2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Rashomon's centerpiece is a scene depicting the rape of a woman, Masago. Similarly, Imprint's centerpiece is a scene depicting the sexualized torture of a woman, Komomo. However, Imprint replaces Rashomon’s stately “objective” depiction of sexual violence with a sadistic “subjective” depiction of sexual violence: Rashomon’s measured rhythm and stately monochromism give way to Imprint’s disorientating frame-jumping and exaggerated colorfulness. Kurosawa’s classical restraint — enabled by omitting Masago's rape in favor of the sexual metaphor of a phallic dagger and circling sunlight — becomes Miike’s sumptuous visual feast of aesthetic sadomasochism. Unlike Kurosawa’s camera, which politely averts our view from the violence, Miike’s camera closes in on the violence right down to the droplets of blood welling underneath Komomo’s fingernails.
And the point of Imprint’s radical revision of Rashomon’s rape scene is arguably to ask the question: should audiences be more troubled by a strategy that exploitatively depicts the victimization of women (Imprint), or by a strategy that naturalizes violence to the extent that violence becomes non-violence and victims become non-victims (Rashomon)? Kurosawa’s strategy of normalizing Masago’s rape as romantic and natural — suggesting that Masago asked to be raped all along; that a woman saying “no” is really a woman meaning “yes” — is replaced by Miike’s strategy of blatant objectification which renders Komomo’s consent irrelevant and “objective” viewing impossible. The spectacle of a woman perfectly dressed in white succumbing to lust for her rapist is caricatured in the spectacle of a woman scantily dressed in red being graphically mutilated by ropes, incense sticks and knitting needles. Yet, if Rashomon suppresses violence to the point of suggesting that rape is not really rape, Imprint is so exaggerated in its insistence on violence that it draws attention to its own devices, and ultimately, the violence in the film functions as a radical critique of the strategy of suppression in Rashomon.
In Rashomon, an “objective” system of criminal law is introduced to show a guilty woman manipulating the “truth” and thereby incriminating herself. In Imprint, a perverse system of criminal law is introduced to force an innocent woman to fabricate her guilt in order to save herself from inhumane persecution. Komomo clearly did not steal the ring, but the “justice” being dealt upon her is such that the “truth” really did not matter. Komomo pleads with her torturers:
“I’m sorry. I was me. I took it … Please forgive me … It hurts … Have mercy” (Tengan 19-20).
By juxtaposing a perverse system of law against a system of law that presents itself as “objective,” Imprint thus draws attention to Rashomon's construction of “objectivity.” Imprint makes no pretence about the exploitative nature of what it presents: Komomo’s torture explicitly gratifies male desire by portraying erotic girl-on-girl actions even as it exonerates male responsibility by making all the torturers female. What Imprint does not do, though, is to construct rape as romantic and natural, and then “objectively” blame the victim for being a liar and an agent of her own violation!
Still, Komomo’s torture is so excessive that it remains necessary to explain how the scene differs from ordinary slasher porn. Even though one may not completely agree with Mes' generalization that “[t]he sex scenes in Takashi Miike’s films do not exist to arouse … but define the characters and the lives they lead” (Agitator 32), his observation is at least useful for revising the popular view that Miike mindlessly purveys gratuitous sex and violence. For one thing, the scene is unlike ordinary slasher porn which seeks to dehumanize its victims: on the contrary, the purpose of the scene is to show the very human Komomo being subjected to dehumanization. As Miike explains to Mick Garris:
“The worse the violence against [the victim], the more sympathetic we are to her” (Mes and Vuckovic 19).[open notes in new window]
In addition, by insisting on violence rather than censoring violence, the scene highlights and offsets the more subtle form of dehumanization that Masago undergoes in Rashomon.
Furthermore, if Imprint treads a very thin line between polemic and porn, another factor helps tilt the film to the right side of the line: that factor is the cameo appearance by author Shimako Iwai as Komomo’s torturer. Cameos are not uncommon in Miike’s films — Izo, for example, is virtually a roll-call of big names from Japan’s entertainment industry — but sometimes they can come across as tacky. For example, in Agitator (2002), Miike provocatively cast himself as a gang leader who uses a microphone to sodomize a bargirl. And in Eli Roth’s The Hostel (2005), Miike plays a client emerging from a torture compound to deliver the self-mocking line: “You could spend all your money in there.” Unlike these gimmicky cameos, however, the appearance of the story's author Shimako Iwai in Imprint is a masterstroke of polemical precision and perspicacity. The casting takes Foucault’s theory of the legitimizing functions of authorship (Foucault 159) and turns the actor playing the torturer into an active legitimizing strategy. With Iwai’s inclusion, the creative rationale of the scene changes from a questionable rationale involving a male filmmaker eroticizing sexual violence — Miike did admit that he cast Michie on the basis that she is someone he could “imagine falling in love with” (“Imprinting” 9:08) — into a legitimate rationale involving a male filmmaker assisting a female author to mount a radical polemic about sexual violence. In contrast, Rashomon’s message hinges on the audiences' complete obeisance to the objective authorities of the master-author Akutagawa and master-filmmaker Kurosawa. Even if Kurosawa could have resurrected the author of “In a Bamboo Grove” to play Tajomaru, the idea of master Akutagawa playing a liar, thief and rapist would still be too sacrilegious to entertain!
