2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
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.[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!
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 The reason is that the last episode (Miike’s) was withdrawn at the eleventh hour by Showtime on account of the episode’s extreme content.
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.
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. 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.” 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:
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.
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, 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).
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. “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. 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, 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.
The second story, “In a Bamboo Grove” (1921), from which Kurosawa borrowed his film's plot, is an eclectic record of seven witness statements about an incident surrounding a theft, a sexual assault, and a suspicious death. The three main players in the event are a bandit (arrested for theft, rape, and murder), a samurai (dead), and the samurai’s wife (claiming to be raped). At critical points the seven testimonies are incompatible, even contradictory. But the story's strongest impact derives from a shocking revelation that Akutagawa delays until the end. The dead man gives the final testimony through a spiritual medium, and what makes the dead man’s testimony so shocking is his revelation that the instigator of the crime is none other than the rape victim herself. According to the samurai, the woman has not only agreed to run away with the bandit but also incited the bandit to kill the samurai. Shocked and disgusted, the bandit kicks the woman to the ground, turns to the samurai, and asks:
“What do you want me to do with her? Kill her or let her go? Just nod to answer. Kill her?” (Akutagawa 18).
The samurai expresses gratitude to the bandit for a manly display of solidarity:
“For this if for nothing else, I am ready to forgive the bandit his crimes” (Akutagawa 18).
When the woman runs for her life, the bandit pursues her. The samurai, left alone in the bamboo grove, breaks down in tears and commits ritual suicide. The serenity and dignity of his self-sacrifice contrasts with the despicable determination of the woman to survive at any cost.
“I felt no pain at all …. The lonely glow of the sun lingered among the high branches of cedar and bamboo …. I lay there wrapped in a deep silence” (Akutagawa 19).
As with the earlier story “Rashomon,” many critics have argued that Akutagawa’s cynicism in “In a Bamboo Grove” objectively and indiscriminately expresses suspicion toward every speaker. However, this argument overlooks the story’s unmistakable insistence on the woman's cunning and depravity. The samurai’s final description of himself serenely fading into the bamboo grove brings the narrative arc back to the main title, and he leaves the inevitable impression that his account is more creditable than the woman’s account.
In summary, “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” express Akutagawa’s cynical philosophy about the fallibility of “human nature” from an unapologetically masculinist perspective. David Boyd writes that there is no correlation between the two stories apart from the fact that Akutagawa used the medieval text Konjaku Monogatari (155) as his source for both stories. However, another correlation is surely the misogynistic emphases with which Akutagawa had rewritten the stories from Konjaku. In his modernist retelling of these medieval folktales, Akutagawa had infused both tales with a strong animus towards female nature, as personified by the two women who forgo morality and resort to dirty tricks to save themselves. “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” have an unnerving power that derives from Akutagawa’s masterful use of a classic technique in storytelling: the twist in the tail. And in both tales, the force and timing of the twists are calculated to unsettle the readers and to leave in their mind a contemptuous view of the witch-like crone and the faithless whore.
Returning to the films: if we place Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Takashi Miike’s Imprint side by side, we can see that the creative backgrounds of the two films constitute a most interesting parallel. On the one hand, Kurosawa in 1950 adaptated a 1921 short story by Japan’s most renowned short story writer in the first film of his to reach a mass Western audience. On the other hand, Miike in 2006 adaptated a 1999 short story by one of Japan’s most popular woman writers in his first English-language film made for an U.S. network as a “master of horror.” In addition, we could extend the parallel to include the screenplays of the two films. If adapting the multiple testimonies of “In a Bamboo Grove” into Rashomon was challenging enough for Kurosawa and his co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto, then adapting the meandering dramatic monologue of “Bokkee, Kyotee” into Imprint was probably even more challenging for writer Daisuke Tengan. The story “Bokkee” had a reputation for being zettai ni eigaka fukanoo: “absolutely unfilmable” (Imprint Official Homepage, “Introduction” par. 3). In the end, what makes Shimako Iwai’s unfilmable short story “filmable” is the revision undertaken by Tengan. That script so impressed Iwai that she declared she was “very satisfied with the script” (“Imprinting” 6:17), and she judged the film to be “better than the book!” (“Imprinting” 5:57) Significantly, one of the changes introduced by Tengan to make “Bokkee” filmable is to transform the story into an existential quest for “truth,” a plot structure similar to the one which underpins Kurosawa’s and Hashimoto’s adaptation of the Akutagawan stories.
