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One Wonderful Sunday: Masako and the Place of Women in Kurosawa's Films

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    lawless

    As I threatened in this comment, I’m starting this thread to discuss Masako as one of a long line of female characters in Kurosawa’s films and to discuss Kurosawa’s treatment of women generally.

    Masako is clearly one of two main characters in the film; arguably, she’s the more important of the two. Her optimism and actions are what drives the film; if it had been left up to Yuzo, they’d have gone their separate ways once they realized how little money they had to spend on their date. (As an aside, while he protests at using her money because of its reflection on his ability to provide for her — ironically, she possesses more money than he does — in the end he accepts combining their resources without complaint.)

    In addition to her dynamism is moving the events of the movie along, with Yuzo mostly reacting to her rather than acting on his own, it can also be argued that she’s the viewpoint character. I’d argue, however, that while the story is told from her point of view, the images the movie uses are gender-neutral — that is, not specifically framed to depict or pander to either the male gaze or the female gaze. It’s more reminiscent of cinema verite.

    With female characters having the main roles in both The Most Beautiful and No Regrets for Our Youth, films even earlier in Kurosawa’s ouevre than One Wonderful Sunday, and Throne of Blood as the only subsequent film I can think of where a woman was one of two main characters, it seems as though women became less and less important to Kurosawa’s films as time went on. While this was probably inevitable in his jidai geki films, those don’t represent his entire later output. It may also relate to a shift in the focus of his films, but I haven’t watched enough of his later films to be able to articulate what that might be.

    So I throw it open to the rest of you: why do women play more minor roles in his films over time? Was there a change in the type of women he portrayed? Are the charges of misogynism leveled against him at all justified? Personally, I think these charges are made in large part because over time the women depicted in his films were more morally bankrupt than they had been before or than the male characters in the same film — the wife in Rashomon, Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood, the landlady and the prostitute in The Lower Depths, the psychotic patient in Red Beard, the promiscuous pregnant wife in Dodesukaden, Lady Kaede in Ran, and possibly even Shino in Seven Samurai. Does this ring at all true to you?

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    Ugetsu

    Its a really interesting topic. I think it was Mellen who wrote that Kurosawa seemed to have been repelled by the character of Masago in Rashomon and so never portrayed a proper female character again. I always felt this was a little glib, and the more I think of the films, not all that accurate.

    Watching the scene of the the couple together in the grimy bedroom in One Wonderful Sunday I was struck by just how well directed it was, and how unfortunate it is that Kurosawa didn’t do more domestic dramas – from the small number of scenes like this he directed I think he was every bit as good as any of the more famous ‘home drama’ directors.

    To an extent, I wonder if the manner in which his female characters became less important to Kurosawa is simply a reflection of the commercial realities of the film studio system at the time. His most successful films were of course his samurai genre works and his contemporary thrillers – and from some of his interviews I get the impression that he considered these more fruitful areas for him to mine artistically, while the likes of Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi had more ‘domestic’ films sewn up. So his movement into what might be termed more ‘male’ films was just a natural progression created by the commercial realities of the time. Its also true to say I think that he tended to let his lead actors rip, leading often to quite weak secondary characters, which inevitably meant that the female characters tended to lose themselves in the background of the films, unless they were given a really juicy, evil role. Think of how, for example, Kyoko Kagawa is magnificently and memorably evil as the Mantis in Red Beard, while she merely simpers invisibly in the background as the wife in High and Low. As many a British character actor in Hollywood will testify, playing charismatic bad guys is more fun than ‘nice’ regular characters. So while you make a very interesting point about his later female characters being ‘morally bankrupt’, I think this is as much the nature of the films and the nature of film making – evil women are just so much more interesting than the good women in the films, so we remember them (everyone remembers Lady Kaede in Ran, but we forget about poor Lady Sue).

    I certainly do not think Kurosawa was misogynistic – but he was guilty I think of losing interest in female characters in his later films. But I think this notion of Kurosawa of being a very male sort of director has led critics to underrate just how sophisticated and wonderful his early female characters are. As Mellen has pointed out, while Ozu and Mizoguchi are known more as ‘female’ directors, the female characters in their films can in many ways be more problematic than in early Kurosawa. In Ozu’s case, they are often quite passive, and if not passive, then bitchy (although of course this could well be a reflection of the reality of family life at the time) in contrast to Kurosawa’s more assertive women, while Mizoguchi’s women seem more ciphers for his particular hang ups about the treatment of women in Japanese society.

    So, while I do think that one of Kurosawa’s weaknesses in his mid-career films is his depiction of women, I think this is more the result of both the chosen genres, and also his style of focusing on one or two key characters, rather than ensemble work.

