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Red Beard: The Mantis and Kurosawa’s Evil Problem

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    cocoskyavitch

    Kurosawa’s Red Beard is beloved in Japan, and the West sees it as an inferior, slower, less engaging version of Dr. Kildaire,(An American television show of the past, starring Richard Chamberlain-who, oddly, starred with Toshiro Mifune in Shogun– a television drama detested by Kurosawa http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083069/)

    I side with the Japanese who count Red Beard amongst their favorites. It was a while before I could watch it. I knew in advance that it was Kurosawa’s last film with Mifune, and I had to steel myself for it-brace myself, harden up a bit. Also-this is stupid-the film title threw me a bit-“Red beard” sounds like a pirate. I didn’t want the last film of Mifune and Kurosawa to be stupid. Once I read the synopsis, I was ready.

    On first viewing, it was a film that bewildered me with the rich variety of stories, personalities and the human transformations that occur within its frames. The humor is slight, but one is grateful for it-the film has some difficult, hauntingly painful passages, and a view of human nature that is so tart and bracing that it was a bit like a tonic that tastes and smells so strong it overwhelms your senses-(but it’s good for ya! )

    The film has been made with a patience (yes, it did take two years to film!) that allows the figures within to develop and grow in a way unusual to see in Western film. There’s enough time within the film, to “feel” the changes occur.

    A note: the omnibus flavor of characters who take center stage in the film, then either disappear or give way to others-this reminds me that the film after this will be Dodeskaden-a true omnibus feature, and that Kurosawa had previously successfully experimented with this “tableau vivant” omnibus format in The Lower Depths.

    Mifune does not have the best lines, nor does he have the most compelling character. He’s great, of course, and good enough to have won the Golden Lion in Venice for his work-but the characters that haunt us are others. Let me briefly mention “The Mantis”, then ask for feedback, because I have never figured it out:

    Wow. Kurosawa did something so completely revolutionary with the character of “The Mantis”. Who in the world would have thought Kurosawa an old-fashioned filmmaker? Isn’t that how Kurosawa was viewed by contemporary filmmakers such as Oshima at the time? Did Oshima even see this scene? The Mantis’ sexual release and attempted murder is so troubling-I honestly cannot imagine anything less likely in Kurosawa’s ouvre than this scene.

    Kurosawa wasn’t famed for his brilliant characterization of women, so this comes as an amazing moment. My admiration for Kyoko Kagawa knows no limit. She surprised me to my bones.

    But, what about her? “She was born that way” does not explain it for me. Any help?

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    Jon Hooper

    I find it interesting that you see the Mantis as an example of a brilliant female character on Kurosawa’s part. In what sense is she brilliant? Complex? An enigma? Is she evil, to be condemned, evil in her very nature, perhaps as Lady Kaede is evil in Ran? (though of course Kaede is out for revenge). It’s certainly one of the most memorable scenes in the film, but I’m not sure I really understand her at all.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Well, Jon, she is memorable!

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his interview with Kurosawa reproduced in “Akira Kurosawa Interviews” p.147 said of Red Beard, “

    So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema

    .” He goes on to say, “

    Furthermore, within the same film there are two scenes that are extreme in relation to the totality of your work, and they are both unforgettable; one is the praying mantis episode, and the other is the karate fight in the courtyard

    .”

    I would refer you to read for yourself the rest of this passage, because Kurosawa is happy to tell Marquez that the author of the source material, Shugaro Yamamoto, called the film “more interesting than my novel”. And, Kurosawa goes on to say, that, sometimes things not quite clear or explicit in a novel have a different quality in cinema. Kurosawa seemed to take quite a bit of pride in his characterization of the mantis character.

    And, then, Kurosawa completly throws me for a loop: he says that the mantis is a “complete failure as a woman”-and that the novelist had not quite captured that. Please read the passage-I would like to know what you make of it.

    For me it’s all: WHAT? Huh? I get being a failure as a human being, I get geing a tortured human being, I get being manic, haunted, pained, and unfit for the world. But, failure as a woman? What could that mean? It is so cultural-generational specific a valuation, that it adds to the strangeness of the character and makes it a layer more complex-because one must not only be senstive to what is there before one’s eyes-one must ratchet back and forth between cultural worlds in order to decode.

    That Kurosawa says that Yamamoto calls her a “failed woman” is one of the strangest ideas I’ve encoutered-coming from my culture and time. She failed. She was not just a victim of madness.

    How fascinating. So what does it mean in relation to Mifune/Red Beard’s comment, “She was born that way”?