Comments by Miike add weight to the theory that Rashomon is a relevant reference text for Imprint. In an interview for The Japan Times, Miike describes the themes of Imprint:
"People tell all sorts of lies …. You hide your instinctive self and instead create a social self with lies …. What’s scary is when you strip all the lies away to get at the essential you. What if it’s pure evil? You don’t want to face that. So lies aren’t all bad — we need them to live" (Schilling, “Takashi” par. 10).
As a philosophical reflection on truth and human nature, these ideas are almost identical to the conversation between the Priest and Commoner in Rashomon:
Commoner: "Men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth, not even to themselves."
Priest: "That may be true. But it’s because men are so weak. That’s why they lie. That’s why they must deceive themselves" (Richie, Rashomon 63).
Kurosawa’s comments about Rashomon are similar:
“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves …. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing …. [They] cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are” (Kurosawa 183).
Accordingly, it is possible to see some common themes running through Imprint and Rashomon. Human nature is corrupt and egotistical; human beings disguise their own corruption with civilized lies; human beings are unable and unwilling to be completely honest with themselves. The similarity is so far, so good. The crucial difference, however, lies in the conclusion that Miike reaches in the interview:
"But the heroine is blameless …. She didn’t ask to be this way. She deserves our sympathy" (Schilling, “Takashi” par. 11).
Though it may be easier for us to believe that this comment came from a director famous for his benevolent humanism rather than from a director infamous for his radical misogyny, it is Kurosawa’s Commoner who goes on to explain:
“Women lead you on with their tears; they even fool themselves” (Richie, Rashomon 68).
In Rashomon, the woman Masago is depicted as no less complicitous in the cycle of duplicity and corruption than the bandit who rapes her and the samurai husband who spurns her. Significantly, an early draft of Hashimoto’s screenplay for Rashomon was called “Male-Female” (Kurosawa 181). The film teaches a masculinist lesson that women, beneath their veneer of virtue and chastity, are selfish at heart and whorish by nature. As Joan Mellen observes about the image of Masago,
“Woman is the angel outside and demon within” (Waves 47).
Even though Masago appears as flawless as a “bodhisattva” (Akutagawa 13), she reveals herself to be a lustful, treacherous and malevolent whore who hates men for knowing the awful “truth” about her. To save herself, this whorish woman would resort to any trickery and cruelty, even encourage men to kill one another.
This negative conclusion in Rashomon, however, is both acknowledged and challenged in Imprint. In one respect, Imprint takes up the story from where Rashomon leaves off: all its women are whores. But in another respect, Imprint also utilizes the first film's negative conclusion for its own purpose. It not only introduces us to a whore who is completely innocent but also proceeds to ask who and what are responsible for making women like her feel guilty about themselves. If my interpretation is correct, then Imprint as a horror film may be said to address a specifically female experience of horror. It shows that what’s “really scary” — more so than imaginary phantoms, demons and bogeymen — is the reality of male control and subjugation of women. To reinstate Iwai’s original question: what if women find that they have “no place to escape”? Short of killing herself, what could a woman subjected to male exploitation do to act “right” in the eyes of men?
When Miike was asked to comment on the frequent complaints about his films' “misogyny,” he offered an answer that is in part mea culpa and in part self-defense:
"Generally if the audience feel that it’s like that, then they are right …. I don’t think that there is only one way to look at a film. There isn’t one truth. I always try to have some kindness for the female characters. I allow them to try to realize their own desire for example. But generally I feel no need to explain my films to an audience …. I’m not always sure that I was able to make my feelings clear enough in a film, so if the audience misunderstands it, it’s okay. I accept the misunderstanding" (Mes, Agitator 363).
