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Flowing: The female gaze?

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    Ugetsu

    In the supporting book with the Masters of Cinema boxed set (Flowing with Repast and Sound of the Mountain) an essay by Catherine Russell suggests that Flowing is highly unusual in Japanese film in that it has a specifically ‘female gaze’. I assume she is referring both to the lack of a significant male character in the film as well as giving us (the audience) the perspective of the new maid (Oharu) of the dying geisha house. But the film does also seem to be ‘female’ in a deeper sense – Russell note that even the eroticism of some scenes are witnessed from the point of view of the admiring look of the women of the house rather than the voyeuristic view in other similar films (she doesn’t mention it, but this brought to mind the similar wonderful later film Street of Joy, where many scenes are shot as through a half opened door).

    I suppose there is an indirect criticism there of Ozu and Mizoguchi, who made ‘womens’ films of course but can be read as having a somewhat male perspective – in Ozu’s case, always having a subtle bias to the embattled male head of the family, in Mizoguchi’s case taking a more didactic approach to life in a geisha house or brothel (as with Street of Shame).

    One thing I love about Naruse’s films is that he seems to take his characters more seriously than the other contemporary ‘greats’. By which I mean he allows them to have their own space to become real human beings and he takes them seriously. He seems to empathize with them to perhaps a greater extent than any other of the great directors, including Ozu, who in my opinion sometimes idealizes his favourite characters – or perhaps more accurately projects himself into those characters. Kurosawa of course sometimes seems to treat his characters as insects stomped upon by the Gods, while Mizoguchi’s women often seem to be more symbols than real people.

    But of course, Naruse was a man, and from the little I know of his biography, he wasn’t known as a particularly sociable or empathetic individual. He seems to have had quite an awkward relationship with his actresses. So I wonder if this ‘female gaze’ of his films is simply a reflection of his skill in interpreting his sources? (Flowing apparently follows the original book (not apparently available in English) by Koda Aya). I have read that one reason why Naruse is not considered up there with the ‘big three’ is his lack of a true auteur voice – there is no consistent vision in his films. In other words, he is a highly skilled craftsman of film, not a true cinematic artist. But I wonder if this view is coloured by his willingness to hand over his viewpoint within a film to his ‘minor’ characters and unimportant people? Perhaps it is his modesty and unwillingness to stamp his ‘authors view’ on a film that makes him so great?

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    lawless

    Please excuse me – I had a response with various links in it all typed out two days ago and lost it while testing a link, so this may not be as coherent as what I originally wrote.

    Are you familiar with the concept of male gaze?

    It started in film studies and has migrated to analysis of advertising. Here is a good demonstration of what it means in advertising. Basically, women are presented as objects of what men want them to be, even in films and advertisements aimed at women, because women are defined by and in terms of a heteronormative, male-dominated society. It has caused people like Bret Easton Ellison to proclaim that in order to be good (or maybe saleable – it’s not clear), a movie has to be made using the male gaze and therefore women directors and cinematographers can’t compete effectively.

    Female gaze” is a competing concept that is even more fluidly defined. What isn’t clear to me is whether it is a mere reversal of who’s gazing at and objectifying whom or whether it also implies a shift in power. The former would amount to tit for tat and the latter would be more politically radical.

    Here is an interesting academic study of whether the movie Fatal Attraction uses female gaze and concludes it does not.

    Finally, here’s one I find interesting because it focuses on how the female gaze permeates much of fandom, including many spaces on LiveJournal, where I hang out. The point has also been made that there are similarities between female gaze – at least when the women involved are heterosexual – and homosexual male gaze, which explains why gay erotica is repackaged for women, why some women prefer gay porn to heternormative heterosexual porn that caters to men and male gaze, and why some women (yours truly among them) write slash.

    With all that in mind, I suspect that what Ms. Russell is getting at is both that the story is told from unmediated female perspectives (or at least I’m assuming it is) and that men are shown as objects of erotic desire. It would be odd, but not impossible, for a man to capture a female gaze, though, as noted above, it’s the homosexual male gaze that is considered closest to a heteronormative female gaze.

    Keep in mind that (a) I’m fairly new to feminist and semiotic dissection of film and other image-heavy art and (b) I haven’t seen Flowing and likely won’t until it’s available in the appropriate region format, which I believe is Region 2 for the US.

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks for those links Lawless, very interesting. Yes, I understand the notion of the male and female gaze (or at least I think I do, no doubt someone will inform me one day I’ve got it all wrong 😳 ), although they are notions I haven’t really explored.

    One quote from the booklet is

    ‘Eroticism in Flowing takes on the particular form of the desiring gaze – specifically the gaze of woman taking pleasure in looking at woman’.

    This expressed very well something about the film (and other Naruse’s films) that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before – that he often seems to see a film from a female perspective – by which I mean his male characters seem to be observed with a more critical eye. But not in the same way as other film makers known as ‘womens’ film makers.

    I suppose what I am wondering is whether Naruse does have a specifically female type vision or whether it is his nature as a film maker to get so deep into his source material that he takes on his ‘authors’ viewpoint – he is known for mostly using books by female authors as his source in the 1950’s.

    The only book I’ve read that was adapted by Naruse is Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain. I think its one of the rare example of a film adaption of a great book that is better and richer than the book itself – possibly because the film is subtly oriented to see things more from the perspective of the main female character (played by Setsuko Hara).