    I am left confused as to Kurosawa’s attitude toward evil.

    So, why is the character so compelling to me? Why would I call it “brilliant”? What I admire about Kyoko Kagawa’s characterization is the that the actress we’ve seen in so many Kurosawa films before has transformed herself into this lethal madwoman so convincingly. The stark characterization of sexual perversion/violence and blood lust is really not at all PG-and I admire the fact that Kurosawa to allows this to exist in cinema-without exploiting it. This is a fine and delicate line, but Kurosawa stays on the right side of it. It’s true that, as often happens, I am left more confused and troubled by the character than comfortable with answers-but I consider this “incitement to think” a hallmark of works of genius. Watching the scene I am deeply uncomfortable-watching something so incredibly personal-I almost feel as if the young doctor goes through a similar emotion-at first it’s simple fear for his own life-then it is this separation-from-the-body-watching-from-a-distance feeling I get from him as he looks at this woman who is getting sexual release from attempted murder! This is so unprecedented-so taboo-so disturbing! It’s not like reading about these things-that’s horrible enough-it’s as if we are witnesses-and, I feel just about as shamed and guilty as our young doctor.

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    Vili Maunula

    Heh, I wonder what Pirates of the Caribbean would have been like with Mifune in the lead role as Captain Red Beard, and Kurosawa behind the camera!

    🙄

    But back to the topic. The character of the Mantis is an excellent way to kick off this edition of the Film Club — thanks Coco for introducing the topic!

    I agree with Jon in that, while the Mantis scene is definitely memorable and excellently put together, I am not so certain about its brilliance in terms of female characterization. In some ways she is actually a very typical female stock character, namely “the witch”, a dangerous outcast who inhabits a place far at the fringes of society. In Red Beard she is cast even further, to the fringes of the hospital that itself already exists outside of the society proper. It is a characterisation that the literary critics of the second-wave feminism would attack very strongly in the 1970s, and the confines of which subsequent feminist writers would explore further.

    Like the witch that she is, the Mantis remains an enigma, and as both Coco and Jon have noted, we are left puzzled by her actions. Dr. Niide (Akahige) tells us that “she was born that way”, and this resonates very strongly with the central topic that much of Kurosawa’s work up to Red Beard had been trying to think through. Even when considering just the films that have so far made an appearance in our Film Club, Niide’s comment takes us back to Drunken Angel (was Matsunaga beyond saving?), Stray Dog (what was the real reason for the difference between the chosen paths of Murakami and Yusa?), Yojimbo (if evil cannot be made good, should it be destroyed?) and High and Low (had Takeuchi really been as unfortunate as to warrant his actions?).

    Putting aside this aspect for a while, however, it seems worth noting that Niide’s “she was born that way” comment (around 00:35:50) is actually earlier on (around 00:18:10) qualified by Tsugawa, who describes hers as a “hysterical condition rather than insanity”. Presumably, Tsugawa is here repeating what he has heard from Niide, and what he is saying would seem to refer to medical hysteria, which has a long history as a (pseudo-)medical disorder attributed only to women. It was an especially prominent diagnosis in the 19th century — the film apparently takes place sometime in the first half of the 19th century. Basically, it was seen as stemming from the woman’s unfulfilled sexual needs (these needs being the “disorder”), and the cure was orgasm-inducing vaginal stimulation, which I suppose is what Osugi’s role in caring for the Mantis is.

    By the way, I don’t know if Kurosawa’s writers were familiar with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, but the case and the character of the Mantis reminds me of that of the protagonist in Gilman’s story.

    As a medical diagnosis, hysteria is of course anything but accurate (it was something of a catch-all diagnosis), and has not really been considered valid for a good hundred of years. If Kurosawa’s writing team did any research, as I believe they probably did, they should have been aware of this when writing the character and Niide’s comment.

    This makes Niide’s “she was born that way” comment quite interesting. As a medical diagnosis of its time it is entirely valid, but from our more modern point of view it is less believable — a point of view we could venture to guess the writers shared. In fact, many of the cases that were treated as hysteria in the Victorian era would now be considered as psychological in their nature, therefore really making the Mantis’s case one of insanity, despite of Tsugawa’s comment that it is a “hysterical condition rather than insanity”. Also, if what the Mantis tells Yasumoto of her childhood is true, it should not be difficult to guess where her mental disorder stems from. In that case, maybe she was anything but “born that way”?

    At this point, let me qualify all of the above by saying that what little I know of hysteria comes primarily from studies in literature, and less so in psychiatry, psychology or medicine. I wonder someone can qualify my statements here? Maybe Andrew might be able to shed more light on the matter?

