd describe their differences as follows: Kurosawa’s films stand out predominantly for their modernist humanism, Oshima’s for their avant-garde politicism, and Miike’s for their postmodernist pluralism.

When I use the term “postmodernist,” though, I mean something a little different from Standish’s usage. While I acknowledge that the postmodernist lack of fixed beliefs may constitute “post-moralism” and nihilism, I suggest that this negative view is valid only insofar as its positive counterpart is also valid. That is, a lack of fixed beliefs can also liberate one’s mind from preconceptions and enable one to appreciate the strength and merit of almost any belief. In my view, it is this positive aspect of postmodernism that Miike’s filmmaking expresses. To cite one example, there are not many filmmakers who are equally at home making “cool” homophobic films like Dead or Alive: Final (2002) and “art house” homoerotic films like Big Bang Love, Juvenile A. More so with a Miike film than with almost any other director’s film, the viewer should avoid concluding that a particular film defines what its director is “all about.” The following self-assessment by Miike is worth bearing in mind when we watch his films:

"I think there are two types of directors. One is the type that is very careful of himself and chooses the subjects that fit him and that he really wants to do and he does them carefully. The other type does one thing after another and is not afraid of changing himself. He changes naturally while making these films one after another. I am the second type" (Mes and Sato par. 48).[9]

With the director's above self-characterization in mind, I have chosen to avoid Tom Mes' method of grouping Miike’s films around totalizing common themes such as “the rootless individual,” “the outcast,” “the family unit,” “the search for happiness,” and so on (Agitator 23-31). Instead, I prefer to approach Imprint as an example of a film which expresses Miike’s autonomy to do “one thing after another” and be “not afraid of changing himself.” If, as Standish argues, Shinjuku exploits the “sexualized body of the prostitute” from a male perspective, I suggest that Imprint utilizes this “sexualized body” for a very different end. In this case, the film's perspective reflects the script ’s origin as a short story by a woman writer who has made women’s experiences her focus and priority. In this respect, Imprint deserves recognition as a significant addition to Miike’s busy résumé because the film has allowed him not only to trade on his reputation as a misogynist but also to adopt an explicitly gender-conscious position about the violence he shows. In Imprint, misogynistic violence is deployed as a strategy to satirize the phallocentricism in Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon, and to expose the sexist Orientalist adulation of that masterpiece by Western audiences who may have accused Miike of misogyny and bad taste.

From “Bokkee” to Imprint:
Akutagawa, Kurosawa, and masternarratives

Imprint is based on the short story “Bokkee, Kyotee” (1999) by Japanese writer and cultural celebrity, Shimako Iwai.[10] “Bokkee, kyotee” is an Okayama idiom which translates as “really scary.” Iwai was involved in the making of Imprint, and her comments about what inspired her to write the story provide a useful context for understanding the film:

"I was trying to tell a sad story, not so much a scary one. But when I was finished, it was just plain scary. I was an unsuccessful author of young women’s novels. And I wanted to return to prominence as an author. But I could not write. My private life suffered. And my husband and I were talking of divorce. Then I thought: 'women are so disadvantaged.' A sad existence that has nowhere to run or hide. I felt strongly about this. I thought I should write about women. I wanted to write about women and this is the story that resulted. Women with no place to escape" (“Imprinting” 1:40-2:41).

“Bokkee, Kyotee” is set in a brothel in one of Japan’s dingy red-light districts during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and it reproduces a bedtime conversation between a young prostitute and her insomniac danna (master/patron). Two things are most distinctive about the story. First, the story is narrated not in standard Japanese but in Okayama dialect; second, the story has the form of a dramatic monologue in which only the words of the prostitute are recorded. The omission of the patron’s part of the conversation means that readers must use their own imagination to fill in the gaps. This technique's effect is to strengthen readers' emotional engagement with the narrator and to intensify the voyeuristic feeling of the reading experience.

Several factors combine to give “Bokkee” its eerie, unsettling power, such as the decadent atmosphere of the historical setting and the cloying intimacy of the monologue format, enhanced by the coquettish tone and seemingly aimless flow of the narrator’s words. Furthermore, a litany of horrors fills her artless chatter. The things she speaks about range in topics from starvation, disease, death, rape, incest, child abuse, abortion, sexual torture, and murder, to casual references to cesspools, bloodshed, demons, and hell — all of which seems to be treated by the narrator as ordinary occurrences of life. Ultimately, what constitutes the real horror is the disconnection between the sordidness of the narrator’s life and her almost innocent acceptance of her lot. Though Iwai has added a supernatural twist to the story — the narrator has a “secret” which she eventually reveals — what’s “really scary” remains the inexorable, irredeemable plight of a destitute, sexually exploited young woman.

The source of Imprint offers an interesting comparison with the source of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Rashomon is based on two short stories, “Rashomon” and “Yabu no naka” (“In a Bamboo Grove”), by Japan’s most celebrated short story writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.[11] Dubbed the Edgar Allen Poe of Japan, Akutagawa was the dominant literary figure of the Taisho period (1912-1926), and one of the first modern Japanese writers to gain fame outside of Japan (O’Connor 79; Keene, Dawn 556). Akutagawa’s outlook was pervasively dark, morbid and cynical. Yet, like Poe, in some of his best works Akutagawa was able to maintain a virtuoso balance between Romantic grotesquerie and classical formalism. A genre for which Akutagawa is renowned is his retelling of traditional Japanese folktales with his own idiosyncratic modernist twists. The two stories on which Rashomon is based belong to this genre, and both stories can be described as austere vignettes expressing their author’s cynical view on human egoism. Notably, the two stories also express a morbid cynicism about female nature, and they contain grotesque descriptions of violence towards women.

The first story, “Rashomon” (1915), from which Kurosawa entitled his film, has as a theme the collapse of moral idealism. The story begins with an impoverished young man toying with the idea of becoming a thief. While seeking shelter for the night in Rashomon Gate, the young man stumbles on the frightful sight of an old woman defiling a corpse by plucking out its hair. Shocked by her action, he cuts in and challenges her to explain herself. Gingerly, the old woman explains that she intends to make a wig from the hair. Since the dead woman (formerly her neighbor) used to make a living out of cheating others, explains the old woman, so she justly can do what the dead woman did to others in order to survive. On hearing this self-serving justification, the young man feels himself inflamed by a “new kind of courage” (Akutagawa 8). The story ends with his delivering a devastating coup de grâce against the old woman’s reasoning.

“You won’t blame me, then, for taking your clothes. That’s what I have to do to keep from starving to death” (Akutagawa 8-9).

The young man then strips the old woman of her kimono, kicks her roughly into the pile of dead bodies, and disappears into the night. While many critics have argued that Akutagawa has here offered a dispassionate and disinterested ethical inquiry,[12] contemporary readers could hardly overlook the gender dichotomy he has inscribed in order to bring out the new moral in this fractured morality tale. In a dog-eat-dog world of basic survival, a young man is educated out of morality by his encounter with two immoral women. The honest brutality of his masculine logic emerges morally superior to the dishonest brutality of the old woman’s feminine cunning.

Cover art of Bokkee, Kyotee, a collection of short stories by Shimako Iwai.  Imprint is based on the title story. Ryunosuke Akutagawa is the “Father of the Japanese short story.” His image appears in this 1999 commemorative 80-yen postage stamp.  The characters on the left-hand side read “Rashomon."

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