    I suppose what I’m working towards is the idea that Naruse is not the type of director (like Kurosawa or Ozu) who went into a film with a firm vision – perhaps he was more interested in the flow of the story, and was happy to take the theme and vision from the source and from the actors he worked with – and since these were mainly women, his films pick this up, so making up for his lack of an auteurs vision with his ability to extract richness from his source and his actors.

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    Vili Maunula

    It is an interesting question that you have posed here, Ugetsu. I suppose that we can distinguish at least two possible types of female gaze here, one being the director’s approach to his subjects, and the other the subjects’ approaches to each other. We could of course also talk about the audience’s “gaze”, but I will not go into that here.

    When it comes to Naruse’s gaze, having seen only Flowing and Repast, and never read the source materials, it is unfortunately impossible for me to properly comment on how Naruse handles his source materials, or how “feminine” his director’s eye really is. But at least the two films that I have seen would seem to back up the comparison that you make between Naruse and his contemporaries, and I very much agree that from the “four greats” of the era, Naruse seems the one whose characters are the most rounded and life-like.

    As for the gazes within the film, if I read Russell correctly, it seems to me that she is actually saying that while Ann Sheriff, writing on the novel on which Flowing was based, pointed out a particular “desiring gaze”, where the new maid “Rika/Oharu is attracted to the inherent eroticism and sensuality of the geisha life”, this in Russell’s opinion is much downplayed in the film, almost to the point of complete de-eroticising of the subject. (164) This is also how I saw the film, where I felt the only such tension to be between the mistress of the house and her former customer who we importantly enough never actually see in the film. Personally, I don’t think that either male or female gaze (the little that I understand of the concept) really plays any important part within the film, although I could of course be mistaken and, as a male, even unable to recognize a real female gaze in the first place.

    But rather than a woman-to-woman gaze, I feel that the film’s focus is more in woman-to-woman interaction, and specifically the question of women’s independence and whether a woman may succeed in life without men. Russell at least partly picks up on this, concluding her essay with the observation that the geishas will always be dependent on men. While this seems like a fairly accurate observation at least as long as a geisha house cannot be funded solely by homosexual female customers, I don’t necessarily agree with the wording she uses in her assertion that these “women’s business is to serve men” (my emphasis) which, while certainly true in the sense that these women do serve men, may give the impression that these women are also in some way subordinate to them, while I see their “serving” more as a customer relationship, and at its very core not much different from the relationship between me and the local shop keeper, for instance.

    I would also like to point towards two characters who, it seems, are not directly dependant on men. The maid Oharu seems able to make a full living without any dependence on men, other than working for a geisha house which itself is dependent on men. I then believe then that it is her example that pushes Katsuyo (the matron’s daughter) to also strive towards financial independence. She thinks about taking up sewing at the beginning of the film, but appears to be talked out of it by her mother, who cannot see her daughter doing such work, or possibly any work apart from geisha work which she has already made up her mind not to do. It seems to me that it is Oharu’s example as a woman free of male dependence that gives her the impetus to finally take the sewing job.

    So, while I could perhaps agree that there is a certain level of “female gaze” in Naruse’s approach to the depiction of the story, I don’t see it as strongly in the story itself, which I believe is quite “gaze neutral”, and more concerned about interaction and dependencies than observation.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu and Vili– I’m not sure I understand these semiotic concepts either, but I’ve been struggling with the concepts of male and female gaze ever since becoming interested in BL/yaoi (manga about canonically romantic and/or sexual relationships between men that are on the whole created for and by women), which for me was the door to slash (creative works about male characters in TV, film, and books, including manga, who are not engaged in a canonical romantic and/or sexual relationship but for whom the author or artist has posited such a relationship). It’s a natural outcome of wondering why (mostly, though not exclusively) heterosexual women like, even sometimes prefer, such material if the frequent response that two hot guys are better than one is too simplistic to be satisfying.

    Vili, as I understand it, ‘gaze’ does not merely denote objectification, or literal ‘gaze’, but also perspective and approach, so it might be possible to say that Flowing utlizes a female gaze because it tells the story from the point of view of female characters.

    I wish the movie were available here on DVD; it sounds interesting, particularly as I did research about geisha for a story I’ve since shelved, and what you’ve both written about Naruse’s approach – letting the source material and its characters speak for themselves instead of imposing an overarching artistic vision on them – appeals to me. The fact that the characters who are speaking for themselves are women only makes it more appealing.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I see you read the DVD notes more carefully than I did! On reflection, I think you are right that the film doesn’t have as much of a ‘female gaze’ as a very neutral eye to the characters. I’ve just finished another look at it and what I find striking is how even handed the film is to all the characters, none particularly standing out as the single key character. They are all allowed their space and their humanity.

    While this seems like a fairly accurate observation at least as long as a geisha house cannot be funded solely by homosexual female customers, I don’t necessarily agree with the wording she uses in her assertion that these “women’s business is to serve men” (my emphasis) which, while certainly true in the sense that these women do serve men, may give the impression that these women are also in some way subordinate to them, while I see their “serving” more as a customer relationship, and at its very core not much different from the relationship between me and the local shop keeper, for instance.

    I agree with you on this. It seems to be a cliche of all writing on geisha films that they are symbols of a society where even ‘independent’ business women are dependent on men – but this seems to me to be a banal insight – you might just as well say that the kimono makers are dependent economically on women. I think its perhaps true to say that one of the more ironic losses to women in Japan by greater equality after the war was that the one area where a woman could succeed independently (as a Geisha) was lost, and instead they were sucked into becoming wage slaves. From a modern perspective (and maybe for the contemporary audience, I’m not sure), it would seem to be a step down for the daughter to go from being a geisha to being a sewing machinist.