    But if we take Niide to be wrong here, what does it say about the movie? I am not sure if I have a satisfactory answer, and to be honest I doubt that I do, which means that I would much appreciate all comments. Consider what follows a half-baked specimen of my typically half-baked thoughts.

    As I mentioned before, the “she was born that way” comment takes us back to Kurosawa’s earlier work, much of which had been spent dealing with the question how to deal with the evil in the world, or how to actualise the kind of humanistic optimism that Kurosawa possessed and wished for. Now, despite the obvious pitfalls of over-simplification, I pretty much agree with commentators like Richie and Prince, who suggest that Red Beard was for Kurosawa finally something of a solution to the dilemma that he had contemplated for the last two decades. (Whether or not he himself came to accept this solution in his later films is open to arguments.) Prince writes that in Red Beard Kurosawa:

    demonstrates a new attitude toward these oppressive conditions, a result of the defeats encountered by the previous films in their attempts to find political and social solutions. He now constructs poverty as a mythic condition and as an interior one, not as a political problem. The poor on whom Yasumoto gazes are silent, inert, submissive in their suffering. They display no anger or brutality, only resignation and sadness. Poverty has become a mental condition, including helplessness and humiliation and stripping people of their dignity. (The terms of this analysis of poverty belong to Konstantin Mochulsky, who pointed to its relevance for Dostoevsky’s novels. It seems clear that Kurosawa has taken it over from the Russian novelist.) (238)

    Prince continues by suggesting that Niide’s diagnosis of the Mantis’s case not only implies the already-discussed historical limitations to the doctor’s knowledge, but also, and more importantly,

    it discloses the extent to which illness is now conceived in strictly metaphysical terms. Sickness is regarded as the outcome of misfortune, not of social factors. The perception of misfortune is now firmly embedded within an appreciation of time as that which inevitably brings trials and sufferings to one’s life. Suffering is spiritualized in Red Beard. It is an interior condition. A grasp of its secrets is the prerequisite for cure and the basis for the reversal of time, the cancellation of history, that is the project of this film. (239)

    I would, however, like to suggest a third reason for Niide’s faulty diagnosis. Perhaps Kurosawa is here on some level dramatising his own mistakes, or pointing out the supposedly faulty diagnoses that he has made in his career of the past twenty five years? That the Mantis is the first proper major case introduced in Red Beard, and one that has already been diagnosed before the film begins, would seem to make it possible to interpret her case in this way — as standing for the “starting point” against which the rest of the individual stories in Red Beards build.

    Having said that, the diagnosis is in fact not entirely faulty at all, only half-faulty. The Mantis was born with the “evil” in her, but what the diagnosis fails to take into account is that she was also born with something like “goodness”. This, I feel, is the relevation of Red Beard. Prince calls Red Beard Kurosawa’s first really spiritualistic film (235), but I do not totally agree with him there. I see most, if not all of Kurosawa’s work concerned with spiritually relevant matters, just in Red Beard the focus is shifted from the external, the need to understand and help others, to the internal, or the need to understand and change oneself.

    Also, perhaps Niide’s failure is not so much in his diagnosis but in his failure to provide the Mantis with an environment where she could start healing herself — which would equal Kurosawa’s failure in his earlier films to provide the settings in which he could reach a satisfactory conclusion to his problem? Or perhaps Niide actually knows what he is doing but his comment is not to be trusted, perhaps the “she was born that way” comment is analogous to the comment he makes about Rokusuke’s death (although even there I am not entirely sure whether he in fact does mean what he says — that Rokusuke died peacefully, despite of what Yasumoto believes; the flashback that we get of Rokusuke’s death certainly is very different from the one we saw while he was dying).

    As I said, these are only a quarter-baked ideas, but I thought I might throw them at you anyway.

    To shift the emphasis somewhat, the Mantis is important also in terms of characterisation. For, in being a prisoner of Niide’s clinic, she is someone Yasumoto can early on relate to because he also feels like a prisoner of the place. This is in fact most probably one reason for his fascination with her.

    Later in the movie we are introduced to the case of Otoyo, the girl from the bordello. It could be said that without Niide’s intervention, Otoyo’s future would be similar to that of the Mantis. Therefore, us knowing about the Mantis may well strengthen the bond that we feel for Otoyo. More importantly, what also makes this a potentially interesting case in character development is that Yasumoto, of course, ends up taking care of Otoyo, after which it is Otoyo’s turn to heal Yasumoto. Here, the two characters that could be seen as in some ways related to the Mantis help each other — just like the Mantis should have helped herself, but couldn’t. The outcome, eventually, is that Yasumoto wants to remain in the hospital, and no more feels like a prisoner there — he is then cured, and can no more be related to the Mantis.

