Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Women of Kurosawa

The Women of Kurosawa: Analysis and Discussion

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of society is our notion of gender, and how that impacts us. We love to dissect portrayals of specific genders in films, and with Kurosawa it's unmistakably no different. Many articles, books, etc. have taken time to analyze Kurosawa's various portrayals of women. And I can quite honestly say it's seldom laid out into positive light.

Perhaps that's why I wonder what Kurosawa really thought of women as a whole. Throughout the majority of his films women tended to fall into one of the three categories: They were either the victim, the schemer, or the loyal subservient... sometimes all three in one film (Rashomon for example). Yet on some level I wonder if that's really what Kurosawa thought of women... You see even to this day Japan and women's rights is a touchy subject. Torn between old school traditionalism, and modern day corporatism. Not all that different from America, is it? Just imagine what it was like during Kurosawa's heyday almost 60 years ago.

So, let's take the categories one at a time. First up, the victim. For Kurosawa it often seems that the victimized woman is a quiet one. In Rashomon and Yojimbo, both feature women abused by men (sexually in both cases) despite their wishes. In both cases the woman does nothing, and instead resigns herself to this believing it is all that she is. It's not a picture of cheerfulness, and definitely not strength. The only other real example can be found in Scandal, in which a model is the victim of tabloid lies, and she resides herself to the stronger, Mifune, who is also a victim, but willing to stand up. In all cases, the female relies on a man to solve their problems, but to be honest this isn't a category found all too often with Kurosawa, and I hardly find these examples to really be strong enough to take the argument to the next level. Especially with Rashomon, where reality comes into play, so let's move on!

If I had to go with the next most dominant portrayal it'd have to be the loyal subservient. The woman is willing to stick by her man regardless of what has gone on. Good examples of this might include The Quiet Duel. Here the female was setup to marry our protagonist, and has dedicated her entire self to it. When he suddenly returns from serving time as a doctor for the war, he calls of their marriage (unbeknownst to her he had contracted a deadly illness during a surgical accident). Still she arrives at his workplace every day, aching to see just one moment of him, and find out why. She never stands up for herself, hardly says anything, and seems to resign herself as nothing more than a memory of his that follows him around. It's a rather bleak, depressing existence I have to say.

In The Bad Sleep Well a businessman marries a crippled daughter of a rich corporate executive in order to enact his plan for revenge on said executive. Because of this he's never around, and very cold even when he is. Now some insight into him suggests he keeps his distance to avoid hurting her anymore than necessary (emotionally), and yet she still attaches herself to him, begging (albeit without words) for him to please (emotionally and physically) her. Even at the end of the film, after all that his happened, she cannot remove herself from him, despite him having not done much for her.

Then comes the schemer. Perhaps that may not be the best word, but I would say that throughout all of Kurosawa's work this is one of the more prevalent female figures. The common traits of these women are three fold:

1) The act only in ways that are best suited to them, or their cause (usually self-empowerment)
2) They care less about the well-being of their spouse than they do about being removed from power
3) They are strong-minded, and far stronger than their spouses, able to make the decisions others can't.

The two films this is most prevalent in would easily be Throne of Blood and Ran, but both are Shakespeare adaptations, and in Ran nobody is really portrayed in a positive light. Perhaps the best other example of this can be found in Yojimbo. The character of Orin (portrayed by Isuzu Yamada) is the conniving wife of the lesser of the town's two factions. Upon first meeting the samurai protagonist she shows him great courtesy, only to moments later inform her husband that after they've won they must kill him, and retrieve the money they are paying him. Throughout the rest of the film her attitude is constantly changing in the hopes of regaining the favor of the samurai, and winning so that her weak son, and immature husband (both of whom she easily controls) can rule the town.

It's in this category that I wonder if something about Kurosawa is revealed. But I'm not sold yet.