    Several source I’ve read about Naruse mention that he gave his actors no guidance – in fact, he was loathed by many of his actors because of his habit of insisting on numerous retakes without telling the actor where he or she went wrong. Tanaka Kinuyo (who played the maid and was of course a stunningly good actress, and a director too) said he never once gave her direction. But he obviously did something right as the performances are wonderful. I wonder if this is a reflection that perhaps rather than have a firm idea himself of how the film should be, he was trying to catch something in the source material, a kind of ‘I don’t know how this scene will work, but I will know it works when I see it’ type of approach. Wild speculation of course.

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    Vili Maunula

    It is really unfortunate that Flowing is not available in the US, lawless. It would be really interesting to hear your take on the film, considering your past reading into gazes and geishas. Hopefully, Naruse’s works will eventually find their way to the US, maybe through Criterion who I think has already released When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but nothing else.

    Like Ugetsu says, the performances in the film are indeed excellent, and it is surprising to hear that Naruse probably didn’t give much instruction to get them. There seems to be so much going on in terms of acting, even when physically there isn’t always much action — a wave of a hand, the repeated idle movement of a foot, or playing with the phone cord, all add to the realism, but never distract from what is important.

    It may well be a step down for the daughter to become a sewing machinist and not a geisha, but would you say that it is perhaps at the same time a step up for the gender as a whole, as she can now find financial freedom in work not traditionally available for women? I really don’t know of course if this was in Naruse’s mind when he made the film.

    The ending is actually quite ambivalent, if I understood it correctly. The house, it seems, is going to be sold from under the geishas, yet the mistress of the house has decided to start afresh, probably oblivious to the fact that they will not have the place for long? Oharu, meanwhile, knows this, but it seems to me that she is keeping the facts to herself, while already planning a move back to the countryside to be with his late husband’s family. And yet, it is not a very bitter ending, but one that at least to me communicates not only change but also hope. The daughter, sewing, knows that her mother will not be able to support them for long, and by working is already planning for that future. And we, the audience, are of course treated to a memorable musical number, which is actually one of the few instances in the film where we get to see actual geisha skills in action.

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    Ugetsu

    I am surprised its not available in the US, especially as the DVD extras have such an American flavor. Maybe there is some contractual issue at work.

    I do agree the ending is very ambiguous. The earlier scene where the two geisha’s hilariously rap about how easy their job is makes it clear it wasn’t all about exploitation – in fact the geisha’s seem to see themselves as deliberately exploiting those who aren’t cultured enough to understand what they are seeing. The film doesn’t make the point, but I would have thought that a machinist would most likely end up working in a factory – one more drone – not really a good alternative to the relatively free and independent geisha houses. But maybe a future that provided more security, something craved by people in the post war years.

    And we, the audience, are of course treated to a memorable musical number, which is actually one of the few instances in the film where we get to see actual geisha skills in action.

    It is memorable and really very striking (especially how the rhythm of the music fuses with the sound of the sewing machine. Unfortunately for some reason I couldn’t get the dueling banjo scene from Deliverance out of my head when watching it!

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    lawless

    I went back and looked at my notes for my (uncompleted) story. Geisha were and are far from the submissive, subservient pamperers of male privilege they are often depicted as, but they experienced their own subservience to the house to which they belonged. Once apprentices (maiko) became full-fledged geisha, they owed their houses large sums for their training, upkeep, and enormously expensive kimonos – if I remember correctly, one kimono might cost in the thousands of dollars (hundreds of thousands of yen). Geisha not only need enough kimonos to provide sufficient variety and last a reasonable amount of time before cleaning, but their decoration, color scheme, and fabric differ with the seasons, so a geisha in high demand might own tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of kimonos. All these costs were recouped from her earnings, meaning it might take years of hard work for a geisha to work herself out of debt to the house.

    The people who really made money were the most popular and experienced geisha, who had already paid off their debt or as the deisgnated successor of a house didn’t have any debt, the shrewdest of the okaasans running a geisha house (okiya), who were universally retired geisha themselves, owners of the ochayas and ryotei where geisha met with customers, teachers of the various arts (gei) and the suppliers of kimonos and other accoutrements. The run of the mill geisha didn’t have much economic clout or freedom, just more personal freedom than most women, and worked punishing hours – to bed around 2 p.m., needing help getting undressed (and dressed), getting up for breakfast, running around to ingratiate themselves with ochaya owners and taking lessons in the morning, getting ready for performances in the afternoon, eating an early dinner, and being on display from six o’clock on. Other than the fact that it was a life where women had all the power and were not much subject to the interference of men except when dealing with a drunken or obnoxious customer, it’s not much less exploitative or exhausting then being a wage slave.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: The film doesn’t make the point, but I would have thought that a machinist would most likely end up working in a factory – one more drone – not really a good alternative to the relatively free and independent geisha houses. But maybe a future that provided more security, something craved by people in the post war years.

    I would think so too, but at the same time it makes me think that she has broken new ground, as once it becomes normal for women to work in factories, it is easier for them to go on working in other places as well, ultimately even taking control of those factories, and leading into a society where women are equal to men, and do not have to be dependent on men for their income.

