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Seven Samurai: The Farmer's Daughter and Female Agency

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    lawless

    Ahaha, sneaking in under the wire here with the discussion of Shino I wanted to post when it came time to discuss Seven Samurai. Please bear with me if this isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be.

    I’m tempted to begin any discussion of Shino with a reference to jokes and stories about the traveling salesman corrupting the farmer’s daughter. Here we have a wandering boy samurai rather than a traveling salesman, and the point of the joke is stood on its head because it’s Shino, not Katsushiro, who initiates their relationship. It’s Shino who berates Katsushiro for hesitating when she offers herself to him. But then, after the bandits are routed, she rejoins her rurual community with nary a backward glance and with apparent acceptance, even though they all know that she slept with Katsushiro.

    I found this all puzzling and a bit scandalous when I first saw Seven Samurai as a teenager, which was more years ago than I’d like to admit. As in forty or so years ago. 😯 Nice girls didn’t initiate these types of relationships, and those who did either were head over heels in love or were doing it to improve their living situations.

    By this reasoning, Shino should have begged Katsushiro to take her with him or have left with him as his concubine, and if he’d refused, she should be pining for him. Instead, judging from the longing glances Katsushiro gives her and her studied indifference as she gathers rice and takes the lead in the harvesting song, it looks very much like Katsushiro’s fallen in love but Shino hasn’t or is pragmatic enough to know that it would never work because as a farmer’s daughter, her place is in the village.

    Now I realize that what we see is an example of female sexual agency. She knows her mind and what she wants. But what she wants (or at least, what she realizes is all she can get) is to have sex with an attractive young samurai, not a relationship that will survive if the village survives. She accepts the consequences of her choices; she may cry when they’re discovered, but she doesn’t try to hide like Katsushiro does at first.

    Let me then propose a reframing of both Shino and her father, Manzo. Manzo suggests that it is the samurai he’s afraid of, but I think what he’s really afraid of is Shino herself. Perhaps she’s already shown budding interest in men and sex before the events of the movie unfold.We never see any young men in the village; perhaps they’ve all died at the hands of the bandits. Even if there were any, social constraints would probably keep them from sneaking around with Shino.

    The samurai are higher status, good-looking, and not subject to the same social constraints as the farmers. So the samurai become his focus. As the villager who possesses looted equipment from defeated samurai, who he may well have killed or helped kill, he has reason to fear them anyway.

    So he cuts off Shino’s hair, symbolically destroying her femininity and hoping to destroy her sexual urges with it, and instructs her to pretend to be a boy, thereby sowing the seeds of his own destruction; she and Katsushiro would likely never have come into physical contact if it hadn’t been for that.

    I admire the way Shino is portrayed: fierce, sensual, and concerned for others, as the scenes with Kyoumen’s grandmother (I may have the spelling wrong) demonstrate. She urges Katsushiro to take things farther than he has and indicates that it’s not the class divide that spurs her on but the knowledge that any day could be their last. It is not portrayed as a traditionally romantic relationship on her part; that is not to say that she has no feelings toward Katsushiro (for one thing, I doubt they’d have wound up rolling in the hay if he weren’t young and good-looking), but that she’s no starry-eyed teenager.

    She is depicted as an adult (or at least someone who knows what she wants) exercising sexual agency. In our culture, that’s scary. I suspect it’s also scary in the context of Japanese culture, both at the time the movie was released and the time depicted.

    However, she isn’t punished for it! In the end, she’s accepted back into village society. While this may be ahistorical, it’s telling in the context of the movie. The farmers have overcome to the point that a woman who might be seen as having a reason to leave with the samurai stays in the village. She becomes, in effect, the antidote to the story of-Rikichi’s wife. Giving women up to be raped by the bandits ends in death, whereas the woman who is allowed to make her own choices survives and thrives.

    Given the leading roles she and Rikichi play in the harvesting song, I nurture a hope that maybe they wind up together. Certainly, Rikichi’s longing to be reunited with his wife irrespective of what the bandits have done to her and his defense of Shino and Katsushiro suggests that he doesn’t view women’s worth on the basis of their lack of sexual experience outside of marriage. It also suggests to me a tilt away from Manzo toward Rikichi in terms of whose leadership the villagers respect.

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    Ugetsu

    Great post Lawless, I agree with pretty much everything you say. I think Shino is, and was always intended to be, a major character in the film – after all, she gets the most intense close up in the whole film.

