Welcome to Akira Kurosawa info!  Log in or Register?

Sanjuro: Kurosawa, the Chamberlain's Wife, and Women

Tagged: ,

  •   link

    lawless

    I debated whether to put this under our discussion of Sanjuro or under general Kurosawa discussion, and decided that since viewing Sanjuro is my jumping off point for this, I’m going to categorize this as a discussion of Sanjuro even though it’s really more of a general discussion of Kurosawa’s treatment of women. Nevertheless, Vili, feel free to move this if you think it would be more appropriate.

    At this point in my viewing of Kurosawa’s movies, I’ve concluded that the meme that Kurosawa is not as good at depicting women as he is at depicting men is bogus. While it’s true that over his career he focused more on male characters, and that women are often side characters and aren’t even named, as is the case with the chamberlain’s wife in Sanjuro, despite being central to the film, in general, his female characters have agency Within the bounds of their time, they have as much agency as men. In this respect (and with the caveat that I’m more familiar with his work than theirs), he is unlike the contemporaries with whom he is often unfavorably compared when it comes to female characters, Ozu and Mizoguichi, who generally (or at least often) show women who are long-suffering and trapped.

    The list of examples is numerous: the main character in One Wonderful Sunday, who, among other things, convinces her fiance not to force her to have sex when he wants it and she doesn’t; the main character in No Regrets For Our Youth, who comes up with her own (and arguably better) response to political tyranny than the many men in the movie; just about everyone in The Most Beautiful; Shino in Seven Samurai (in fact, I’d argue that all of the women in Seven Samurai have agency, even if for some of them (viz. Rikichi’s wife) that agency has tragic consequences); the landlady and her sister in The Lower Depths; the princess in The Hidden Fortress; Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood; the unfaithful wife and the husband swappers in Dodesukaden; the co-worker who acts as Watanabe’s catalyst in Ikiru; Orin in Yojimbo … I could go on.

    And in Sanjuro itself? Not only is there the chamberlain’s wife, there’s her daughter (Chidori?) and the servant, whom Sanjuro himself praises as more courageous than the men he’s helping. Yes, their roles are minor, although at least the chamberlain’s wife and daughter are more easily distinguished from the rest of the cast than the nine samurai ducklings, who are almost indistinguishable. But considering the amount of screentime they get, they have impact — more impact than most of the men.

      link

    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    At this point in my viewing of Kurosawa’s movies, I’ve concluded that the meme that Kurosawa is not as good at depicting women as he is at depicting men is bogus. While it’s true that over his career he focused more on male characters, and that women are often side characters and aren’t even named, as is the case with the chamberlain’s wife in Sanjuro, despite being central to the film, in general, his female characters have agency Within the bounds of their time, they have as much agency as men. In this respect (and with the caveat that I’m more familiar with his work than theirs), he is unlike the contemporaries with whom he is often unfavorably compared when it comes to female characters, Ozu and Mizoguichi, who generally (or at least often) show women who are long-suffering and trapped.

    I’d agree with this – I think the negative view of Kurosawa’s female characters to a large extent comes from looking at them in isolation – many are disappointingly shallow, but I don’t think they were any more cliched or shallow than the ‘equivalent’ male characters in Kurosawa films. So many of his films use archetypes (with usually only the main character being given a unique status) that far more of his minor characters tend to end up as stereotypes to one degree or other. That the stand out characters from his films are largely male really comes down to his own interest in male-oriented stories. I think one problem with his films though in comparison to Ozu and Naruse is that he seems to have allowed his actors more leeway than other directors, sometimes leading to individual characters (invariably played by Mifune) overpowering individual scenes. So, for example, the Gondo’s wife in High and Low is a disappointingly low-key and rather uninteresting character in the film, despite being played by a very fine actress. I feel this may have been down to the way he allowed Mifune to dominate the screen, rather than consciously ignoring the female character. One point I would make though as a relative weakness in Kurosawa’s films is that unlike Naruse, he never seemed I think to be so conscious of altering the male and female gaze of the camera in relation to his characters.

    I think though that when the story called for strong female characters, he was a perfectly good director of women and treated the characters fairly. I really like the women of Sanjuro, and he obviously was conscious of the way in which they undermined the pompous preening of the samurai, and so gently gives the film its anti-violence message.

    I think Richie in his book on Japanese film said that there was a minor genre in Kabuki and Japanese film which could loosely be described as being based on the notion that while men ran around trying to look important, women made all the real decisions, whether in the domestic or the political world. Suzuki among other directors made a number of comedies I think along these lines. I think Kurosawa may well have been thinking of this while making Sanjuro.

      link

    Vili Maunula

    Well said, both of you. Kurosawa definitely gets to be unfairly labelled in this respect.

    Ugetsu’s point about none of Kurosawa’s characters, male or female, being particularly deep is an excellent one — the issues tend to be complex but the characters less so. And like lawless demonstrated, there are plenty of good examples of female characters central to the stories in Kurosawa’s films.

      link

    cocoskyavitch

    Nice post, lawless!