    Of course, the film being from the mid-50s, I don’t know how revolutionary it was for women to work at that point. I would think that the shift took place a little earlier, as I think in many countries these things changed quite notably during the second world war. But then again, I really don’t know much about women’s place in post-war Japanese workforce, and it is also good to remember that even today it seems like quite a large percentage of women stop their career once they marry and stay home as house wives and mothers.

    Ugetsu: It is memorable and really very striking (especially how the rhythm of the music fuses with the sound of the sewing machine. Unfortunately for some reason I couldn’t get the dueling banjo scene from Deliverance out of my head when watching it!

    Haha! I haven’t seen Deliverance, but the scene actually made me think of a duel of rock guitarists. It’s quite a wild piece that they perform there, with such stillness and grace.

    And thanks for the notes, lawless! What you described is actually pretty much the ecosystem of the house depicted in Flowing. Except that these particular geisha didn’t seem to have the habit of getting up for breakfast!

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    lawless

    Reference works on geisha, if anyone’s interested:

    Geisha by Liz Crihfield Dalby – Expanded version of a cultural anthropologist’s dissertation. The author spent a year as a maiko (trainee geisha) in Kyoto’s Poncho district in the late 1970s

    Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha by Lesley Downer.

    Memoirs:

    Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda (pseud.) The author was an onsen geisha. For geisha who worked at tourist locations like onsens, quality of art and performance were less important; they were expected to have sex with their customers.

    Geisha: A Life (published in the UK as Geisha of Gion: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki) by Mineko Iwasaki. The author succeeded to the ownership of one of the leading geisha houses in the Gion district of Kyoto but subsequently closed the house and retired in 1978. Arthur Golden cites her as his main source of information for his novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. She later sued and settled with him over claims of invasion of privacy, defamation, and breach of a promise of confidentiality.

    There are a few other reference works that I wasn’t able to get my hands on. As for novels, in addition to the aforementioned Memoirs of a Geisha, there’s Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale by Nagai Kafu, Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale by Nagai Kafu, which is a 1917 novel about rivalry, ambition and heartbreak within the most prestigious Tokyo geisha district written by an author with first-hand experience as a customer and ex-husband of a geisha.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey, lawless, I am just back from abroad (immediately Tibet) with a head full of socio-political, religio-cultural ideas, but there is a smidge of room in the little receptacle for the idea of the Female Gaze. The link you provided is marvelous. Thanks.

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    lawless

    *waves* Hi, Coco, I thought you might have been away, since the start of this discussion touches on subjects you usually chime in on. Nice to see you back! I’m glad you found the links (or at least one of them) interesting. The examples drawn from advertising explain the concepts far better than text alone would have.

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    Ugetsu

    Welcome back, coco! Hope you get a chance to tell us all about your trip.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thanks for the welcome, Ugetsu, lawless. I have missed these discussions. I wish that I could say that the dialogue on tour was at this level, but, unfortunately, this was one of those programs plagued by illness, mental disturbances, crabby students, and academic malaise. On the other hand, I spent meaningful time in Vietnam, learning and re-learning histories, and met one of the last survivors of the prison detention center that led to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, spent two days climbing temples at Angkor, and watched the sunset from the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, I met with old friends at the Universities, was feasted by our colleagues (several times) in China, and was reunited with my favorite Tibetans again. So, it does feel as if a lifetime of adventure has passed through me.

    lawless, The “male gaze” is stuff we discuss a lot in terms of Western art history. I particularly liked the fangirl link because it takes the concept of “male” and “female” gaze from scholarly theory into the streets and marketplace. And, this is a fresh, new take on the old chestnut. So, I loved it, and thanks!

    Now, I want to quote Vili, and interruptVili when I see a point. I will interrupt in italics.

    But rather than a woman-to-woman gaze, I feel that the film’s focus is more in woman-to-woman interaction, and specifically the question of women’s independence and whether a woman may succeed in life without men. (The idea of the “female gaze” has two parts-one part is the actual process, the visual act of “looking” and another part is the “reception of information about the world”-the processing of the “looking”. So, focus on woman-to-woman interaction may actually imply the kind of processing of images that indicates a woman’s concern/identification/interest in women. The idea of the “female gaze” is not contradicted by the interest in relationships.

    After all, there are the eyes, and there are the owner of the eyes. The idea of the “female gaze” can imply sexual interest, or imply a woman is looking. ) Russell at least partly picks up on this, concluding her essay with the observation that the geishas will always be dependent on men. While this seems like a fairly accurate observation at least as long as a geisha house cannot be funded solely by homosexual female customers, I don’t necessarily agree with the wording she uses in her assertion that these “women’s business is to serve men” (my emphasis) which, while certainly true in the sense that these women do serve men, (ya think?) may give the impression that these women are also in some way subordinate to them, (ya think? I don’t really think there is room even to play with the concept of geishas and their customers being equals. I like Kawabata’s “Snow Country” as proof. Well, not proof, but an exploration of the very different circumstances of client and geisha. I don’t want to hear about high-class, expensive geishas who chose their clients, and wielded power. Don’t tell me about Wu Zetian, either. There are exceptional women who climbed above the social structure. But the social structure still existed-one in which men were the agents of their lives and exerted control over women.) while I see their “serving” more as a customer relationship, and at its very core not much different from the relationship between me and the local shop keeper, (except that, the pleasure trade, is necessarily about serving desires, on a different level than your average muffler shop. ) for instance.

    Allright, we all love the whole aesthetics/romance of the geisha tradition. Still, sexist as hell. Just is. Fact.