Furthermore, as a film made for white U.S. audiences, Imprint appropriates two other mediums of J-pop that white America has taken to heart: manga and anime. Imprint’s combination of surrealistic fantasy, stylized eroticism and extreme violence brings to mind various anime films to have become popular in the West. Alternately, Imprint comes across every bit as enchanting as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), as thrilling as Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll (1993), as eerie as Hiroshi Harada’s Midori (1992), and as exploitative as Kan Fukumoto’s La Blue Girl (1992). Yet, Imprint does more than just adopt anime's visual sensibilities. A central anime motif, one should note, is its exaggerated idealization of Euro-Caucasian beauty, personified by the ivory-skinned, kewpie-faced, saucer-eyed, rainbow-colored-haired humanoids who populate the anime medium. In keeping with its post-colonialist agenda, Imprint reverses the Occidental aspiration of anime, and this film presents an exaggerated Orientalist world to parody the West’s fetishistic delight in Japan’s homogeneity and Japan’s sensitivity about its own homogeneity. Imprint presents audiences with a nineteenth-century Japanese lower-class rural brothel in which the prostitutes — like characters out of anime — have rainbow-colored hair, talk in broken American-English, and dress in kimono-looking costumes which could have come straight off the catwalk of a Milan fashion show or the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
Finally, the torture scene in Imprint is also distinguishable from other similar scenes by virtue of its polemical rendering of gender as a subjective narrative issue: a strategy that challenges the narrative premise of Rashomon. In Rashomon, Kurosawa uses the device of three men discussing a rape to heighten the impression of “objectivity:” three women talking about a rape, one presumes, would not work so well as a trope of objectivity. In contrast, Imprint challenges Rashomon’s construction of “objectivity” as male by insisting on the complicity of its male protagonist. It is Christopher, the white male hero on his quest for “truth,” who brings up the story: it is he who demands to hear the tale from Woman. And Christopher’s obsessive search for the “truth” ensures not only that Komomo’s torture is brought up, but also that the torture is lengthened and repeated. In other words, it is Christopher’s male curiosity and obsession with “truth” which are directly responsible for producing more spectacles of female sufferings.
And like the syphilitic midget voyeuristically watching Komomo’s torture with a cock (pun intended) perched high on his head, Showtime viewers become complicit in their act of watching Komomo’s torture. Unlike in Rashomon, though, viewers do not enjoy the kind of discreet distancing provided by Kurosawa to safely watch the overture and aftermath of Masago’s beautifully non-violent violation. Instead, viewers are placed by Miike right in the middle of Komomo’s beautifully violent violation and made to squirm in the discomfort of their unrestricted voyeurism.
Rashomon: multiple narratives
and the fib-telling woman
As crucial as Komomo’s torture is as a set piece of the film, the rest of Imprint is not just an overwrought patchwork to justify the existence of that set piece. Ultimately, Imprint is less about Komomo than it is about the interaction between Woman and Christopher. The positions of Christopher and Woman are striking in terms of the contrasting dichotomies they reveal: male and female; Caucasian and Asian; rich and poor; patron and servant; able and disfigured; listener and speaker; named and nameless. Yet, despite her apparent disadvantage, Woman holds the upper hand over her patron in their psychological and ideological game of cat-and-mouse. For, besides holding the key to the “truth” about Komomo, Woman also makes Christopher listen to stories about herself. This means that Christopher must agree to follow Woman’s lead if he wishes to reach the “truth” about Komomo.
To understand how Imprint replicates Rashomon’s narrative structure and uses this replication as a strategy to further its radical argument, it is necessary first to understand how Akutagawa’s “In a Bamboo Grove” and Kurosawa’s Rashomon depict its central woman, Masago. For a summary of the pivotal event in Rashomon, we may quote David Desser, who has described Rashomon as a cross between a “metaphysical mystery” and “classic detective story:”
"A bandit has tricked a Samurai, tied him up, and raped his wife. The Samurai’s death followed soon after. The major points of contention are the woman’s duplicity in the event following the rape and the manner in which the Samurai-husband met his death. The unsolved crime leans not toward who did it, but how" (Samurai 67).
This is an apt summary of Rashomon because it captures the way in which the film presents itself and the way in which the central event of the story is framed. Desser’s summary has several noteworthy aspects. First, it identifies Rashomon’s presentation of itself as a tale with universal relevance: at once “metaphysical” and “classic[al].” Second, it describes the rape of the woman as one event within a sequence of events rather than as an issue in itself. Third, it explicitly mentions the woman's “duplicity,” registering the film’s insistence that she is no passive victim. Fourth, it stresses the importance of the samurai’s death, indicating that this is the story's cardinal issue. Fifth, it identifies the film’s intellectual and philosophical interest, which is not who or what or why, but how.
We should examine in more detail the four different accounts of the story in Rashomon. Account I is by Tajomaru, the Bandit. Tajomaru was sitting under a tree when a samurai and his wife walked past him. A puff of wind lifted the woman’s veil, revealing her beauty, which made Tajomaru decide to rape her. He tricked the samurai by offering to take him to a place where some precious swords were buried. When the woman realized what had happened, she wielded her dagger to fight Tajomaru. But, in due course, she succumbed to him. Afterwards, Tajomaru turned to leave. The woman ran after him, begging him not to leave her. Tajomaru released the samurai, and the two men engaged in a heroic duel. Finally, Tajomaru delivered a fatal blow on the samurai. The frightened woman ran away.