Out of all of Kurosawa's films the way he portrays women in Drunken Angel may be the most telling. The film consists of four dominant female characters. Each with a little bit of all the aforementioned characteristics. But one really stands out the most:

Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), the ex-lover of recently released crime boss Okada. She works as a nurse, and is the counter-balancing force in Dr. Sanada's life. Yet at the same time she also represents a bit of a torn character. Despite having received a venereal disease from Okada, she feels a strong connection to him, and wonders if, as a women, she must return to him. While on the other hand she wishes to start her life anew. She works happily with Sanada, and has begun to create something worthwhile out of her depressing lifestyle. Still, she's not a self supporting female lead. But Dr. Sanada is quick to remind her that while she was his woman at one time, she is not his slave.

Here she is much more of a progressive character caught in a world of traditionalist values. On some level I like to think this is more of where Kurosawa's personal opinion lies. I mean could someone think so little of women and be married for 39 years? Wait, on second thought, don't answer that.

The only real case of a strong, dominant, woman in Kurosawa's films would likely be Princess Yuki from The Hidden Fortress. She's tough, self sustained, high on morality, and willing to kick butt and perform dangerous tasks if need be. She sees herself as among the men, not apart from them, and often provides much of the film's heart. Throughout the film she's well developed, and provides a beacon for what intelligent, strong willed, women can be. It's quite the well rounded character.

Still if Hidden Fortress was the highlight of Kurosawa's pro-women films, Red Beard may be labeled a lowest (though I have heard some arguments for The Most Beautiful). In Red Beard (whose review you can read later) women take a backseat to tales of poverty, often surrounded by tragic tales involving men's dealing with women. In this film the women are often nothing more than chess pieces used by their families, or aspiring loved ones. Though just how much the film's setting (late 1800's) plays a part in Kurosawa's portrayal of women we may never know. As well there is the character Otoyo. A young girl who is saved by the lead doctor, and ultimately comes to respect him, herself, and learns more about the troubles of life in the process. Sure she's not the most inspiring character (12 year old brothel attendees seldom are), but her character serves as a heart for the film, and while her actions can be misleading, she always has the best of intentions.

No matter what I say though, it's still all speculation and conjecture. And I would be sure to point out it's not like Kurosawa portrayed men in any more positive light. In fact in many of his films men are arrogant and self-righteous which leads to their own downfall (or they go crazy). Still that doesn't make it any more right or wrong. I wonder what he really thought of women though. In his mind are they the corrupters, or are they the companions.

No matter what, that's something on Kurosawa himself can answer.


1. I openly admit I haven't seen every Kurosawa film so I only discussed the ones I had prevailing knowledge of.

2. There are other examples of these various sorts of female characters (positive and negative) in other Kurosawa films. Here are just selected examples.

3 better thoughts:

Sam Turner said...

A really good piece - glad you decided to write it.

Your point about the passage of time is a good one (and as you know, my reference point here is Rahomon). Kurosawa's films are often set in the past and so, if he is accurately depicting the negative treatment of women in a (thankfully) by-gone age, there is a decent defence there and it did occur to me during the film.

Equally, your point about men not being depicted particularly positively is well-made. In Rashomon (again) it's not like we see a male role model there - all of the characters have failings, some of them fatal, and you could argue we are artificially separating roles by gender.

My personal problem with Rashomon is that whichever way you cut it, the Masako character is a victim but we are never really allowed to see her as such; in one story it is her own fault, in another her husband's - she never gets a voice. It's fine to have her as an unsympathetic character because that might be the case but some recognition of the fact she's also been victimised is essential and for me and I didn’t feel Kurosawa gave us that.

I suspect that, like a lot of film theory (or theory on any text for that matter), this is overall an argument with either no conclusion or a very personal one for each individual who looks at it. Not that that makes it a discussion that's not worth having - quite the opposite in fact.

Novroz said...

This is a very good post...I enjoy reading it.

I haven't watched many Kurosawa movies yet, but the way you describe everything here is the same way I would describe women in J-literature.

Simon said...

One could argue that there is both victim and a mild form of loyal subserviant in Seven Samurai. The one farmer's wife, I can't remember her name right now, has been forced into prostitution to the bandits (victim), but when faced with rescue, and her husband, she'd rather run back into the flaming hideout than face the shame. This, I will either take as loyalty to her husband (a wish to not shame him), or, in some twisted way, the bandits (this is, of course, an absurdly long stretch).

Excellent piece.

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