    There is quite a lot more to this, with Red Beard‘s complexity being what it is. But I’ll leave you with those thoughts for now, as the post is getting quite long and I am not at all certain if I am actually going anywhere.

    As for Kurosawa’s comments in the Marquez interview, I am not sure if you are reading it right, Coco. Here’s the quote:

    The only thing that [author Shuguro Yamamoto] requested of me was that I be very careful with the protagonist, a complete failure of a woman, as he saw her. But the curious thing is that the idea of a failed woman was not explicit in his novel. (Cardullo, 147)

    Unless we are talking about a different passage, it seems to me that not only was it Yamamoto who thought of the protagonist as “a complete failure of a woman”, but it also seems to me that Kurosawa himself didn’t consider her as one when reading the book. Moreover, having not read the original, I am not even entirely sure if “the protagonist” refers to the Mantis — although the only other option I can think of would be Sahachi’s wife, who I think has more screen time than the Mantis but is perhaps still less of a “protagonist”. (The third major female figure in the story, Otoyo, is from Dostoevsky. But it could also be that Yasumoto’s wife was more prominent in the novel — I really don’t know.)

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    Ugetsu

    Putting aside this aspect for a while, however, it seems worth noting that Niide’s “she was born that way” comment (around 00:35:50) is actually earlier on (around 00:18:10) qualified by Tsugawa, who describes hers as a “hysterical condition rather than insanity”. Presumably, Tsugawa is here repeating what he has heard from Niide, and what he is saying would seem to refer to medical hysteria, which has a long history as a (pseudo-)medical disorder attributed only to women. It was an especially prominent diagnosis in the 19th century — the film apparently takes place sometime in the first half of the 19th century. Basically, it was seen as stemming from the woman’s unfulfilled sexual needs (these needs being the “disorder”), and the cure was orgasm-inducing vaginal stimulation, which I suppose is what Osugi’s role in caring for the Mantis is.

    I’d be curious to know what the original Japanese term was used for the line about ‘hysteria’. From what I know of the term, its firmly rooted in western thought – it comes originally from the Greek, but as a catch all diagnosis for difficult women it only became popularised (so far as I know) in the later 19th Century. I doubt if it has an exact equivalent in Japanese. From the little I know about psychiatry, I do know that even today Japanese psychiatrists argue that many standard mental disease typologies do not apply to asian cultures. As an example, ‘narcissm’ and related conditions are said to be extremely rare in Japan, probably because the underlying causes manifest themselves in a different way in Japanese culture.

    My first thought on seeing that scene is that the translation is crude and the original Japanese words were probably more precise, but could not be translated correctly to English. But my Japanese isn’t up to knowing this for certain!

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I’d be curious to know what the original Japanese term was used for the line about ‘hysteria’.

    That’s an excellent point, Ugetsu. I actually happen to have the Japanese script, so I looked it up and here’s the relevant sentence:

    狂気というよりも、むしろ狂的体質だと赤髭は言っています

    Which, to the best of my knowledge, could be crudely glossed as something like:

    “madness rather than, rather insane predisposition it is Red Beard says”

    Now, the problem is that none of my dictionaries really help with the relevant term, 狂的体質. 狂的 is an adjective with the meaning “insane, fanatic”, while 体質 is a noun with the meaning “constitution (physical); genetic make-up; predisposition (to disease)”.

    We could really do with the help of some of our Japanese lurkers (hint, hint :wink:). I know that there are a few of you…

    In any case, I just sent an email to a Japanese friend of mine who is a doctor, hoping that he might be able to tell us if 狂的体質 is an actual medical term, and if yes, what it actually refers to. I’m just not sure if he’s reading his emails these days (he’s supposed to be travelling, I think).

    As for western medical terms not applying in 19th century Japan, I don’t know. What we do know is that at least Yasumoto has specifically studied Dutch medicine (00:19:26), and Niide seems to have an interest in his notes. So at least the knowledge seems to have been there. But you may well have a point here.

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    Ugetsu

    Now, the problem is that none of my dictionaries really help with the relevant term, 狂的体質. 狂的 is an adjective with the meaning “insane, fanatic”, while 体質 is a noun with the meaning “constitution (physical); genetic make-up; predisposition (to disease)”.