Account II is by Masago, the samurai’s Wife. The bandit raped her, and ran off laughing. Masago tearfully threw herself on her husband’s chest. But in the next moment, she noticed his eyes, which were filled with cold hatred and contempt towards her. Heartbroken and bewildered, she ran to fetch her dagger, cut her husband loose, and offered him the dagger to kill her. When he continued to stare at her, she lunged at the dagger wildly, fainted, and woke up to find the dagger in her husband’s chest.
Account III is by Takehiro, the dead Samurai, speaking through a spiritual medium. After the rape, Takehiro’s wife was persuaded by the bandit to go with him. Before leaving, his wife pointed to Takehiro and passionately urged the bandit to kill Takehiro. Shocked by the woman’s savagery, the bandit kicked her to the ground. As the men were deciding what to do with her, the woman ran for her life. The bandit chased after her but failed to catch her. Takehiro cried and stabbed himself with his wife’s dagger. Before he lost consciousness, he felt someone remove the dagger from his chest.
Account IV is by the Woodcutter and is not found in Akutagawa’s short story. After the rape, the bandit asked the woman to go with him. She gave no answer, cut her husband loose, and waited for the men to fight for her. But the samurai retreated, saying he would not risk his life for a “shameless whore” (Richie, Rashomon 81). The bandit reconsidered, and turned to leave. The woman ran after the bandit, but he pushed her away. As the two men stood over the weeping woman, suddenly her weeping changed into hysterical laughter. She called both men cowards, and said only a real man deserves a woman’s love. The men were shamed into fighting. Their duel was tentative and incompetent. Finally, the bandit managed to defeat the samurai. The frightened woman ran away. The Woodcutter did not mention the dagger and was speechless when the Commoner accused him of stealing it from the samurai’s body.
A standard reading of Rashomon may go something like this: Human nature is inevitably subjective, and this subjectivity presents itself as an obstacle to the attempt to establish objective truth. Human beings are unwilling, maybe are even unable, to see their own faults, and they would always present events favoring themselves as the “truth.” Since truth-telling is inseparable from morality, this fallacy in human nature represents not only an intellectual but also a moral problem for mankind. The overarching symbol, the ruined Rashomon Gate, symbolizes this intellectual and moral crisis. If it is possible for human beings to redeem themselves, this redemption must come from the human capacity to be truthful and upright, and from the restoration of law, culture, and social order, for which Rashomon Gate once stood.
If a standard reading of Rashomon looks like this, what would a feminist reading of Rashomon look like? Anyone interested should read Orit Kamir’s essay “Judgment by Film: Socio-Legal Functions of Rashomon.” Even though Rashomon presents “truth” and “morality” as inseparable, such a presentation not only simplifies the types of situations that are subject to morality, but it also overlooks the inappropriateness of applying moral assessment to subjects who lack the freedom and choice to act morally in the first place. In every account of the story, the men do have this freedom and choice. For Takehiro, acting morally would have meant not giving into the temptation to seek accidental fortune; it would also have meant behaving in a more humane way towards his traumatized wife. For Tajomaru, the path to righteousness is even clearer: Tajomaru could have chosen not to sexually violate woman or to assault the samurai or to commit theft or to kill. These are genuine moral choices because the power lies squarely with the men to do or to not do: don’t covet your neighbor’s goods; don’t cast the first stone; don’t lie; don’t steal; don’t rape.
Yet, while Rashomon insists that Masago is at least as corrupt and culpable as Tajomaru and Takehiro, what Rashomon fails to do is to provide a convincing argument as to what Masago could have done to do “right.” That Masago was forced into sex with Tajomaru is established in every account of the story. As Tajomaru freely admits, Masago “fought like a cat” (Richie, Rashomon 53), even though her show of “spirit” only makes him want to conquer her all the more. If the trial in progress is one in which Tajomaru supposedly stands accused, however, Rashomon’s way of presenting the rape narrative is such that the person being subject to trial and discreditation is actually the raped woman, Masago.
As Orit Kamir observes, even though Tajomaru is the accused, Rashomon places him in a prosecutorial role by giving him the first, longest, and most detailed case to present. Played by Toshiro Mifune as an impressive noble savage, Tajomaru only recognizes killing as a crime, and he blames the woman for leading him to kill. Tajomaru considers rape to be natural, even honorable, and the single depiction of the rape in the film — against a lush backdrop of rocks, water, grass, bamboos and circling sunlight — would tend to support his view. In the course of the film, we are told about various aspects of rape:
However, the impact of rape on the victim — the trauma resulting from her physical, psychological and emotional violation — is not an issue with which Rashomon concerns itself. Within the film's terms of reference, rape is primarily an issue about female dishonor and female dishonor’s effect on male honor. Moreover, Rashomon’s restriction of the woman’s voice to the lone voice of Masago ensures that men can collectively judge a woman, whereas a woman can only defend herself against male judgment. It also creates a paradigm in which each man acts as an individual, whereas one woman becomes representative of her entire sex.
By depersonalizing the woman’s experience of rape, and subordinating her experience to a “universal,” “objective” inquiry about the effects of nature and culture’s law on “human nature,” Rashomon enforces a double-bind on the woman. On the one hand, it is naturally sanctioned for men to want to have sex with women; on the other, it is culturally sanctioned for men to condemn women for being sexually dishonored. Trapped within an ethical paradigm which both justifies male violence and sanctifies male judgment, Masago cannot win. If she cannot escape Tajomaru’s “natural” determination to rape her, equally, she cannot escape the “cultural” consequences of the rape.