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    lawless

    I have a slightly different perception of the geisha tradition, though much of it is based on the memoirs and research materials I’ve read (see above), which emphasize the high-class, expensive geisha in hanamachis in Kyoto and Tokyo. They are freer than the average woman in Japan, or at least the average married woman, in that they mingle with men, often of high class, and match wits with them. Wives do not socialize with their husbands and their lives are virtually separate.

    In many ways, it reminds me of the hetaerai (sp.?) tradition in ancient Greece, except without an expectation of sex as a result of attendance at a banquet, as would be the case with hetarei, but with the expectation of entertainment, whereas hetarei were guests, not hostesses.

    Of course, because it is men who are the customers and who are being entertained, men still have a great deal of power, as is also reinforced by the patron system, which tends to encourage formation of patron/mistress or lover/mistress relationships. But within the social structure of the hanamachi itself, women reign supreme.

    As noted in my post on research materials, onsen geisha, which probably includes those depicted in Snow Country, were expected to have sex with their customers and were part of what is euphemistically called the water trade, which includes prostitution, soaplands, etc. Their lives were much harder and less glamorous.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Of course, because it is men who are the customers and who are being entertained, men still have a great deal of power, as is also reinforced by the patron system, which tends to encourage formation of patron/mistress or lover/mistress relationships .

    ~lawless said. And, that’s where I am at.

    But within the social structure of the hanamachi itself, women reign supreme.

    lawless said. But, no matter if you are the glittering peacock if you are in a cage, I says. You may reign supreme over the other birds in your cage, but the social construct/cage defines the limits of your power, authority and influence.

    They are freer than the average woman in Japan, or at least the average married woman…

    lawless said. Equality is not a matter of degree, is it?

    I actually don’t have a problem with the reality that we are inheritors all, of the bankrupt traditions set in place by generations reaching back into time…I call it “reality” . We are where we are, and our hisotrical inheritance is whatever it is.

    In my understanding (likely flawed, so feel free to set me right) the geisha system evolved from a social hierarchy in which men were patrons and women served. It’s pretty much the story of most cultures since the end of the neolithic period.

    Now, if I could arrange a reversal of these roles, and have in place a social structure in which beautiful, handsome, intelligent and talented men entertain me…then we might be talking equality and freedom. Excuse me while I daydream.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Also, seriously, sorry to hijack this conversation. I apologize. I may be avoiding work by harping on the obvious.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco, you are not hijacking the conversation! I think its all very interesting, because its only by teasing out exactly what it is about Geisha that is so fascinating and interesting in the context of Japanese society that we can really get a handle on what Naruse (and other film makers like Mizoguchi) were getting at in their films (and equally relevantly with Naruse, what the original writers of the source material thought). And the (for me) equally interesting inverse question, of why Kurosawa was so uninterested in this world.

    But I have to disagree with you! I don’t see the geisha serving their rich patrons as any different from the service all society had to give the aristocratic landowners in an essentially feudal system. Samurai men served aristocratic men with their blood, their wives served by their passive breeding, the peasants served by giving up their surpluses (and maybe more), artists needed them as patrons, dressmakers served the geisha and the aristocrats wives. I don’t see a geisha as somehow more uniquely dependent on rich men than the classic samurai warrior (arguably, the geisha were more free as they could usually pick their patron).

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    lawless

    Coco: Two words: host clubs. I have a LiveJournal friend who’s going to Japan who’s looking to go to one. I’ll let you know what she finds out.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that geisha, having an independent source of power – their art, not all of which is particularly male-oriented, depending on whether they’re dancers or musicians (I think there’s another category, but I’m forgetting what it is now) – and at the higher levels not being expected to accommodate all customers sexually, as would be the case with onsen geisha or prostitutes, were as free as any women were in Japan until relatively recently, and that part of the freedom they had – as did hetaerae – was to ‘talk back’ – to have minds of their own and to speak them.

    Also that Japan, despite its otaku delights and the sense some in the fan community have that it’s this open, sexually freewheeling society, is still more repressive and more reinforcing of gender stereotypes – for women, at least – than ours or Western society in general.

    My point is that there are different levels and degrees of inequality. I know of nowhere where there is equality in the sense of equal respect. I don’t think men and women are completely equivalent or the same, nor would I want them to be. I used to think all but the most basic biological functions were interchangeable, but I don’t believe that anymore and the evidence is entirely the other way.

    I thought there were some post-Neolithic matrilineal/matriarchal cultures, but I know very little about it. Also, bonobo society is female-dominated and humans share as many genes with bonobos as with chimps. I didn’t realize this until I heard part of an interview with a woman who lives among and researches bonobos, but humans aren’t the only animals who commit murder; chimpanzees do, too, but bonobos don’t. Bonobos ostracize those who are socially destructive.

    As I see it, despite a lot of cosmetic differences, I don’t see much real distinction where it matters here either. The male perspective, whatever that is, is still society’s default perspective. The blogosphere focuses on Elena Kagan’s clothing (nominee for the US Supreme Court) and whether she’s a lesbian. While there was speculation about whether now retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter was gay, seeing as he lived with his mother and never married, during his confirmation hearings, his wardrobe, posture, and lifestyle weren’t dissected the way Kagan’s has been.