Miike’s answer is double-edged. On the one hand, he accepts the blame; on the other hand, he blames his critics for misunderstanding him. One way of accounting for this dual explanation is to refer it back to Miike’s description of himself as an adaptable filmmaker (Mes and Sato par. 48). Since Miike’s approach to filmmaking is to “[do] one thing after another” and to “chang[e] himself” with every project, to accuse him of being “misogynistic” on account of his having made some undoubtedly misogynistic films would be both correct and incorrect.
However, Kurosawa presents a different kind of case since he is a much more formal, auteurist filmmaker. Like Miike, Kurosawa has often been taken to task for his problematic depiction of women. To appreciate the justice of this criticism, one needs only to go through his long catalogue of stereotypical females, ranging from
Kurosawa has frankly acknowledged that he had only made two films — No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Rashomon — in which he “ever fairly and fully portrayed a woman” (Richie and Mellen 40). In his autobiography, Kurosawa has almost nothing to say about women, and the little that he has to say are mostly sentimental reflections about his “gentle and kind” sister and “impossibly heroic” mother (Kurosawa 18; 21). Though Kurosawa’s avoidance of “chick flicks” may very well attract some fans, Stephen Prince's critique is apt: Kurosawa’s indifference to women is “a major limitation of his work” (Prince 78).
Thus, if neither Kurosawa nor Miike can claim to specialize in “women’s pictures,” I suggest that it is Miike’s postmodernist approach to filmmaking and lack of reservations about letting women “realize their own desire” that makes him capable of embracing a project as unusual as Imprint. In contrast, I think most people would agree that Kurosawa is what Miike calls the “first type” of director, i.e., a director
“very careful of himself and [who] chooses the subjects that fit him and that he really wants to do and ... does them carefully” (Mes and Sato par. 48).
As Kurosawa states in the final sentence of his autobiography:
“There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself” (Kurosawa 189).
And what Kurosawa’s work “says” about their creator can be inferred from the fact that none of his major films is about women or is based on material by women. And the only Kurosawa film (No Regrets for Our Youth) in which a woman takes centre stage may as well be gender-neutral since it
“merely extends the social roles and narrative functions usually assumed by men in his cinema to a woman” (Prince 78).
Even though Miike may seem worse than Kurosawa when it comes to “misogynistic” filmmaking, ironically many of the viewers who have condemned Imprint have embraced Miike’s other films. Yet the violence and misogyny in these other films is often much more exploitative and gratuitous. In Dead or Alive and Full Metal Yakuza (1997), for example, Mariko and Yukari's rape, torture and death are used exploitatively as showpieces and plot catalysts to drive the angst-ridden male heroes to take manly actions. Likewise in Ichi the Killer, Sara and Myu-myu have no reason to exist other than to lend themselves to being raped, beaten, tortured and killed. In addition, even Miike’s less violent films are not necessarily less misogynistic. For example, Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) is a relatively subdued film about two hit-men revisiting their old neighborhood, a film which film scholar Randolph Jordan has called Miike’s “finest work to date” (par. 31). The script leaves audiences to ponder an existential question in its final frame: “Where are you going?” However, an assumption which D/A 2: Birds entrenches, and which Jordan is happy to endorse, is that a script can unproblematically present a narrative exclusively for and about men as a universal narrative about
“regeneration through the cycle of birth and death, and the importance of understanding one’s own context in the world in order to facilitate change” (Jordan par. 27).
While, “Where are you going?” may be a relevant question for the film’s male protagonists (and by extension, the film’s male viewership), the question may be less relevant for female viewers and female characters who are controlled by men and have “no place to escape.” To problematize this issue is to challenge the naturalization of the male perspective that so many of Miike’s other films take for granted. And it is a challenge that Imprint has taken up with a vengeance.