Among the several scenarios mentioned in the story, every scenario puts Masago at some sort of disadvantage. Whatever follows the rape, according to the code of honor of her society, Masago is a soiled commodity.Therefore, the power lies with Takehiro or Tajomaru to claim her or to reject her; Masago is essentially bound to these men. Doing nothing will not undo her violation, and doing something will only deepen her incrimination. To be sure, when every course of action would attract a negative judgment, action may well be an afterthought instead of a basis for judgment.
Let me explain this last concept in greater depth: If Masago shows a sexual response to her rapist and begs him to redeem her (Account I), she is soiled goods and a whore. If Masago fails to act and only weeps and faints (Account II), she is soiled goods and a weakling. If Masago goads her men to a duel (Account IV), she is soiled goods, a whore and a shrew. The most incriminating account (Account III) invites audiences to see Masago as more corrupt than the men. That account shows Masago instructing Tajomaru to kill her husband (or held back by Akutagawa in the original tale to be exposed climactically as the mother of all evils). Here is a woman who combines whore, shrew, liar, traitor, soiled goods and instigator of murder in one cunning body! Since “In a Bamboo Grove” is a story which depicts the consequences when “human nature” deviates from patriarchal morality, it is easy to see why the story should present a wife driven by lust to instigate the murder of her master/husband as the mother of all evils. This is because this act transgresses two of the fundamental laws of patriarchal moral order: female chastity and female submission.
What neither “In a Bamboo Grove” nor Rashomon adequately explores, though, is whether any of the above scenarios provides Masago with a legitimate choice. Being hounded into a corner and forced to fight to survive is not the same as having the free will to make a genuine moral choice. Even if Account III were true and Masago did try to instigate the murder of her husband, it remains questionable what Masago has to gain from running away with Tajomaru. “[T]ake me anywhere you like” (Akutagawa 18), she tells Tajomaru. But how does letting a violent trickster, thief, rapist and possible murderer take her “anywhere he likes” constitute a “choice” for a woman? The narrative’s insistence that this particularly lurid view of Masago’s culpability be the last thing we remember distracts us from the reality that, whichever path she takes, Masago can only make the situation worse for herself. All this brings home the “truth” that, as a raped woman, there was never any “right” path for Masago except to commit suicide, which is what she acknowledges in her own account:
"I threw myself into [a pond]. I tried to kill myself. But, I failed. What could a poor helpless woman like me do?" (Richie, Rashomon 68)
If, for men, moral action entails their consciously refraining from breaching established moral codes such as don’t greed; don’t lie; don’t steal; don’t lust, then, for a sexually violated woman, moral action would appear to entail an additional moral code: don’t live. By showing Masago frame a lame excuse for failing to do what she could have done quite easily, Akutagawa’s and Kurosawa’s male narratives would seem to have settled on one thing about this woman: namely, that she is to blame for lacking the integrity and courage to kill herself after being raped.
If the only decent thing a woman can do after being raped is to kill herself, it follows that a woman who has the presumption to survive rape must have something indecent about her. It follows, too, that a woman who has the audacity to publish her shame by testifying in an open hearing must have something suspicious, unclean, even shameless about her. Knowing what havoc the tongue of a shameless woman can cause, Tajomaru expresses misgiving about the foolishness of letting Masago escape alive:
“Now I’ll have to worry about her talking” (Richie, Rashomon 76)
Imprint: multiple narratives
and the truth-telling woman
It is precisely in articulating another version of how Rashomon enshrines a dichotomy between male judgment and female guilt, however, that Imprint takes issue with Rashomon. Sidestepping Rashomon’s elaborate process of exposing its central woman as a whore, Imprint takes as its premise the idea that its central woman is a whore. After establishing this premise, however, Imprint then allows its whore to do all the talking, which in turn graphically exposes the conditions that have caused her to become a whore in the first place. The effect is to challenge Rashomon’s view that a woman is responsible for her own whoredom merely by failing to kill herself, and to destabilize the “objective” assumption that men have the right to pass judgment on women.[45a] If Rashomon seeks to examine what happens when patriarchal morality is corrupted by “human beings,” Imprint turns this premise inside out and presents an indictment of the corruption of patriarchal morality itself.
Imprint’s radical revision begins with the central symbol, Rashomon Gate, which underpins Kurosawa’s film. Imprint transposes the time of the story from the late Heian period to the early-mid Meiji period (Akutagawa and Kurosawa were born in 1892 and 1910 respectively). Miike relocates the setting of the story from the dilapidated Rashomon Gate, offered by Akutagawa as a symbol of men’s moral deterioration, to a seedy island-bound brothel, offered by Iwai as a symbol of a reality from which women have no escape. It hardly makes any difference by what name we call these women — harlots, whores, comfort women, sex slaves — it is obvious that the only choice for them, as evident from the pregnant corpses floating on the putrid pond at the start of the film, is to stay in the brothel or to drown in the pond. All in all, the fate of these women grimly fulfils Rashomon’s instruction that any sexually violated woman who doesn’t want to be called a whore must kill herself immediately.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa offers his art as an “objective” platform upon which we can ponder and observe the subjectivity of human actions. The characters' direct-to-camera testimonies have the effect of transforming audiences into fair-minded members of a jury. By positioning audiences this way, Rashomon implicitly enshrines its representation of truth-seeking and law-making as the audiences' own vocation and responsibility. “Truth” and “justice,” the film invites audiences to concur, may be difficult and imperfect. But the philosophical and judicial systems which combine to discredit Masago remain unchallenged as legitimate systems for philosophers and law-makers to go about establishing objectivity, rationality and neutrality. If there is a moral lesson to come out of Rashomon, the lesson is most probably this. Human beings are inevitably duplicitous and self-serving, but if only they would develop the courage and decency to admit the “truth” about themselves, the world would be a better place.