    I disagree with you, Ugetsu; because the relationship between geisha and samurai, or customer, is personal and essentially flirtatious, the ‘service’ being sold is of a different type or quality than others. They weren’t making concrete goods like dressmakers or farmers or providing a service essential to the maintenance of order like samurai. Essentialily, what’s being sold, other than the entertainment value of whatever gei the geisha commands, is a relationship. It might not be a sexual relationship with most customers, but until state sanction for prostitution – the ‘legal’ areas where the willow world and so-called water trade could flourish – ended in the 50s, it was pretty universally expected that a geisha would have a sexual relationship with at least one customer that was remunerative, though the remuneration was usually in kind – payment for living expenses, for lessons, apartments, kimonos, etc.

    The entire geisha culture is founded on catering to male preferences, ego, and privilege. Not true for what else you cite. Wives might intensely dislike their husbands – that could still be the case – but if they ran their household and produced and brought up children well, that’s all that mattered. Gender politics and inequality is at the heart of the geisha/patron relationship. Gender is not at the heart of any of the other commercial relationships you cite, and in fact, the gender of the person producing the good or service is mostly irrelevant to the final consumer. .

    Besides, by the 50s, when this movie is set, Japan hadn’t been feudal for almost 100 years, yet the geisha tradition wasn’t dead yet. In fact, it flourished in the pre-war era after the shogun and samurai system had ended.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco: I don’t really think there is room even to play with the concept of geishas and their customers being equals.

    Coco, I’m not sure if you have had the opportunity to see Flowing, but I would say that my impression is that the geisha in the film are not subordinate to their customers. They obviously act it when in their customers’ presence (something we don’t really see, only through phone conversations), but outside of their work mode they are independent. Or at least they strive to be independent, but alas, money is a problem and controls them, just like it controls everyone. But the film really seems to propose the question whether and how women can be independent in post-war Japan.

    And don’t be silly, you are not hijacking the thread, it’s all very interesting stuff. I just think that Naruse is doing something a little different in his film.

    By the way, we are still waiting for a new thread about travels this summer! 😉 Welcome back!

    Personally, I think that there probably was quite a range of geisha types, just like there were different types of samurai — ones who were just there to protect their lord, and then those “special” samurai who followed their lord everywhere and provided sexual services in addition to providing their sword (see, how I resisted a pun there!). I would say that the geisha trade had the potential of both empowering and enslaving women, and we can see that the geisha in Flowing are quite different from those in Mizoguchi’s Gion Festival Music, for instance.

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    lawless

    Vili – As I understand it, the practice of shudo – which is what I think you’re referring to – was more like ancient Greek pederasty and was intended to cement mentor/mentee relationships and bond soldiers/samurai together as well as provide sexual release. Thus, the identity of the trainee samurai with whom the older samurai would engage in sexual relations would change over time. Unlike the Greek model, though, I don’t believe love between men was elevated above that between men and women.

    As an aside, shudo was prevalent among Buddhist monks as well as samurai. There was also a well-known practice of onnagata – Kabuki actors who played female roles – being male prostitutes or lovers of important men (just as geisha might be mistresses of imporant men) as well.

    As to your basic premise that there were a number of different geisha types: I agree with you there. The experience of the pseudonymous geisha who wrote Autobiography of a Geisha is about as different from that of Mineko Iwasaki, author of Geisha: A Life, as night and day. Nevertheless, I also agree with Coco that their experience, of whatever type, fits within a pardigm of male privilege and power. It was male privilege and power that made their profession possible and remunerative.

    I have very little expectation that Japanese society will embrace any form of gender equality any time soon despite the fact that playing around with what we consider to be gender norms – especially for men – is more common there. Maybe the makeup, dyed hair, and clothing of visual kei and other J-pop groups are just a continuation of cultural norms like kabuki that didn’t permit female participation and thus encouraged male cross-dressing.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless said,

    “Gender politics and inequality is at the heart of the geisha/patron relationship.”

    That’s what I meant to say, but took too many words and still missed the mark. There ya go. Thanks, lawless. Succinct and to-the-point.

    Vili said,

    …”my impression is that the geisha in the film are not subordinate to their customers. They obviously act it when in their customers’ presence(my emphasis, because, actually, conforming behavior is as crippling to the human soul as actual bondage. Of course we can all say we are economic slaves to our work…but to have to act in a subordinate way is something else .)

    Vili continues that the subordinate behavior is

    “…(something we don’t really see, only through phone conversations), but outside of their work mode they are independent. Or at least they strive to be independent, but alas, money is a problem and controls them, just like it controls everyone. But the film really seems to propose the question whether and how women can be independent in post-war Japan.

    Exactly. It presupposes these cages/chains/subordinate relationships, then explores how a human being tries to live…And, that kinda is the whole point of the “female gaze” discussion. That a woman’s independent, human existance is the source of interest indicates a viewer who values the life of a woman, as something in and of itself.

    Ugetsu, you are, of course, right about us all being subordinate to someone or something. Seems like hierarchies just shake out naturally. But, we generally consider it rather bad form nowadays when race and gender are used to keep whole groups in subordinate positions.

    Finally, Vili said:

    “I would say that the geisha trade had the potential of both empowering and enslaving women”.

    And lawless detailed some of the privileges afforded the highest class of geisha. But, I return to her simple, but prowfound statement:

    “The entire geisha culture is founded on catering to male preferences, ego, and privilege.”.

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    Vili Maunula

    Lawless, I must confess my complete ignorance regarding the topic, so I don’t really know if it’s shudo that I was talking about. Neither do I know if the thing I was talking about even really existed. But I seem to remember someone (Stephen Prince?) mentioning in connection with Kagemusha that lords tended to have members of their closest body guard who would double as sexual partners when needed. Apparently, that’s what the two younger samurai shown to us briefly in Kagemusha are, too.