    But having said all that, I do think that in his early pre-Mifune films, his female characters are actually often a lot more interesting than his male characters. How much of his is due to him, and how much to his scriptwriters (or for that matter, just choosing excellent actresses), I really don’t know.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I think Kurosawa’s preferred genres have something to do with it, although that leaves open the question of why those were his preferred genres. It’s too bad he didn’t do more domestic dramas; I think he’d be as good at it as the directors who are famous for it (cough cough Ozu). I’m not sure how much that had to do with commercial realities, though. I haven’t read as widely about Kurosawa as you or Vili have, but I have the impression that up until the industry became difficult in the mid-60’s, Kurosawa had a fair amount of autonomy to choose what kind of films to write and direct (outside of his making Sanjuro as a followup to Yojimbo).

    Was it really necessary to have women fade into the background because he made samurai genre films and contemporary thrillers? Or would it have been possible to make such films with women in important roles as something other than a gangster’s moll (Drunken Angel)? The Hidden Fortress — not my personal favorite, but still — suggests that it was possible.

    While I agree that ‘evil’ characters are often written to be more interesting than ‘good’ ones, Kurosawa was a better writer than that. Think of Sanada in Drunken Angel or Kambei in Seven Samurai. They are good — and flawed, in the case of Sanada — but they’re still interesting. So to my mind the question is more why did his movies increasingly feature women who were evil or so morally flawed that they couldn’t be viewed as good? Why were there no female heroes or protagonists after a certain point? We could also argue about where that point was; in my reckoning, it’s probably Ikiru. Arguably, that’s reversed in Rhapsody in August, which I own but haven’t yet seen.

    Since Kurosawa co-wrote all of his films, I think talking about him and about his scriptwriters is pretty much the same thing. I don’t think a great actor can rescue a poor script, so I think the credit for memorable female characters (or characters in general) starts with the screenplay, which Kurosawa himself saw as central to the craft of making movies and even of directing them.

    An aside: didn’t Kyogo Kagawa play the landlady’s sister and Mifune’s love interest in The Lower Depths as well?

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: So I throw it open to the rest of you: why do women play more minor roles in his films over time? Was there a change in the type of women he portrayed? Are the charges of misogynism leveled against him at all justified?

    This is pure speculation, but it is interesting to note that the three early films with strong female characters — The Most Beautiful, No Regrets for Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday — were made at a time when Kurosawa fell in love with his future wife Yoko, married, and began a family with her. Perhaps he was inspired by his new familiarity with women (or a woman) to create strong female characters like Yukie and Masako, who may even share some of the fabled strong-headedness that Yoko apparently had.

    Yet, none of these films were particularly noted for their portrayal of female characters, and reviews of No Regrets for Our Youth were in fact particularly hostile towards the portrayal of Yukie, arguing that she was not a realistic female character. This may have felt like particularly harsh criticism, as his contemporaries Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse were all praised for their female characters.

    Then, following One Wonderful Sunday, a couple of important things happened. For one, he found his new leading actor in Toshiro Mifune, who happened to be a strong, charismatic male. Subsequent films would need to be written with that in mind, if he was to use Mifune. Secondly, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog were great critical and financial successes, maybe suggesting to Kurosawa that he was more at home with the kind of narratives that those films had. And they were quite manly narratives.

    Yet, in many of his later films women play a crucial role in aiding the male protagonists — sometimes with positive outcomes, as in Ikiru or Madadayo, and at other times with less so positive outcomes, as in Throne of Blood for instance. There are also a few matriarchal figures, as for example the princess in The Hidden Fortress (or maybe not?) or the grandmother in Rhapsody in August.

    Personally, I think that the charges of misogynism are unfounded. Kurosawa’s women are not perfect, but then again, his men are just as ridden with imperfections. They are human.

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    lawless

    Vili – You and Ugetsu make similar points about the influence of the actors Kurosawa used and the genres of his films that were the most successful, which had very male-centric narratives, and those probably have a lot to do with it. The influence of his courtship of his wife also occurred to me as a possible factor in his depiction of women in his earlier fillms.

    I agree that he isn’t a woman-hater, but it is distressing to me that half of humanity became so much less important to his films. In some cases, it’s as if we pretty much disappeared from his view. Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Dersu Urzala — some of his movies have hardly any female characters in comparison to the male ones. Though while I composed this list, the character of the aristocratic woman and her daughter in Sanjuro came to mind. She’s an important character, not so much because of her importance to pushing the narrative forward, but because her rebuke to Sanjuro sums up the movie.