In Imprint, however, Miike casts into doubt not just the attainability of “truth” or the subjectivity of “human beings.” Rather, it is the presupposition underlying the philosopher’s own quest for “truth.” As Woman observes on hearing Christopher’s claim that what he wants is the truth:
“I wonder why people always want to know the truth. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Sometimes the lie is better” (Tengan 21).
If a woman had said this in Rashomon, the explanation most consistent with that film’s philosophy probably would be that women are too weak and corrupt to handle the “truth.” But, in Imprint, this remark is made by a world-weary Woman who has obviously learnt the hard way that the quest for “truth” is never as innocuous as the truth-seekers themselves assume.
Imitating Rashomon’s narrative technique, Imprint offers multiple versions of an unsolved crime concerning a theft, a sexual assault and a suspicious death. Woman herself anticipates Christopher’s suspicion of her duplicity by asking him sarcastically:
“Whores never tell the truth, do we?” (Tengan 21).
In appearance, then, Imprint’s narrative multiplicity upholds the conventional wisdom that truth-telling is antithetical to female nature, particularly to the nature of a sexually impure female. But, unlike the voice of Masago, Imprint does not construct the voice of Woman as “objectively” unreliable as mediated through a male-dominated court, two male participants, three male bystanders, and three male master-philosophers. In Imprint, Woman does all the talking, and the three accounts she offers combine to destabilize traditional male-centered views of the world:
Account I: “Madame Butterfly” — woman recounts a sanitized version of her childhood
Account II: “Woman Beware Woman” — woman gives an alternative version of the story about the missing jade ring
Account III: “Woman as Monster” — woman recounts the “true” story of her childhood
In Rashomon, the multiple narratives have a purported function of exposing the blind spots inherent in human nature. Nominally, each narrator has an equal say in the story, and the fact that each narrator should offer an account favoring themselves is used to demonstrate the subjective egoism of human nature. As previously argued, however, the trope of equality and neutrality in Rashomon functions merely as a smokescreen, since the literary, philosophical and legal conventions that Rashomon invokes and presents as neutral operate in unison to discredit and incriminate the central woman, Masago. As Orit Kamir argues:
"The acts of judging the woman and silencing her story constitute the men on-screen as a judging, masculine community …. [B]y neutralizing the men’s gender the film prevents the viewer from suspecting that the judging community is masculine and that masculine screening norms may be silencing the woman’s story, thereby luring the viewer to join the masculine community on-screen." (“Judgment” 84)
Targeting this objectified bias in Rashomon, Imprint appropriates Rashomon’s narrative structure in order to expose the blind spots inherent in the patriarchal conception of “human nature.” The way Imprint achieves this is by having Woman knowingly adopt the traditional structures (or “imprints”) of various standard male narratives in the three versions of the story she tells.
The first version is a melodrama in the tradition of Madame Butterfly or Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a tragic-idyllic narrative about the misfortune of women, in the course of which female suffering is presented as a sumptuous spectacle for male enjoyment. The second version is a cautionary tale about the corruption of women, presented in the tradition of respectable erotic films such as Seijun Suzuki’s Gates of Flesh (1964) or pinku eiga such as Suzuki Norifumi’s Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973). It shows the betrayal of a good woman by a gang of bad women and empowers male audiences to sexualize and condemn women at the same time: “How can you live with yourself?” Christopher denounces Woman:
“For some trinket you wanted, you killed my Komomo” (Tengan 25-26).
The third version is a horror fantasy in the kaidan tradition of Japanese folklore, which recent films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (2000) have so cleverly modernized for their adolescent male demographics. It offers a grimly realistic portrait of violence, abuse and revenge, ending with the obligatory appearance of a terrifying she-monster who represents a cathartic expression (or, if the monster is destroyed, a symbolic exorcism) of the male fear of women.
By having Woman self-consciously present these narratives as versions of the “truth” which the male hero is seeking, Imprint explicitly presents “truth” as a male narrative construct. The three narratives destabilizes the “objectivity” of the inquest which Rashomon uses to incriminate Masago. Beyond their function as narrative references, however, there is a subtle interconnectedness between the three versions of the story. The focus and timing of Woman’s successive revelations — moving from male fantasy, to male judgment, to male nightmare — combine to destablize the methodology of the epistemological quest in Rashomon. If David Desser is correct to argue that Rashomon’s interest “leans not toward who did it, but how” (Samurai 67), what Imprint does is to expose the inadequacy of asking how, and to reinstate the need to ask why: why did Komomo die? Once why becomes a relevant question, the objective quest for “truth,” which Rashomon presents as noble and essential for mankind’s salvation, is no longer as relevant, important or universally applicable as it appears. Nor does the status of truth-telling as a moral duty appear as absolute as it appears in Rashomon.