    It sounds to me a little like it means ‘born bad’ (or a ,bad seed’, as the main character is described in ‘Badlands’). In modern medical terms, I would guess it that line would translate as ‘she has an untreatable psychopathic disorder, not a mental illness’.

    To go back to coco’s point, my first feeling when I watched the scene was that what Kurosawa was trying to communicate is that Niide is not a misty-eyed do-gooder. He is clearminded enough to know that just being kind to people isn’t enough – there is such a thing as evil. Hence his interest in the young girl – he sees her as someone who isn’t ‘bad to the bone’ but can be rescued, unlike the mad woman, who can only be controlled. Niide may be an idealist, but he is also aware of the limitations of what can be done.

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    Ugetsu

    …. I should add that this interpretation would make him consistent with a long line of Kurosawa’s ‘heroes’, not the didactically described saint as interpreted by Richie and others.

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    Jeremy

    Western medicine and the terminology was well established in larger areas of Japan. This is one reason why Yasumoto mentions often “Nagasaki” and “Dutch”.

    As it was Nagasaki that was the first gateways to Feudal Japan for Westerners. And it was the Dutch Military Medical Corp that first established a training program, which quickly had Americans and Europeans doctors flooding Japan with knowledge.

    I’ll dig around for a book I have called “Moments in Japan”, I think more correctly called “Monumenta Nipponica”, in it mentions a few books that go into this, I believe “Western Medicine Rise in Japan” and “Western Medical Pioneers in Feudal Japan” are the ones.

    From what I can tell, this movie takes places around the a modernization period, in which the West flooded Japan with new knowledge, in exchange for theirs. Taking place a bit before “Yojimbo” otherwise “Yokohama” would been mention instead of “Nagasaki”. Yokohama being the Western colony start up to be more centralized in Japan, after Nagasaki showed much promise and was used in a sort of testing-the-waters experiment.

    If you recall in a Yojimbo discussion, I mentioned based off the gun and where it came from-the new Yokohama port, the movie likely took place around 1850. If Red Beard is pushed a bit back to line up with a Nagasaki port, you should be around 1830’s, which matches up to the Dutch coming to Japan-according to some of my military books.

    Had the movie taking places earlier, Nagasaki would of been unlikely to be mentioned and there appears to be no Dutch activity before 1830 and outside Nagasaki, but before Yokohama.

    Giving this, the movie would take place right around the time, Japanese medicine was overhauled, and Western terms that more correctly diagnosed where used.

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    Ugetsu

    If my limited knowledge of Japanese is not mistaken, the use in that sentence of Kanji and Hiragana, but not Katagana, indicates that all the words are of Japanese (or possibly Chinese) origin, which indicates that none of them are European borrowings.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: If my limited knowledge of Japanese is not mistaken, the use in that sentence of Kanji and Hiragana, but not Katagana, indicates that all the words are of Japanese (or possibly Chinese) origin, which indicates that none of them are European borrowings.

    What you write is certainly true about the words used, but has no bearing on the concepts that they refer to. A concept, in this case a medical condition, may still be of foreign origin despite of it being written in kanji, rather than katakana. In fact, I would venture to guess that most concepts borrowed into Japanese, so to speak, are actually written in kanji.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Awesome posts-very rich in content.

    Prince, on the Criterion Collection Red Beard commentary track talks about medicine, the Dutch, Nagasaki, etc. This helps us see the development of the brash young doctor from selfish boor to compassionate doctor, sets us in time, and gives us a bridge into the concept of a simultaneously existing Western culture.

    The Mantis might be suffering from what might have, at the time, been diagnosed as sexual hysteria, Vili– good call.

    And Ugetsu, offers a good way of viewing Niide’s attitudes toward evil,

    …Niide is not a misty-eyed do-gooder. He is clearminded enough to know that just being kind to people isn’t enough – there is such a thing as evil. Hence his interest in the young girl – he sees her as someone who isn’t ‘bad to the bone’ but can be rescued, unlike the mad woman, who can only be controlled. Niide may be an idealist, but he is also aware of the limitations of what can be done.

    Vili, said,

    …it seems to me that not only was it Yamamoto who thought of the protagonist as “a complete failure of a woman”, but it also seems to me that Kurosawa himself didn’t consider her as one when reading the book.

    I think Kurosawa’s point is not to dispute Yamamoto’s terminology, but, rather to congratulate himself on making the character a bit more clear cinematically than the author had been able to do in his book. That’s my take. I’ll leave alone the whole “protagonist” idea. It’s a slightly awkward passage. I doubt that Gabriel Garcia Marquez spoke Japanese or that Kurosawa spoke Spanish.