    The only feminist writing on the film that I’m aware of is from Joan Mellen. In her 1976 book ‘The Waves at Genji’s Door‘, she says:

    In his great period films Kurosawa upholds without irony or distance the accepted feudal and samurai view of woman as possession and object. The only important female character in his otherwise brilliant Seven Samurai is the peasant girl, Shino, who seduces the youngest of the samurai, the innocent Katsushiro. The irony is that her father, out of fear that the samurai defending the village might rape her, forcibly cuts her hair so the samurai would not realize she is a woman. It is she who is the brazen seducer.

    Yet only because he is not yet an adult, not yet a mature samurai, does Katsushiro hesitate even for a moment, at the films end, before leaving Shino behind. He will join the leader, Kambei, on the further adventures that lead indubitably to their extinction. A samurai, even a disciple-samurai like Katsushiro, could no more allow love for a woman to be the central emotion of his life than he could become a peasant.

    I suspect she changes her mind about this, as she doesn’t repeat this in her 2002 BFI book on Seven Samurai (which is a great read, btw, I’d strongly recommend it). She does make a very interesting point though about the scene where they first meet:

    The first scene between Katsushiro and Shino follows. In an ironic reprise of the moment of the rape in Rashomon, Kurosawa has Katsushiro first lie down in the field of flowers, the music bolero-like, the camera panning an idyllic sunlit sky with almost a full 360-degree circle.

    (p.46)

    When describing the final scene, she writes:

    Shino passes carrying her plants on her way to join the others. Katsushiro steps forward. His eyes meet hers. But she does not stop, and if he follows, it is only for a few steps. She joins the line of women planting, while Katsushiro remains on the bridge to his doomed future, although he is very young, having only become that ‘full-fledged man’, as Kambei had joked. They say nothing to each other. Her singing is very loud, as if to drown out forever whatever she might have felt. Even as the samurai class is fading, it is, finally, inconceivable that Katsushiro should ally himself with a farmers daughter’.

    (p.75)

    I think a key theme of the relationship between Shino and Katsushiro is not the nature of a doomed love affair, destroyed by class differences. We already saw individuals moving across class boundaries in the film, so Kurosawa could easily have portrayed this with the lovers. The key point I think, which Mellen seems to touch on in her later writing, but somewhat misunderstands in the first book, is that Shino has the upper hand in the relationship. She makes the moves. She is shown as a ‘boy’ with her shorn hair, while Katsushiro is the one who lies back luxuriantly in a bed of flowers, like a classic passive heroine (or indeed, as she notes, the rape victim in Rashomon). For me, in the final scene, it is Shino who definitively turns away from Katsushiro. He looked hopefully at her, she walked away.

    While you could interpret this as Kurosawa indicating a more ‘modern’ relationship where the woman could be in charge, I think instead the purpose was to emphasise the overall theme of the film, that the samurai, for all their nobility, were dying, to be replaced by a more ‘useful’ class. The young and handsome Katsushiro is ever so gently and subtly emasculated in this film. It is the robust, no-nonsense farmers who will ultimately thrive.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for this great post, lawless! Contrasting Shino’s storyline with the fate of Rikichi’s wife is an excellent way of approaching not only the character of Shino but, as you write, much of the entire film. In many ways, hers mirrors the story of the film as a whole: surrender is death, proactive agency is survival.

    I have been wondering how much Manzo’s strictness to protect his daughter actually does the very opposite, and makes Shino determined to have that affair with Katsushiro, and break away from what she perceives as the tyranny of her father’s rule (a view, I suppose, fairly common amongst teenagers).

    She probably also recognises the fact that after Rikichi’s wife has been taken away, she may well be the next one to be given to the bandits, if it comes down to that again. By seducing a samurai, is she perhaps making a conscious effort to have someone next to her that she knows will fight for her?

    Ugetsu: We already saw individuals moving across class boundaries in the film, so Kurosawa could easily have portrayed this with the lovers.

    I’m not entirely sure about that, to be honest. While there are several cases of class boundaries being challenged, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that anyone really successfully crosses those boundaries. Kikuchiyo is never truly a samurai, and neither are the villagers with their spears. Similarly, the samurai never truly become part of the village. This is not to say that class boundaries aren’t a central topic in the film, of course.