    I’m not actually sure if it’s even relevant to the discussion here.

    In any case, it’s certainly true that just about all of these persons, whether male or female (mostly female), were and are still catering mainly to male preferences, ego and privilege. No argument there, really.

    I actually wonder whether there would even be a place in the modern world for geisha or prostitutes who targeted mainly female customers? I’m sure that there is a niche to be found in there, but are the differences between male and female needs and urges so huge that one couldn’t actually even build a successful large-scale industry around them in the same way that it has worked throughout history with male customers?

    As for gender equality, I’m sure that it will take time for Japan (or any other country for that matter) to embrace it. Having said that, based on my experiences with Japanese families, I was never quite able to figure out who really is the head of the house. Similarly, at least the younger generation women seem to be just as good at objectifying men as the boys are objectifying women. It’s a strange place.

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    lawless

    Vili – I don’t know about the viability of businesses of that type catering to female customers other than to point to the host clubs I mentioned to Coco a few entries up. They are patterned after hostess clubs. The host drinks, chats, and flirts with female customers, some of whom are probably office ladies or the female equivalent of salarymen (since this is, I assume, not cheap).

    Manga and fanfiction will tell you that some host clubs surreptitiously cater to gay men as well and that some amount of hosts are gay or bisexual, but I don’t know how true that is.

    As for male/female relationships in Japan: I get the sense from Liza Crihfield Dalby’s book Geisha, based on the field work she did in the 70s as a geisha in Kyoto, that they exist in different realms. They don’t socialize together as we do in the US or (presumably) Europe. It’s more like ‘separate but equal’. Men are the actors in the outer world, but at home the women are in charge. Women are also in charge of household management and the budget.

    It is a topsy-turvy place. While she was still in high school, the creator of one of my favorite manga became an assistant to a friend’s sister who drew hentai manga. The artist she assisted later moved to a BL (boys’ love/yaoi) publisher, which was probably instrumental in her subsequently creating one of the first mainstream BL manga. I don’t know about Europe, but I cannot imagine even the most enlightened parents in the US permitting their child, especially a daughter, to help draw explicit hentai or BL while still in high school, seeing as the material she worked on was probably rated 18+. Permitting such employment would probably be a criminal act here.

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    Vili Maunula

    As for male/female relationships in Japan: I get the sense from Liza Crihfield Dalby’s book Geisha, based on the field work she did in the 70s as a geisha in Kyoto, that they exist in different realms. They don’t socialize together as we do in the US or (presumably) Europe. It’s more like ‘separate but equal’. Men are the actors in the outer world, but at home the women are in charge. Women are also in charge of household management and the budget.

    This is pretty much what also my experience was when I lived my year in Japan (as part of a Japanese family).

    Japan is quite topsy-turvy indeed. Then again, I suppose it’s really just a matter of point-of-view. To me, also the US seems like an extremely weird place when it comes to sexuality and sex. And a lot of other things, for that matter. 🙂

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    lawless

    Vili – When and where did you spend that year in Japan? I keep forgetting about that.

    From what I’ve observed (taking into account the only other country I’ve actually been to is Canada), the US attitiude toward sex and sexuality seems inconsistent compared to, say, Europe, or even parts of Asia. There’s still a sense of guilt and repression that probably derives from the Puritan heritage, but there’s also a commercialization of sexuality (in the sense that it’s used, quite overtly and from a heteronormative viewpoint, to sell everything) that wasn’t present in, say, the 50s and early 60s. U.S. attitudes about some things — like homosexuality and abortion — are more nuanced, though, than they are portrayed in the media, particularly the global media.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili said,

    “… the US seems like an extremely weird place when it comes to sexuality and sex. “

    Vili, c’mon, you can’t leave that out there and not explicate!

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    Vili Maunula

    Vili – When and where did you spend that year in Japan? I keep forgetting about that.

    I spent the year 1999 in Japan, or more precisely in Matsue (Google Maps, Wikipedia). It was part of an exchange program.

    “… the US seems like an extremely weird place when it comes to sexuality and sex. “

    Vili, c’mon, you can’t leave that out there and not explicate!

    Sorry. 🙂 Lawless actually pretty well summed up the situation as I see it. Almost everything in the US appears to be sold with sex, while at the same time nudity is a huge no-no, and yet you have Lady Gagas and Christina Aguileras prancing around performing sexually rather explicit dance moves and wearing nothing but the tiniest possible panties to cover their privates. Sex(uality) and nudity seems to simultaneously be something wonderful and desirable and something dirty and illegal. Of course, it is a big country, so strange contradictions like these are bound to arise.

    Sex obviously sells everything on our continent as well. But people tend to be a little bit more relaxed about it, and in general it seems not to be such a big deal. For instance, music videos and films here feature full frontal nudity and naked children, and our men’s magazines can advertise with posters featuring women wearing nothing but a smile. There of course still exist many limits to what you can show and when and where, and Europe is far from united in these matters (or many others), but I cannot imagine something like the “Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction” causing any sort of a real response here, apart from a few smiles. That’s of course a bit of an extreme example.