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    Jeremy

    I think the “failed woman” concept is more to do with the woman’s natural role to carry on a family name, trait, success by giving birth.

    Such a role for women role is shown in all cultures, perhaps more so in Asia, and especially during the time this movie takes place.

    It’s not at all a sexist comment, but simply in the role of life- The Mantis did fail. This idea takes places outside any possible sexism or discrediting to women.

    No different the a man, failing to create a family has failed in the natural order-it has no regard to actual societies’ perceived ideals of success, but more to do with nature’s ideal of success.

    This is after all, the whole purpose of all life- the desire to carry one one’s traits and thus surviving forever via offspring.

    To call the Mantis a failed woman, seems to be a fair comment to me.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thanks, Jeremy for your take on the “failed woman” issue. Of course, modernista that I am, I take umbrage immediately at the concept, then have to work my way backwards to understanding where in the world such a comment could come from…! I’m glad that I don’t live in those times! (Although, perhaps, in a way, I do…do you recall Morrissey’s “End of the Line” song with his moaning about being the end of the family line…? There’s still quite a bit of pressure to continue the family line, I suppose…)

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    Jeremy

    Again, ignoring social brackets from the past that limited women abilities and under no pre-conditions that woman can or can not do this or that, as well as any religious connotations.

    None in which I partake in…..

    Is it not a woman’s role to create offspring? Is it not this that makes them the most important of humans?

    Such denial of this key feature, and importance, to me at least, would make for a “failed” woman.

    I know I risk insulting women that choose not to have children, but I still I ask. And certainly “failed” is harsh, but success as a human is the continuation of your (hopefully) beloved traits. Man and woman share this role equally, but only a woman can make it happen.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m sort of with Jeremy on this one – I suspect the term ‘failed woman’ is a translation of a more general phrase for a woman who doesn’t fit into the conventional role – its not necessarily meant to be disparaging. I’m reminded of the phrase ‘unfortunate’ (in relation to women) that older Irish people use. When used in the context of ‘oh, shes a bit of an unfortunate’ it doesn’t mean she’s unlucky, it was a general term for a woman who never had children or became a nun – someone who slipped through the normal ‘acceptable’ roles.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili was joking earlier about Mifune in Pirates of the Carribean. Ya know, it would probably be amazing. After all, he was in some “Lost Voyage of Sinbad” -a Toho production. I have only seen clips on YouTube but he looks cool: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAVLNB5R9BM

    Reminds me of Saturday afternoons when I was a kid!

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    Vili Maunula

    Jeremy has an excellent point here about the potential meaning of “failed woman”. It is also something that I hadn’t considered before.

    Meanwhile, my Japanese doctor friend replied, and indeed 狂的体質 is not a phrase that he would recognize as a standard medical term. He says that given the context, it seems to refer to insanity which is the result of a physical condition that the person has had from birth, “ingrained or imprinted in the body”, and which is the person’s default condition.

    In this way, 体質 (taishitsu) is apparently also used for example to talk about an allergy or a smoking addiction.

    So, I think that the whole idea of the Mantis as a patient of hysteria is a bit of a stretch that resulted, as Ugetsu correctly guessed, from careless translation (although I think perhaps even more so from some careless interpretation of those subtitles from my part).

    This is not to say that the condition referred to here couldn’t be hysteria (it was, after all, considered a physical condition that the person had from birth), but the evidence for it is perhaps not quite as clear as to warrant jumping into the conclusions that I presented earlier.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco:

    Wow. Kurosawa did something so completely revolutionary with the character of “The Mantis”. Who in the world would have thought Kurosawa an old-fashioned filmmaker? Isn’t that how Kurosawa was viewed by contemporary filmmakers such as Oshima at the time? Did Oshima even see this scene? The Mantis’ sexual release and attempted murder is so troubling-I honestly cannot imagine anything less likely in Kurosawa’s ouvre than this scene.

    I think like everyone else here I didn’t really understand what Coco meant here – but I watched it again last night and – wow! I can’t believe I missed it. I really did think that the Mantis was just a classic female witch but… that kiss she gives Yasumoto as she is about to cut his carotid artery! She is in sexual ecstasy! The Mantis is perfectly named, she kills after sex, and she enjoys it. So yes, she is far beyond a cliched ‘mad woman’ character – she is not someone who kills men out of hate or revenge, she is, quite simply, a serial sex killer.