Watching Imprint as an implicit commentary on Miike’s own films, then, is as profitable as watching it as an explicit commentary on Rashomon: “the most honored of all Japanese films” (Richie, A Hundred 139). Rashomon's aim is to draw audiences into a serene epistemological meditation upon truth, guilt and human nature. In contrast, Imprint's aim is to provoke audiences into questioning masculinist assumptions underlying established ways of perceiving truth, guilt and human nature. Placed side by side, the two films clear the field for an ideological contest between two different generations of Japanese thinkers. It is an ideological contest which pits three venerable Fathers (Akutagawa, Hashimoto, Kurosawa) against one unruly Daughter (Iwai) and two prodigal Sons (Tengan, Miike).
white USA and Kurosawa-philia
"Imprint, n 1.a A figure impressed or imprinted upon something; a mark produced by pressure on a surface; an impression, stamp. b. Fig. A character impressed upon something; an attribute communicated by, and constituting evidence of, some agency; ‘stamp’, ‘impression’. c. A representation or type of something .... 5. An onset, assault, charge." — Oxford English Dictionary
Apart from its concerns with gender and sexual violence, Imprint has another polemical aspect, which stems partly from the film’s anomalous entity as a Japanese film funded by a mainstream U.S. cable network specifically for U.S. viewers. The meaning of Imprint’s English title may seem cryptic at first, since there is nothing explicit in the story to indicate how it is about “imprint.” However, an analysis of that title can reveal how forcefully and succinctly it expresses the film's polemical concerns.
Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions of “imprint” (both as a noun and a verb) and the most relevant two definitions are: “the condition of being printed” and “a representation or type of something.” We can further dissect the word “imprint” into two parts: “im-” and “print.” First, the word “print” can suggest the pages of a book or the rolls of a film. But in relation to Japan, the word also evokes culturally specific images such as the printed scrolls of Japanese art/calligraphy and the printed patterns on a geisha’s kimono. Second, the prefix “im-” summons many other associative words pertaining to visualization and representation: e.g. “im-age,” “im-position,” “im-pression,” “im-primatur.” In sum, the word “imprint” signals that a major theme of the film is about the way Japanese culture (as mediated through literary and cinematic texts) is “imprinted” in the minds of the film’s target audience. More explicitly, the film is about the way that white America has utilized “impressions” of Japanese culture for their fetishist enjoyment. Imprint challenges Showtime viewers to ask themselves: How much do Americans know and care about Japan beyond what it is comfortable and convenient for Americans to know and care?
And no discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Japan is complete without saying something about Akira Kurosawa. Since making his name in the West by winning the Golden Lion for Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Kurosawa has been hailed as an icon not only of Asian cinema but also of world cinema, enjoying such honorific titles as “Father,” “Master” and “Emperor.” Yet, against what amounts to a popular and critical consensus on the universality of Kurosawa’s greatness, it is worth noting that Rashomon had a far less enthusiastic initial reception in Japan than in the West. Donald Richie has identified several Japanese reviewers who were puzzled by Rashomon's acclaim and who sought to explain Westerners' embrace of the film as symptomatic of Westerners' fascination with Japan’s “exoticism” (Richie, Rashomon 20). Whether these responses are attributable to Rashomon’s being too “analytic, logical and speculative” to be compatible with “patterns of Japanese thought” (Richie, Rashomon 20) is debatable. Yet, Rashomon's subsequent canonization as one of world cinema’s greatest masterpieces raises an interesting question about the process of cinematic canonization. Could Western critics all along have understood better than Japanese critics what constitutes “great” cinema, or could other factors (cultural, economic, political, for example) determine what films would become masterpieces of world cinema?
In a recent article, Rachael Hutchinson has challenged the popular view of Kurosawa as a politically neutral director who made films about the “universal human condition.” She finds that such a view overlooks elements in Kurosawa’s films which reflect his complex engagement from Western culture and politics:
“The fact that Kurosawa worked under the constraints of Occupation censorship provides the opportunity to examine … questions of power structures and the possibility of counter-discourse” (173).