    I think another reason for the label “misogynist” is that the female characters in some of his films are more imperfect than the male characters — possibly even positively evil. Coming from a Western religious culture that used to think — perhaps in some places still thinks — of women as the source of sin and ultimate evil, depictions of the main, or a main, female character as the person who pushes the events forward with an agenda of hate bother me. It’s true of Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood; it may be true of the psychotic patient in Red Beard, which I haven’t seen, although I realize there are other important female roles in that movie, too. And while Lady Kaede is far from the only person in Ran who is evil, she may be the one people remember best.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Was it really necessary to have women fade into the background because he made samurai genre films and contemporary thrillers? Or would it have been possible to make such films with women in important roles as something other than a gangster’s moll (Drunken Angel)? The Hidden Fortress — not my personal favorite, but still — suggests that it was possible.

    Hidden Fortress is I think a good example of why I think his female characters are so weak in his ‘middle’ films. Here is a film which could have had a really interesting and vital central female character, but in reality, the princess isn’t really all that interesting. Some of the blame could be attached to the actress, but of course Kurosawa was responsible for choosing the actress and directing her performance. My impression of Kurosawa’s technique is that he gave his actors a lot of leeway in interpreting the roles. Given the dynamics of a film set (not to mention the realities of Japanese society at the time), this meant that strong male personalities like Mifune came (perhaps unintentially) to dominate the final film in a way that wasn’t intended beforehand. I know very little about Kyoko Kagawa, for example (except one interview I read later where she basically said she would appear in anything Kurosawa asked, such was her admiration for him), but it may be that she just wasn’t a strong enough personality to stand up and say to Kurosawa that her character needed more work or screentime.

    An aside: didn’t Kyogo Kagawa play the landlady’s sister and Mifune’s love interest in The Lower Depths as well?

    Yes, and she was in The Bad Sleep Well and Madadayo.

    I think another reason for the label “misogynist” is that the female characters in some of his films are more imperfect than the male characters — possibly even positively evil. Coming from a Western religious culture that used to think — perhaps in some places still thinks — of women as the source of sin and ultimate evil, depictions of the main, or a main, female character as the person who pushes the events forward with an agenda of hate bother me. It’s true of Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood; it may be true of the psychotic patient in Red Beard, which I haven’t seen, although I realize there are other important female roles in that movie, too. And while Lady Kaede is far from the only person in Ran who is evil, she may be the one people remember best.

    Kurosawa certainly seemed to be in love with a particular type of evil woman – or perhaps more prosaically he just loved the key scenes with Lady Asaji so much that he essentially repeated the character in later films.

    I think this is quite interesting because I came across a comment recently about Japanese culture (I can’t quite remember where) that in comparison to almost any other Eastern or Western culture there was always a striking absence of strong female characters in its mythology – few if any female warriors, goddesses, mother earth figures, witches, etc. How true this is, I’m not sure, but it may well be a reason why Japan has found it harder to promote powerful women even in comparison to supposedly more backward societies. So in one way, Kurosawa’s focus on immensely evil, powerful women was progress in a slightly perverse way.

    I agree that he isn’t a woman-hater, but it is distressing to me that half of humanity became so much less important to his films. In some cases, it’s as if we pretty much disappeared from his view. Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Dersu Urzala — some of his movies have hardly any female characters in comparison to the male ones. Though while I composed this list, the character of the aristocratic woman and her daughter in Sanjuro came to mind. She’s an important character, not so much because of her importance to pushing the narrative forward, but because her rebuke to Sanjuro sums up the movie.

    I wonder to what extent Kurosawa simply believed (implicitly or explicitly) that since Japanese society was based very much on the division of the domestic as female and the political world as male, that there was simply a natural division of the world portrayed on film in the same way. Again, I may be extrapolating too much from some casual comments in his interviews, but I think he may well have just thought ‘well, Ozu and Naruse and Mizoguchi do the female world much better than I do, my strength is in the male world, so I’ll concentrate on that’. So he would not have seen himself as ignoring women, just sticking to what he did best. Its also possible of course that he may have resented the post war censors insistence on central female characters and in his later films he may have felt he was just rebalancing things a little.

    As another topic, he does seem to have been much more interested in doing films about women in his last years – whether this was a reaction to criticism, or whether he simply became more interested in womens lives as he grew older, I’m not sure.

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    lawless

    Ugestsu wrote: I think this is quite interesting because I came across a comment recently about Japanese culture (I can’t quite remember where) that in comparison to almost any other Eastern or Western culture there was always a striking absence of strong female characters in its mythology – few if any female warriors, goddesses, mother earth figures, witches, etc. How true this is, I’m not sure, but it may well be a reason why Japan has found it harder to promote powerful women even in comparison to supposedly more backward societies.