    For me, this casts a very different complexion on Niide’s further statements. The more literal translation of his statement would seem to be quite close to a genuine psychological truth. She is not just a disturbed young woman, she is a pure psychopath, and so is beyond any help. I think the mistranslation of ‘hysteria’ threw us all off the scent (except Coco of course 😀 )

    This seems to cast her in line with a type of Kurosawa character we’ve seen since Stray Dog. In fact, I think she is very similar to the ‘stray dog’ character – just as Murakami and his superior disagreed over whether he was ‘evil’ and needed to be taken out of circulation, or whether he deserved some pity, as someone who has simply taken the wrong path, we see the younger doctors mistakenly thinking they can cure the Mantis, while the older, wiser head knows that there is such a thing as pure evil (or, in modern psychological parlance, people with dangerous and uncurable personality disorders).

    So I think there are a lot of different levels of dialectic going on with this character. Kurosawa was both interested in the notion of chance and luck throwing people on very different paths, but also the question of whether some are just fated through their birth to take the wrong way. In Stray Dog, I think we are invited to sympathize more with Murakami’s view that the killer took a wrong turning in life (despite the evidence we saw that he may well have been seriously disturbed mentally), while in Red Beard we see with the Mantis our sympathies are guided to Niides more cynical (realistic?) view of some people being just born bad. Of course, this is mitigated somewhat by the later stories showing how people can indeed be saved and shown a better way.

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    Ugetsu

    Unfortunately, its behind a subscription site, but the Journal of Psychiatry has what looks like a fascinating piece of research on movie psychopaths and how realistic they are (or not, as the case may be). I can’t help wondering if the Mantis is included in this survey (I’m tempted to subscribe just to find out!), not to mention the various other identifiable psychopaths and sociopaths who are littered through AK’s oeuvre.

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    lawless

    I have a hard time accepting Niide’s statement that the Mantis was born evil at face value. Yes, not everyone who’s undergone what she did turns out to be a psychopathic killer, but the important question is what she would have been like in the absence of sexual abuse and betrayal by the very people who should have nurtured her, not how others turned out. I see the sexual release she gets from her murderous attacks as a way of expressing the rage she must have felt while being raped and a reflection that when all of one’s sexual experience is coerced, sex, pain, and violence are already intertwined.

    While her experience is an example of what could have happened to Otoyo, that doesn’t prove that Otoyo would or wouldn’t have followed the same path. Not only is Otoyo rescued before she’s successfully coerced, she knew a mother’s love, and the narrative of the rescue implies that her mother had done all she could to protect her. In fact, her initial intractability could as much be due to grief and shock at her mother’s death as at the brothel owner’s attempt to make her into a prostitute.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I have a hard time accepting Niide’s statement that the Mantis was born evil at face value.

    I’m not sure it was intended to suggest that the Mantis was purely evil. What I got from this episode is that childhood trauma is a reason why someone may end up doing something evil – but it is not an excuse for it. I found it quite striking in the film because I’m aware of some people who have been victims of abuse who find it quite offensive when childhood trauma is used as mitigation for criminals, as this implies that the victims don’t have control over their own destinies. Niide is I think expressing his view that as a doctor he acknowledges why the Mantis behaves this way, and treats her with compassion as a doctor – but he refuses to absolve her of guilt for her actions. In this sense, I think the film has quite a sophisticated approach to the question of good and evil. But this is supposition on my part as I suspect the translation from Japanese in the subtitles is not particularly good.

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    lawless

    I interpreted the choices we’re given as she’s either a psychopath — a form of mental illness for which there is no cure — or she’s evil. While both involve unacceptable behavior, one is a medical condition based on her behavior and the other a moral one based on the state of her soul. Unless one can show she would have killed even if she hadn’t been abused, I think it’s a mistake to assume that her behavior can necessarily be equated to her moral state. This is an explanation, not an excuse; she still needs to face the consequences of her actions.

    Certainly some people are psychopaths, or suffer from some personality disorder that results in them committing violent acts, without regard to environment or upbringing. But it may well be the case that childhood trauma can operate as a tipping point.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Certainly some people are psychopaths, or suffer from some personality disorder that results in them committing violent acts, without regard to environment or upbringing. But it may well be the case that childhood trauma can operate as a tipping point.

    By coincidence, I came across this fascinating article in the Atlantic – an interview with a neuroscientist who has been diagnosed as a psychopath. He certainly thinks that the distinction between becoming a non-violent functioning psychopath and a dangerous killer comes down to nurture at key points of development.

    Articles like this do convince me that Kurosawa and his writers had an unusually sophisticated and psychologically convincing view of evil – and what drives people to commit evil acts – we can see this from Stray Dog onwards to Ran. There is a consistency through his films that there is often a very fine line with some individuals between whether they tip towards being a cop or a robber, a harmless narcissist or a dangerous killer.