To illustrate, we need look no further than the counter moral lesson taught by the story of Komomo, who has “a heart of gold” (Tengan 16) and who always tells the “truth.” Komomo declares, with the frankest naivety, that she would have been born a “princess” in another age, and has a man who “loves me” and promises to “take me away from here” (Tengan 18). Nevertheless, telling the “truth” most certainly has done Komomo more harm than good by instigating the malice and jealousy of the other prostitutes. More relevantly, to seek “truth” for the sole purpose of satisfying Christopher’s personal obsession with Komomo is to narrow the terms of reference of the inquest. For how would satisfying Christopher’s personal obsession redeem the plight of women (to quote Iwai again) “with no place to escape”?
Seeking “truth” on Christopher’s terms, in other words, is to focus on the symptom and ignore the cause. To address the cause, it is necessary to recast the question and widen the terms of the inquiry. We must go right to the root of the problem, and ask: Why do women become prostitutes? Why do women get raped? Why do women seek abortion? Why do women get bashed at home? Why do beautiful women get exploited for their beauty? Why do ugly women get persecuted for their ugliness? Rashomon is interested in none of these questions, and the film’s portrayal of Masago does away with the need to ask any of these questions by offering a moral generalization:
“Sin happens because human nature is egotistical, deceitful and corrupt.”
Yet, Imprint challenges audiences into confronting the phallocentric implications behind such moral generalizations. When Christopher’s obsession with how one particular woman died is contrasted with the urgency and reality of the questions regarding why all women suffer, Christopher’s quest quickly reveals itself to be a meretricious, self-indulgent exercise. Indeed, even if Christopher were to get the “truth” he wanted, and the prostitutes who tortured Komomo were brought to trial in a judicial court resembling the one being held in Rashomon, this would hardly change the fact that the world remains a very ugly place. This is because the plague of suffering spreads far beyond the confines of one whorehouse. Surely, a more fundamental injustice is at play, and the source of injustice is pointedly identified by Imprint from a radical perspective: patriarchal oppression. Imprint renders explicit Rashomon's implicit phallocentricism, which constructs a woman’s rape not as an event significant in itself but as an event significant only insofar as it provides a context for rational, objective male philosophers to rationally and objectively philosophize about “truth,” “justice” and “human nature.”
By the time the third version of the “truth” emerges, Komomo’s torture, which initially came across as the most horrific example of “human” cruelty, falls into perspective. A particular form of fetishtic, stylized female suffering gives way to a more general, prosaic form of female suffering. The narrative movement is such that, instead of supporting the wishful thinking of men like Christopher that the origin of “evil” is traceable to a few ugly bad women behaving nastily towards one beautiful virtuous woman, the “truth” turns out to be an indictment of the entire social structure that oppresses all women. Komomo’s suffering is merely one isolated imprint on a larger canvas of existential female sufferings. Reversing Rashomon’s universalist argument about the sins of the “universal female,” Imprint posits a counter universalist argument about the sins of the “universal male.”
“Mother,” impregnation, procreation
The first two versions of the story, as mentioned, are told by Woman to satisfy Christopher’s personal obsession with his Komomo. By the time Woman reaches the third and final version, however, Woman goes into much greater details about the true story of her own “Mother” (Haha). The fact that Mother, like Woman, is nameless indicates that Mother is also an archetype of her sex. And the story of Mother serves to remind us that there are indeed other narratives — other “truths” — worth telling and knowing besides Komomo’s story.
As a pleasure-seeking man, Christopher is not expected to care a lot about Mother's plight. Unlike his beautiful Komomo, Mother is old, shabby and ugly, and therefore would never have qualified as an object of a male erotic fetish. Regardless of this, Mother's sufferings are real enough, and the film creates counterpoints between the erotic image of Komomo being tortured, and prosaic images of women giving birth and undergoing abortions; that juxtaposition brings home the “truth” that these experiences are all common to women. The life of Mother follows a pattern — an “imprint,” if you will — that is only too predictable.
Mother is born into a poor rural family, is raped by her Brother, and runs off to live with him in a riverside hovel. “Despite his cruelty and drinking,” Woman recalls, “momma did her duties as a good wife” (Tengan 29). Mother is kicked and punched by her Brother-Husband for having no money to buy him sake. And Brother-Husband is played by Houka Kinoshita as an uncouth, inarticulate idiot to parody the feral charisma of Toshiro Mifune’s Tajomaru, in a scene that presents us not only with a savage reenactment of the chase scene in Rashomon,[53a] but also with a grimly realistic picture of what Masago’s life would have looked like had she really run off with Tajomaru. Mother makes a living out of helping other sisters, mothers, daughters and wives terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Mother becomes pregnant herself, and gives birth to a baby girl, whom she initially abandons to die in the river. But when against all the odds the baby girl survives, Mother is overcome by her maternal instincts, and makes up her mind to bring up “Daughter.”
The moment that Mother makes up her mind to bring up Daughter, however, is also the moment that Daughter inherits the sin of being female. Daughter spends her childhood helping Mother help other sisters, mothers, daughters and wives terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Daughter grows up with a facial deformity and is branded a “freak” and “baby killer” (Tengan 32) by the neighborhood’s male children, who, it is not hard to predict, will grow into another generation of violent men who impregnate another generation of pliant women in order that the whole cycle of violence and oppression could continue. Daughter is raped by Father and sexually abused by the local Priest, who promises to lead her to spiritual salvation. On reaching puberty, Daughter enters a whorehouse, using her body to serve the pleasure of men: “Tonight I am yours,” she tells Christopher, “You may do what you wish with me” (Tengan 7). Finally, Daughter is asked by a rich white Daddy to recount her miseries in order that his “truth” could be told and his broken heart could be nursed.