Still, if Western critics tend to speak in essentializing terms about Kurosawa, they might in part be following a tendency that Kurosawa himself encouraged. Kurosawa’s negative comments about the lukewarm reaction of his countrymen and countrywomen to Rashomon's international success demonstrate that Kurosawa’s talent as a foreign diplomat might have been every part as masterful as his talent as a filmmaker. He lamented that Japanese people “have no confidence in the worth of Japan,” “elevate everything foreign,” and “denigrate everything Japanese” (Kurosawa 187), a lamentation which expertly neutralizes Japanese rejection of Westerners' patronage by characterizing such dissent as a Japanese cultural weakness.
Without denying Kurosawa's genius as a filmmaker, one could still argue that by keeping the focus of his major films “universal” and any sensitive political commentary covert, Kurosawa has made it much easier for Westerners to embrace and celebrate his genius. The problem is that we cannot easily separate reverence and patronage. As Greg M. Smith observes, Rashomon's positive reception in the West was broadly definable in relation to three emphases:
The strategy used in foreign promotion of Rashomon even included a blatant emphasis on the exotic beauty of Machiko Kyo, who plays Masago the wife (Smith par. 41).
Accordingly: if it is not too simplistic and cynical to argue that U.S. interest in foreigners seldom reveals itself as anything more than an occasional tendency to satisfy U.S. fascination with the “other,” then the cult of Kurosawa-appreciation in the United States must be one of the most pervasive yet respectable manifestations of this tendency. White America loves Kurosawa, and no section of white America loves Kurosawa more than white male Hollywood filmmakers. In fact, Hollywood’s general disregard and ignorance of all things non-American seem to run in curious parallel to Hollywood’s singular reverence and possessiveness of all things Kurosawa. Yet, underlying the adulation, there remains here an elitist, essentially paternalistic attitude: claiming one Japanese master as America’s darling is sufficient to pass for a complete, profound mastery of “Japan” and “Asia.” Even recent Hollywood fads towards the production of Asian-friendly cinema may simply be perpetuating Hollywood’s familiar habit of Japonism and J-ploitation. Examples of such production can be found, on the one hand, in gaudy period pieces such as Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003) and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and, on the other hand, in quirky genre pieces such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003).
Against this background, a clearer view emerges as to why Imprint can be read as a satirical critique of white America’s fantasies about Japan. When Miike was asked by IGN.com to explain why he thinks Japanese horror films are catching on in the United States, he gave a rather intriguing answer. Though the English translation is obviously very poor here, his answer is still worth quoting in full because it represents a rare instance when he has addressed this issue directly:
"It’s very interesting because since I’m in Japan, the way that American people selected Japanese horror, is something I don’t understand why they [are] so attracted to Japanese horror these days, because I’m in Japan. And also it’s maybe the same for the other Japanese directors, why they are so popular in America now [is] that people pay so much attention to them. So it’s something like there’s a big wonder why. It just happens to be that way now. It might be the reason why, in Japanese horror, in the stories, it always has the 'hateness,' you always bring the feelings of the hate. It’s very new to American audience, that kind of feelings of hate that you don’t see in American cinema. But also Japanese horror has such lower budgets than the American film budget, in the way that the set or location is so simple that you can do so many things on the one location or one set. Maybe if we appear to the American Hollywood people, that’s it’s very new things that it’s taking place [in] only one place" (Otto par. 10).
From the above grammatical muddle it is possible to extract the following points:
But more importantly, Miike’s explanation also raises a question: What would a Japanese director do if an U.S. network gives him a bigger than usual budget to make a horror film specifically to satisfy U.S. viewers' appetite for J-horror? And he went on to provide a practical answer to such a question by making Imprint.