    I grew up in Finland, the birth-place of saunas, where people sit naked with other people, including strangers, children and members of the opposite sex, and that’s considered normal. As a result, the idea of a child never seeing his or her parents naked sounds really bizarre to me, but then I know people for whom the idea of seeing their parents naked sounds like an equally strange idea. I’m not saying that one view is right and the other isn’t, although I do feel that some countries have perhaps over-reacted a little bit when it comes to nudity and especially the nudity of children as we start to hear about teenagers getting sued for child pornography when all they have done is sent naked pictures of themselves to their teenage boyfriends and girlfriends, or when people (well, men mainly) are asked to sit elsewhere if found sitting next to a kid who is not their own.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Some redneck up in the hills is swearing at Vili who said,

    “…the idea of a child never seeing his or her parents naked sounds really bizarre to me…”

    and that redneck is saying, “Consarn it, them Euroboys dunno nuttin about the Holy Bible…don even know of the “drunkenness of Noah”-how the man was shamed naked in front o his sons…”

    We have that Puritan heritage and Bible-related stuff in our heads, Vili, at least there is some of that in the lineage of some folks on this side of the pond, and we have Muslims who wouldn’t like public nakedness, and we have Orthodox Jews and all manner of folks whose traditions would be insulted by nudity. We have all kinds of people inthe US, even some people who aren’t flustered by a little nakey nakey.

    Vili said,

    “Sex(uality) and nudity seems to simultaneously be something wonderful and desirable and something dirty and illegal.”

    And, that’s the way I like it! HA!

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Besides, by the 50s, when this movie is set, Japan hadn’t been feudal for almost 100 years, yet the geisha tradition wasn’t dead yet. In fact, it flourished in the pre-war era after the shogun and samurai system had ended.

    Yes, I was using the term ‘feudal’ a little loosely. But of course while feudalism formally ended in the 19th century there are quite a few writers on Japan who would argue that the relationships within Japanese society are still essentially feudal, in the sense that mutual obligation is more important than either formal written law or the operation of the free market.

    Vili

    I actually wonder whether there would even be a place in the modern world for geisha or prostitutes who targeted mainly female customers? I’m sure that there is a niche to be found in there, but are the differences between male and female needs and urges so huge that one couldn’t actually even build a successful large-scale industry around them in the same way that it has worked throughout history with male customers?

    Interestingly, the only time I saw a ‘proper’ geisha was when I more or less accidentally walked into one in the old quarter of Kyoto. At the time I was woefully ignorant of what I was seeing. I assumed that the woman (who looked magnificent I have to say) was part of some tourist attraction or was maybe a kabuki performer. But what was striking was that as she walked across the road she was almost immediately mobbed by young Japanese women – they acted as if she was a pop star, talking excitedly and immediately snapping photos. The male companions of the women just looked a little bemused. So at least in the modern world there is quite a strong japanese female fascination with the geisha.

    I don’t think you could call it a large scale industry, but a friend of mine who used to work in the sex industry (long story there) and who has a bit of a fascination with various Asian cultures was telling me that there is a mini-industry of western female sex workers (usually dominatrix) being hired by wealthy married Japanese women for various sex games. But these clients are generally not lesbian or bi-sexual – they see paying women to perform as less shameful and that what they do does not represent being unfaithful to their husbands. The phenomenon is quite well known in some other Asian cultures, particularly in India, where same sex relationships by married people are often seen as non-sexual, i.e., its not being ‘unfaithful’ to your spouse so long as you don’t cross gender.

    And this is moving wayyyyy off topic………..

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    lawless

    I finally checked availability of Flowing and Humanity and Paper Balloons on Netflix, and as I thought, neither is available, presumably because there’s no Region 1 version. I’m intrigued by the description of the content and style of Flowing, and am really bummed out that I can’t see it. I’d also be interested in gauging the ‘female gaze’ aspect for myself; I have to think that Russell was deliberately referencing the ‘male gaze/female gaze’ terms and concepts in her observation, assuming it was made after those terms were popularized.

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    lawless

    Vili – In response to your last post, teens aren’t being prosecuted for child pornography for sending naughty (though I thought they were mostly naked, not partially-clothed) pictures of themselves to each other because anyone really thinks this is an example of child pornography, though it fits the technical legal definition (because of the distribution of the image), but because society feels that there is little other way to shut this down. It’s not always that innocent, either; a friend of my daughter’s received such a photo from a boy who likes her but whom she doesn’t like in return. In cases like that, it’s a form of harassment as well.

    At any rate, the idea of a child (teenager in this case) being the perpetrator of their own child porn for sending nude and suggestive photos of themselves is rather laughable. I’d rather see this dealt with in civil, not criminal court, or at least juvenile court, where records can be sealed and a youthful indiscretion won’t follow someone around the rest of her or his life, particularly since one of the potential consequences is being required to register as a sex offender.

    As for your other points, I can’t really argue with them. Sharing a bath or a sauna with people of the opposite sex probably accustoms people to viewing nudity in a matter of fact way and as non-sexual (unless it is, but that’s a different matter). Here, nudity generally = sex, or at least is sexually charged. That’s actually fairly consistent; what’s inconsistent is how far up to the line we as a society are willing to go before saying “This is an inappropriate level of sexual display.”

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    lawless

    Coco (and whoever elsel is interested) – here is a post on Slate‘s blog XX Factor about butler cafes in Japan.

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    cocoskyavitch

    eeesh…did not load. Butler cafes? Bring ’em to my town asap.

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    lawless

    Let’s see if I can try this again. Here (I hope) is the link to Slate’s XX Factor blog post. If it still doesn’t work, it’s dated August 6, 2010 and can be found on Slate’s XX Factor blog.

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