If the lives of Mother and Daughter combine into an extreme yet disturbingly lucid summary of the universal plight of women, their experiences also point up the final meaning of “imprint:” Procreation. In the infernal world in which these suffering women struggle for survival, procreation is exclusively the outcome of violence, betrayal, manipulation, incest, rape, pedophilia and prostitution to which men subject women. Since procreative sex is responsible for producing life, and life for women can only mean abuse and exploitation by men, procreative sex which produces life must be a sin, and death cannot be worse than life when life already resembles the darkest pits of “hell.”
Following this reasoning, Woman reaches her own rationale as to why she had to kill Komomo. Strangling Komomo seems like an ultimate act of kindness because death would save Komomo from having to continue her hellish existence as a soiled object of male exploitation. Komomo might go to “heaven” if she dies rather than carries on living among the fallen women who are doomed to spend the rest of their lives using their bodies to serve callous, exploitative men. Accordingly, Woman explains to the morally outraged Christopher what drove a passive woman like her to “take action” for the first time in her life:
"You don’t understand: I helped [Komomo] to get to heaven …. I made myself hate her …. Supposed I like her. What would the devil think of her having such an evil friend! He’d think if they are friends, then Komomo must be a wicked person, too. He would have sent her to hell! So I hated Komomo. And now I’m sure she’s in heaven. What could be more pitiful? To be strangled to death by the one you trusted the most. I’m sure Buddha grabbed her by the hand and took her to heaven" (Tengan 26-27).
If Woman’s rationale sounds “demented” to Christopher (an early Wikipedia entry on the film sympathetically noted that Christopher “barely keep[s] his sanity after hearing this demented tale”), this is so because patriarchal morality and theology are too convoluted to accommodate a woman’s reality. How does a sexually exploited woman reconcile the moral code that “good” women are subservient to men and the theological code that only the “good” women deserve to go to heaven? As a philosophy of salvation, Woman’s explanation is a twisted parody of the traditional logic which Akutagawa’s young man uses to trump the hair-stealing crone in the tale “Rashomon,” and a twisted parody of the traditional concept of “heaven” which Kurosawa’s Priest accuses “human beings” of dishonoring in the film Rashomon. Kurosawa’s Priest says:
“[I]f men don’t tell the truth, do not trust one another, then the earth becomes a kind of hell” (Richie, Rashomon 86).
“Truth” and “trust,” we can work out by logical inference, set “men” on “earth” on the correct path to “heaven.”
However, Woman learns from her Priest, who uses catechisms on “heaven” and “hell” to reach her body — “If you don’t do as I say,” the Priest warns her, “you’ll go straight to hell” (Tengan 32). She learns that so long as a woman is subject to the physical control and cultural authority of “men,” it matters not if she is passive or active, innocent or guilty, trusting or treacherous, truthful or untruthful, she is doomed to go to hell anyway:
“And so this hole leads to hell too” (Tengan 32).
If this interpretation is correct, then an alternative “truth” emerges from this bastardized sister narrative to Rashomon. Contrary to what Christopher and his fellow “men” like to believe, hell on earth did not begin when several ugly nasty whores decide to gang up and bully one beautiful innocent woman. Rather, hell for women begins from the moment that women are born into a world ruled by men, who are themselves born of women, yet who also control and condemn women when they grow into men. As Woman summarizes this grotesque “universal” law:
"Men don’t like our holes. They yearn for the hell behind them. The hell they were in before being born" (Tengan 22).
“Woman,” “sister,” monster
The climax of the story coincides with the appearance of Woman’s twin “Sister” (Ane). Notably, this is the first time that an explicit supernatural element appears in the film. Until now, the narrative has suspended the very element that audiences expect from a traditional ghost story. The film kept viewers in the dark as to whether Woman was speaking literally or figuratively when she claimed that “demons and whores are the only ones living here” (Tengan 10). “It was and wasn’t Hell” (“Imprinting” 2:48) is how Iwai describes the setting of “Bokkee.” But with the film's climactic twist steering the story back onto its expected course as a tale of supernatural horror — a trope taken straight out of “Bokkee” — Imprint forces us to ponder the priority of the things that “really scare” us. If the reality of female suffering is already so horrifying, what else in the supernatural world could horrify us? Do rape, abortion and domestic violence become interesting to men only when these horrors have been sexualized into porn or sensationalized into supernatural thrillers?
The reference to “demons” is most probably a reference to a comment by the Commoner just before the Woodcutter offers his final account in Rashomon:
"Stories like this are ordinary enough now. I heard that demons used to live in the castle here by the gate, but they all ran away, because what men do now horrified them so" (Richie, Rashomon 78).
While Imprint would agree that “what men do” is horrible, Imprint invites audiences to become horrified by a rather different view of “what men do.” In Imprint, the “demon” turns out to be a deformed Siamese twin-sister of Woman living inside the brain of Woman. Symbolically, we may interpret “Sister,” whose right hand doubles as her face and her body, as a wry self-portrait of Shimako Iwai as a young female writer writing against the masculinist literary tradition set down by Japan’s “Father” of the short story, Ryonosuke Akutagawa. Female imagination, female knowledge, and female ability to counter-reason threaten the authority of powerful men; such female traits are dangerous and monstrous and must be branded demonic.