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    Teddy

    Hi folks,

    I’ve just registered so I could chip in on this discussion. I came across this site looking for some discourse on Red Beard, and specifically came across a discussion started by Ugetsu a few years back about the secondary thread through the film of Yasumoto and the women.

    I picked up on this myself, what with the key relationship with Otoyo, the ex-fiancee plotline, and also what I see as two key shocking early scenes – the Mantis scene, and also the nude surgery scene.

    There is a strange parallel in these two scenes. I haven’t seen much discussion of the operation scene, but it made as strong an impression on me as the Mantis scene. To me it had a clear sexual subtext. Yasumoto assumes a position between the girl’s legs, she writhes in agony, but in a manner which mimics the throes of ecstacy. He is even at one point told to force her legs wider apart.

    Both scenes contrast strong sexual imagery with pain and the threat of death. Likewise later on Otoyo’s situation is a more detailed exploration of this, with the obvious connotations of working in the brothel and the love she develops for Yasumoto.

    It seems like these scenes are symbolic of Yasumoto’s feelings towards or experiences with women at the start of the film. The Mantis tricks him with her lies. She wins his confidence only to stab him in the back. Sexual feelings are linked with visceral and painful experiences.

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    Ugetsu

    Hi Teddy, and welcome.

    I’m glad you brought up the operation scene. Every time I watch the film I find that scene quite peculiar and I’ve intended to bring it up, but I’m not sure my own thoughts on it so I’ve avoided mentioning it. I have thought there is something quite sexual in the depiction, but I’m not altogether sure if its deliberate or not. I’ve mainly thought ‘not’, because I couldn’t think of any good reason why Kurosawa would have wanted that subtext. I think your notion that it is linked to the Mantis scene is interesting, but I’m not entirely sure what the link is intended to be.

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    Teddy

    It’s certainly a disconcerting scene. I’ll need to give it another watch but I think it’s partly symbolic of the malfuntional relationship he has with women, and also a baptism of fire – as a young man he should be having romantic, heroic relationships with women, but instead he has to confront the harsh realities of mental and physical sickness and the ways these corrupt pure, idealised women into murderous psychopaths or injured and mortal flesh.

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    Vili Maunula

    Teddy’s post (welcome, by the way!) has kept me thinking these past couple of days. The operation scene certainly is interesting and special, considering that it was the first and only Kurosawa scene to feature nudity.

    It is interesting how so much of Yasumoto’s story revolves around sexuality. In addition to the mantis and the operation scene, the very reason why Yasumoto is at Red Beard’s clinic seems to do with sexuality. His turning point as a character also comes through a young girl rescued from prostitution. And as a contrast, he is guided by a man who comes across as rather asexual, with no mention (I think?) of a family or wife for Red Beard.

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    Kota Bota

    Hello,

    I’m new to this page. I re-watched the film recently and found this page while I was Googling reviews. I’m also Japanese and currently residing in Canada.

    Although this thread is close to 7 years old, I enjoyed the discussions that I have read so far.

    On the thread’s subject, could it be that the Mantis’ class background played a role? She is the only patient of the clinic that comes from a seemingly wealthy background and also considering her relationship with Osugi which is exploitative in Niide’s eyes when he denounces her father for not caring about her etc.

    I don’t know if this is valid but I thought I’d bring this up.

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    Ugetsu

    Hi kota bota and welcome. Its always nice to resurrect old threads! I can’t believe its been seven years since we discussed this.

    On the thread’s subject, could it be that the Mantis’ class background played a role? She is the only patient of the clinic that comes from a seemingly wealthy background and also considering her relationship with Osugi which is exploitative in Niide’s eyes when he denounces her father for not caring about her etc.

    I certainly think it is relevant. Obviously, there is the plot point that Niide used wealthy patients like the Mantis to raise money so he could help the poor. But when you combine his attitude to the Mantis to the other subplot of the rich, fat man who he pretty much blackmails for money for the hospital, it seems that Niide has a strong underlying contempt for the rich even as he treats them. Niide does not spread his compassion equally – he obviously feels much more for his downtrodden poor clients and has to struggle to overcome his visceral dislike for both the aristocrat and the rich merchant (not being Japanese I will not catch all the class subtleties, but I think it is implied that the Mantis’s family are nouveau riche merchants, not aristocrats?). Presumably, if the Mantis’s family were not rich, she would have ended up executed or in prison, and this reflects Niide’s treatment for her and his contempt for her father.

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