    I’m not sure this theory holds up to close examination. The Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu is a central figure in the origin myth of Japan; prior to the renunciation of the claim to divinity, emperors traced their lineage back to her. The bodhisattva Guan Yin or Kannon (the goddess of mercy and compassion), who figures prominently in Japanese Buddhism, was originally depicted as male, but later, and more frequently, as female. My icon is her equivalent in the manga Saiyuki – an intersex character whose name, Kanzeon Bosatsu, is the Japanese equivalent of Guan Yin/Kannon, although hir intersex nature has to be taken on faith. As hir long-suffering assistant puts it, it’s impossible to prove se’s both male and female under the current OT (older teen) rating.

    Kurosawa’s feeling that he was better and more successful at depicting the male-dominated external, political world and leaving the female-dominated domestic realm to Ozu and Mizoguichi is probably a large part of the reason why it seems like he focused on male characters at the expense of female characters for awhle. By asking why it was necessary for women to fade into the background because of the changing focus of his films, all I’m suggesting is that we reframe the inquiry rather than acting as though that in itself answers everything. Is it in fact necessary to exclude women, or do movies like Ikiru, in which a woman is the catalyst for Watanabe’s decision to take up the park project, The Hidden Fortress, despite the problems we have with the performance of the actress playing the princess, and Sanjuro, in which an elderly woman plays a pivotal role, suggest that there were ways for women to have agency without being evil and play crucial roles even in the kinds of films Kurosawa was now making? It’s probably obvious which answer I think is correct.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I’m not sure this theory holds up to close examination.

    I’ll take your word for that, its not a topic I know much about. I would just comment that some writers emphasis a difference between ‘official’ mythology and the folklore of common people, the latter of which was often far more ‘female’ oriented.

    By asking why it was necessary for women to fade into the background because of the changing focus of his films, all I’m suggesting is that we reframe the inquiry rather than acting as though that in itself answers everything. Is it in fact necessary to exclude women, or do movies like Ikiru, in which a woman is the catalyst for Watanabe’s decision to take up the park project, The Hidden Fortress, despite the problems we have with the performance of the actress playing the princess, and Sanjuro, in which an elderly woman plays a pivotal role, suggest that there were ways for women to have agency without being evil and play crucial roles even in the kinds of films Kurosawa was now making? It’s probably obvious which answer I think is correct.

    I don’t disagree at all. I do find it something of a paradox that Kurosawa was so disinterested in women for many periods, whereas unlike many other directors who are identified as guilty of male gaze/misogyny he proved well capable of having good female characters, so yes, it was probably a choice he made (even if subconscious). Vili made a good point I think that it may well have been a reflection of his own personal life.

    I would just note in relation to his depiction of evil women in his films is that these are more common in his films where all the characters are quite deliberate archetypes rather than ‘real’ people. In Yojimbo, (in contrast to Seven Samurai, where all the characters are very realistic), most of the characters are to some extent or other symbols of types/classes in Japan. So the two female characters in that film fall into the stereotypes of good mother/evil manipulative wife – but this is no different than all the male characters (indistinguishable pairing of businessmen/yakuza, helpless townspeople, gamblers, and of course, the avenging angel). Likewise, in Throne of Blood and Ran, the characters are to a large extent deliberate archetypes from Noh or Kabuki.

    But I would agree to the extent that there really is no excuse (even allowing for the contemporary mores) for such weak female characters in films like I live in Fear, High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I’d agree with you about all the other characters in Yojimbo, but Sanjuro as an avenging angel? You really think so? I see him more as an antihero. It may not be the first film ever to portray such a character, but it’s probably one of the most iconic. He sees cleaning the town up as an improvement, maybe even a public service, but he does it as much to amuse himself as for any other reason.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I’d agree with you about all the other characters in Yojimbo, but Sanjuro as an avenging angel? You really think so? I see him more as an antihero.

    On reflection, ‘avenging angel’ is maybe not the best description. I was thinking in terms of Kurosawa’s later description of him as a sort of ‘super samurai’, a force of nature who fulfils his (Kurosawa’s) fantasy of sweeping away all the greed and corruption of modern Japan.

    I don’t have the book to hand, but Martinez suggested in her book on Kurosawa that Yojimbo had much in common with traditional characters in Japanese folklore – essentially an anonymous traveler (really a demon of some sort) who arrives in a village and rewards those who show hospitality but destroys those who fail to do so.

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