The correlation between text and creative context in this instance is, I think, even more fascinating than that of, say, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976). That film, like Imprint, is controversial and made by a big-name Japanese director who had the assistance of foreign investment. Oshima seems to have served his benefactors well by delivering a Japanese-language film about Japan offensive to Japan and delightful to the West. In contrast, Miike seems to have bitten the very hands that fed him. He has made a film in English and without subtitles for primary U.S. consumption. But he has also chosen a story in which the “listener” to the tale (the American) turns out be harboring a “secret” that the tale discloses. In other words, the basic story may be read allegorically against the very conditions of production that allowed Miike to make it. His production for U.S. television nominally enables the regular U.S. viewer to relish the sadomasochistic perversity of the Japanese “other,” but it turns out to be a satire on the obsessive perversity of the Americans themselves.
Indeed, it is tempting to make further conjectures on the basis of other information. On several occasions, Miike has shown signs of being both amused and annoyed that Western audiences are interested to know him only as an exotic shock-and-gore filmmaker. Moreover, the irony that an U.S. studio should have invited him to participate in the Masters of Horror franchise as a “token Asian” amidst a straight lineup of Euro-American masters was probably not completely lost on him. Some of this awareness could have informed his creative decisions and led him to use ironic commentary as a resistance strategy. Undoubtedly, the most conspicuous aspect of Imprint’s outlandishness is its language. Anyone watching Imprint is bound to wonder at some stage what on earth drove a non-English speaking filmmaker to do a Japanese period piece in English, especially when a major strength of “Bokkee, Kyotee” derives from Iwai’s effective use of the Okayama dialect. While almost every critic has dismissed his using an English soundtrack as an outcome of Miike’s thoughtlessness or buckling to commercial pressure, I'd like to offer a more critically responsive view.
Experimental multilingualism is a major device in many Miike films, and the only reason that it has not generally been perceived as a weakness by Western viewers is that the experimental multilingualism has mostly been done with Asian languages. In Shinjuku Triad Society, Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive: Final, various characters speak in Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean. Yet Western fans have generally accepted these devices as uncontroversial and unproblematic. A good reason for their acceptance is that, for monolingual English-speakers who watch Miike’s films with subtitles, the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean may simply yield to the opaque impression that the languages are “non-English.” As far as these viewers are concerned, the experience of watching a Miike film is, at least in terms of its language, not very much different from the experience of watching any non-English film. The non-English film is deemed culturally “authentic” because the monolingual English-speaker has neither the knowledge nor the interest to authenticate the film. But something that monolingual English-speaking viewers seldom need to think about is that what strikes them as natural about their conception of English vs. non-English may not necessarily pertain to viewers who know English as a second language. In discussing this issue, Miike has used Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993) as an example of a mainstream Hollywood film which demonstrates this linguistic Anglo-centricism:
"For us Japanese people, it’s very strange to hear the Germans speak English in Schindler’s List. Of course for the market it’s better to make the movie in English, but with such a big budget movie you would imagine they would have no trouble hiring real German actors. So if we can accept Germans speaking English, why not a Japanese character who speaks Chinese?" (Mes, Agitator 368)
Imprint, accordingly, turns the table on the Anglo-centric monolingual English-speakers. It leads U.S. Showtime viewers to recognize that English is a global, heterogeneous language, and that no single audience can claim to have a monopoly on how that language is used. Rather than perpetuating the expectation that non-native English-speaking actors must learn how to speak English with “correct” U.S. accents, the film forces its native English-speaking viewers to adjust to a distinctive form of Japanized-English: a feat that Miike would develop further in his next film, Sukiyaki Western: Django (2007). The result, I argue, does not indicate an artistic compromise or a lapse of creative judgment. Rather, it indicates a wickedly clever recognition of what it takes to create a satirical Japanese-Americana. Even as Imprint carries to absurd length the conceit that rural peasants in Meiji Japan would communicate in mangled American-English, the film is forcing this conceit upon its Showtime viewers (understood by perhaps a few viewers as “anachronism”) to swallow the conceit whole. The joke is on everyone who is prepared to watch Imprint and to pretend that the whole conceit does make sense.