    Have you noticed the Kurosawa’s women are sometimes the agents that bring new awareness to other characters (women sometimes seem to be the catalyst for illumination or awakening)? Is it possible that sensuality is part of what wakes up the men around them?

    The chamberlain’s wife is amazing in the barn scene.. .she leans into the hay, inhaling dreamily…the two women, young and older, side by side. The men are hyper-aware. Maybe it is that the women allow themselves to be completely vulnerable that arouses in the men a desire to be worthy? It appears to me that the depth of the chamberlain’s wife’s words come as a surprise to Sanjuro when he is directly confronted… if I am remembering correctly. He assumes one thing about her, but finds she is wise, too-he takes her words to heart.

    Then, those dancehall girls who throw themselves on the floor in Stray Dog…the beads of sweat on their bodies…there is that first sensual encounter, then the one young woman becomes a lead for the men to find the stray dog. It’s as if..what? It’s as if women are first encountered sometimes in a sensual way, then they are shown to be agents of change.

    And in Ikiru..the young girl has this pleasure when she touches the furry toy and talks about it…this sensuality and openness that leads Wattanabe to find his own path toward salvation.

    I just want to say I don’t find Gondo’s wife in High and Low disappointing at all. I think she is strong and noble.

      link

    lawless

    Thanks, Coco! I was hoping you’d jump in.

    Coco: Have you noticed the Kurosawa’s women are sometimes the agents that bring new awareness to other characters (women sometimes seem to be the catalyst for illumination or awakening)? Is it possible that sensuality is part of what wakes up the men around them?

    Yes, I’ve noticed that women are sometimes the agents of a new awareness, like Watanabe’s co-worker in Ikiru, but I’m a little hesitant to use the word sensuality to describe it in most instances. I think it’s sometimes due to a determined personality, for good or ill, and sometimes attributable to the effect of sensuality. Examples of the former: the lead in One Wonderful Sunday, the woman from Ikiru, Lady Asaji from Throne of Blood; the wife in The Bad Sleep Well. Examples of the latter: Shino from Seven Samurai; Setsuko Hara’s character in The Idiot. Hara’s character in No Regrets for Our Youth might qualify as both.

    It’s funny; when the aunt settles back against the hay, she looks like she’s getting comfortable and relaxing, but when Chidori does it, it looks sensual and somewhat sexual in nature. I don’t know if it’s due to the differences in their appearance or their body language; from a distance, the aunt looks well put together and attractive for her age, but close up, she doesn’t look as attractive. I think some of it is due to her teeth, or her apparent lack of them. And maybe her looks would be perceived differently by someone from Japan.

    But I agree with you that the women’s vulnerability is part of the reason the men listen to them and that Sanjuro finds “the old woman,” as he calls her, surprising and unexpected. And the dancehall girls in Stray Dog are depicted quite sensually. Ditto for the woman who stole the gun and gives the detective his first lead. That scene where they lie down next to each other (on an outdoor porch or something, IIRC) and look at the stars is full of unresolved sexual tension.

      link

    Ugetsu

    Coco

    I just want to say I don’t find Gondo’s wife in High and Low disappointing at all. I think she is strong and noble.

    She is strong and noble, but for me thats part of the problem. Strong and noble can be boring! I think that there is a potentially fascinating backstory with Gondo and his wife – the hints are that she comes from a very wealthy family (i.e. National Shoes original owners) while he worked his way up – and it seems clearly a love match. I would assume that such a marriage would be very rare in Japan at the time. I think there are all sorts of hints that she is just as interesting a character as Gondo, I really would have liked that aspect of the film to have been explored. Given that there are little hints of an interesting back story there, I do wonder if the original script had more about how Gondo got to be so senior and how he ended up with the owners daughter, but that perhaps it was edited out for the sake of making the film a little leaner having regard to the structural flabbiness of The Bad Sleep Well.

    On the broader point of Kurosawa’s women, my personal theory about how Kurosawa structured his films relative to his contemporaries is that he seems to have given his actors much more space to interpret their characters. From my reading of the various sources, I think his primary concern was the structure of the narrative, not the fine points of character (although as I’ve written here in a different context, I think Kurosawa was always at pains to portray individuals in a psychologically realistic manner). I don’t think from my reading that he really pushed his actors in the way Ozu and Naruse did to explore the inner lives of their characters (or to be precise, to portray their inner lives as the Director instructed them). If I understand correctly from Richies writing, the latter was the norm in Japanese cinema, where it was not uncommon for directors not even to bother telling their actors anything about their characters – their job was to do exactly as the director instructed them to do during any one scene. Kurosawa, on the other hand, may well have seen it as the actors job to add depth and colour to the characters as written. This to me may explain some of the inconsistencies through his films about his treatment of minor characters, female and otherwise.

Viewing 6 posts - 1 through 6 (of 6 total)



Leave a comment

Log in or Register to post a comment!