The film uses Sister’s monstrosity in other ways to advance its radical polemic. On the one hand, Sister’s monstrosity aptly manifests itself as the monstrosity of a malformed fetus. This is because women alone must bear the consequence of sex (whether childbirth or abortion), even though men are directly responsible for impregnating women (whether through seduction or rape). On the other hand, Sister’s monstrosity aptly manifests itself in her aggressive femaleness (she has teeth in her mouth resembling a vagina dentata) and in her aggressive maleness (she speaks with a masculine voice, and has a tongue resembling a phallus). This is because androgyny and hermaphroditism defy traditional gender roles, making it possible for women to transcend their biological destiny as slaves of procreation.
The strongest reason for Sister's monstrosity, however, is her emphatic refusal to be a good little girl for men. Sister is active rather than passive; supernatural rather than cultural/natural; amoral rather than morally subservient. And, as Woman explains, Sister always gets what she “want[s]” (Tengan 37). In sum, Sister is a complete embodiment of Barbara Creed’s monstrous-feminine. She is at once a Freudian phallic mother, a Kristevan abject woman, a vampire, a ghoul, a witch, a psychopath, a possessed body, an animalistic human, a bleeding womb, a girl-boy and a femme castratrice (Creed 1). As a lawless she-monster, Sister wrecks havoc on the moral, judicial and cultural order maintained by the laws of the father. It is Sister who killed Father; it is Sister who stole Madam’s ring, and it is Sister who forces Woman to tell the real “truth” about Woman’s family history and how Komomo died. More important than how Komomo died, however, is why Komomo died. And the final truth, suppressed in Rashomon’s “objective” narrative about human subjectivity, is exposed by Sister in Imprint. What killed Komomo is “men” and the institution of patriarchy, which subordinates women, domesticates women, persecutes women, prostitutes women, all the while restricting access to “truth” and “justice” to men!
To emphasize this point, Sister goes on to expose a dark secret about our Occidental knight-errant. In Rashomon, Masago taunts and laughs at her men in the final account of the story. In Imprint, Sister also taunts and laughs at the truth-seeking Christopher as she rattles out the skeletons he is hiding in his closet. Early in the film, Christopher claimed that he fell in love with Komomo because “she reminded me of my little sister” (Tengan 10). But the real “truth,” finally exposed by Sister’s demonic clairvoyance, is that Christopher raped and killed his own little sister back in the United States. Tellingly, the question that the spirit of Christopher’s little sister wants answered is not how but why:
"You are hurting me. Stop it, Christopher! Why did you kill me? Why would you hurt me? Your own little sister? I did what you asked. Why?" (Tengan 38)
As a helpless little girl spirit, Christopher’s sister offers an alternative personification of victimhood to Rashomon’s aggressively self-righteous man spirit, Takehiro. Moreover, it is interesting that Christopher’s little sister should appear in flashback as a blue-eyed little Japanese girl. We may interpret this as a satirical nod to Arthur Golden’s improbable Euro-Asian geisha girl, Sayuri, who is yet another specimen in a long line of docile Asian females — Madame Butterfly, Suzie Wong, Miss Saigon. Such characters are created to be the fetishistic objects of fantasy for oversexed white men. Christopher, as representative of “men” who exploit women and representative of “Westerners” who exploit Easterners, is incriminated on both counts in Woman’s alternative “Rashomon.”
When Christopher is brought face to face with the “truth,” his response, tellingly, is to deny it and resort to physical violence. Christopher must destroy the disfigured woman who has exposed the offensive “truth” to him. It is entirely appropriate for Christopher that, at this juncture, Woman’s identity should converge with the identity of her monstrous Sister: this convergence provides him with the perfect justification to kill them both. In his agitation, Christopher produces a gun — an unambiguous phallic symbol. He aims it at the monster in his endeavor to restore the normative pattern in which he functions as the male hero slaying a terrifying she-monster on his heroic male quest for “truth.” Christopher yells before firing his gun twice at Woman/Sister — one bullet into their heart and one bullet into their brain:
“I’ll give you what you want. I’m going to send you both to hell!” (Tengan 38).
Yet, the final “truth” that comes out is something that Christopher did not anticipate. The monster changes shape again, and reveals itself to be Komomo, who, with her brains blown out by Christopher’s gun, stretches out her arm and plaintively tells him, “I waited for you,” before collapsing at his feet. This ultimate act of female self-immolation mirrors the moment in Rashomon in which Masago throws herself at Tajomaru’s feet in order to trick him into helping her cover up her disgrace. In Rashomon, Masago is presented as a lustful, deceitful, treacherous “universal woman” for the audiences' judgment. But in Imprint, a radical counter-lesson is presented to expose the fallacy of Rashomon’s moral lesson. It matters not that a woman is as kind, virtuous, gentle, chaste, innocent, truthful, loyal and spiritually pure as Komomo. So long as “men” are in control of this woman, they can still find a way to make a whore of her, condemn her sins, and send her to hell. The imprint of this “truth” was evident all along but awaiting disclosure in this evil twin-sister version of Rashomon. Christopher’s quest for “truth” has led to his own incrimination by Woman and Sister. He was the rapist and killer of his own little sister, and he is the traitor and killer of his beloved Komomo!
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. 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. 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, 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. 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:
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) 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.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, 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. 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:
Coda: banning Imprint
Inevitably, different viewers will approach Imprint in different ways: for example,
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? ): 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). 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.
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; that victims of sex slavery are filthy harlots and mercenary liars; that war criminals are heroic samurais who should be honored in Shinto Shrines and blessed with prayers of spiritual transcendence. 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? 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. 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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