versus “sadistic” aestheticism
At this point, I would like to offer a close reading of Imprint to clarify the film’s radical, visceral argument. The most noticeable change the script made to the short story “Bokkee, Kyotee” is the addition of a new major character, Christopher Karges. In “Bokkee,” the narrator’s patron exists offstage throughout her monologue. In the film, Karges is portrayed as a fair-skinned, blond-haired, welkin-eyed U.S. traveler by the actor Billy Drago, whom Miike handpicked for the role on account of his “distinctive features” (“Imprinting” 6:30). Christopher’s namesake is possibly Christopher Columbus, the great European explorer who braved the treacherous seas to “discover America” but had no similar luck with Japan, for which he famously mistook Haiti. Our Columbus, though, is an unexceptional U.S. newspaperman traveling on a leaky boat to find Komomo (played by Michie Ito), the Japanese girl he loved and lost. At the outset, the narrative premise involves an Arian Last Samurai seeking to reclaim his Madame Butterfly, or at least, to claim control of the “truth” about her.
Christopher’s journey takes him to a seedy rural brothel. Interestingly, the brothel is set on a desolate island, which could be a metaphor for Japan’s geographic status as an island country. In the brothel, he encounters a disfigured prostitute (played by Youki Kudoh), known only as “Woman” (Onna). When Christopher hears from Woman that Komomo was working in the brothel and passed away a short while ago, he demands to be told the “truth” about Komomo’s death. Woman then proceeds to tell Christopher three versions of the story. This multiple narrative structure explicitly mirrors the narrative structure of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Like Rashomon, Imprint tells a story about a central event concerning a theft, a sexual assault and a suspicious death. Like Rashomon, Imprint uses conflicting versions of the central event to offer an argument about the elusiveness of truth and justice. But one significant way in which Imprint differs from Rashomon is the way it uses sexual violence to express its central argument about women.
Before I examine this issue in relation to the most controversial scene in Imprint (i.e. the torture of Komomo), it is useful to make some general comments about the portrayal of sexual violence in Japanese cinema. That Japanese cinema has a rich subculture of bizarre, violent erotica should be obvious to anyone who has opened a copy of Jack Hunter’s Eros in Hell: Sex, Blood and Madness in Japanese Cinema (1998). One of the most prominent expressions of this subculture is the pinku eiga, or the “pink film:” a popular genre of sexploitation films which arose in the 1960s and which specialized in portraying almost every variety of sexual fetishes even as the films themselves skirted around actual displays of genitals and copulation. Although most pink films are clearly exploitative in their portrayal of women, some filmmakers such as Shohei Imamura, Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima have also been known to use the pinku eiga genre to “[question] the establishment” and to “pursu[e] revolutionary politics of the extreme left” (Harritz par. 21). And the most famous erotic film in Japanese cinema is undoubtedly Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, first screened unedited in the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. It is arguably the next most famous Japanese film in the West after Rashomon. As David Desser observes, we should seek to understand In the Realm
“as an outgrowth not only of Oshima’s concern with sexuality, politics, and identity, but also in its relationship to … the ‘pink’ film” (Eros 98).
For Western audiences familiar with In the Realm, the Komomo torture scene is likely to trigger associations with Oshima’s film. For example, Komomo's red kimono is reminiscent of the red kimono worn by Sada in In the Realm's final scene, and Komomo’s torture by the gang of prostitutes is reminiscent of the first film's mock wedding scene in which a young geisha is raped by her fellow geishas using a bird-shaped dildo. Yet, as radical as Oshima’s film is in its representation of a woman as a dominant desiring agent, numerous critics have argued that In the Realm’s construction of female desire as solely dependent on the phallus makes the film unmistakably phallocentric. If this criticism is valid, then something that the two most celebrated “masterpieces” of Japanese cinema — Rashomon and In the Realm — have in common with the less reputable pinku eiga genre is their male-centered examination of female sexuality. Yet, as I shall argue, while Imprint explicitly appropriates this tradition of phallocentricism, it also departs from the tradition by leading audiences to question their own phallocentric voyeurism.
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