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    Ugetsu

    Slightly (but not entirely) off-topic I think, but I was reading through Martinez again and I think she makes an excellent point about the village – specifically the village men – that they appear emasculated (her word) for the first half of the film. She argues that the reason the farmers are so reluctant to fight the bandits despite the evidence we are shown that they know how to kill samurai is directly related to the bargain they struck with the bandits. In sending away one or more of their women (its never clear I think if it was more than just Rikichi’s wife was part of any deal), they are in a situation where ‘all the fight, the viciousness that they can bring resisting roaming unemployed samurai, has gone out of them‘ (p.116). She goes on:

    In its commentary on modern Japan, the film is not only a harsh look at how elites can oppress peasants, a continuation of Kurosawa’s concern with class, but also at how victims can be complicity with their own oppression….the 1950’s Japanese audience, to the extent to which it identified with the farmers, had to identify with people who are responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. The seven men who come to the village then, are not just professionals come to teach the peasants how to defend their own home, they are somehow healers, come to restore the village to its former self’.

    I think that in using the word ’emasculated’, Martinez hits on something very profound about the village. In making a pragmatic decision to buy off the bandits, they have shamed themselves and have lost not just honour, but vitality, specifically the male vitality which comes from defending their womenfolk. In this way, Shino’s agency is a direct reflection of the loss of power of her father and the other village men (and not just Shino – the first bandit to be killed by the villagers was of course killed by an old lady who could hardly walk). The samurai are therefore more than a sexual threat in the normal sense to the village men – they are a reminder of what they themselves have given up. And the greatest gift the samurai gave the village is to restore some masculine pride to the farmers.

    In the past I’ve been sceptical about interpretations of the film which focused too much on the war and post war society, but now I do wonder if perhaps Kurosawa was sneaking in the point that a defeated Japan is an emasculated Japan – emasculated by their own actions. And he was pointing out the need for some of the older values to restore Japans (masculine) pride. But the ending is a specific warning that it needs a quick restorative, not an active embrace of those values, hence the need for the samurai to move on, and leave the villagers to their harvest, with what seems in the final scene to be a harmonious balance.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – My feeling about what you quote from Mellen’s Waves at Genji’s Door is that she couldn’t be more wrong if she tried. It almost seems as if she’s trying to fit the movie into some preconceived notion rather than accepting it for what it is. Katsushiro clearly does not ride off into the sunset without regret; it’s Shino who goes on with life without apparently longing to have a young samurai at her side. I’m glad she seems to have somewhat rethought this.

    While I agree with you that Shino has the upper hand in the relationship — she’s the one who initiates, she’s the one with agency — I, like Vili, am a little dubious about your assertion that Kurosawa saw no need to portray this as a love affair doomed by class boundaries because class boundaries were fluid. They might have been — see the portion of my comment on the film club entry regarding Toyotomi Hideyoshi — but they probably weren’t as fluid as to let Kikuchiyo advance from peasant to farmer (his burial alongside the samurai being more of a symbolic posthumous recognition than actual acquisition of social status) or to make it possible for Shino and Katsushiro to stay together on any basis other than concubine and patron, in which case Shino would become a glorified courtesan and lose all respect from and contact with her village.

    I also think that while in the end Kurosawa doesn’t depict this as a doomed love affair across class lines, he quite deliberately plays with that trope, leading us to think that’s where this is going. Up until the denouement of the film, we, or at least I (and I suspect many other viewers familiar with romantic conventions) expected him to go in that direction.

    For Shino to, in essence, reject Katsushiro and any continued relationship — for her to act with such studied indifference — is the definitive act of turning the normal romance narrative on its head. If anything, the person “used” here is Katsushiro, not her; to her, it was a pleasant tumble in the hay. But her life is in her village, and she’s going to go on with it. This is what proves her agency: she acts the way men are traditionally depicted as acting, and she does so consistently through the whole movie. Yet she’s also depicted as caring (see the scene with Kyoumen’s grandmother), so she’s not entirely masculinized.

    For that reason, I’m not entirely convinced that Kurosawa is showing Katsushiro’s emasculation. Clearly, he’s shown as timid and untried through most of the film; his first kill is traumatic; and he doesn’t seem that appreciative of people slapping him on the back and congratulating him for “becoming a real man” after he sleeps with Shino. Perhaps it’s the feminist in me bristling at the idea that Shino can only gain agency at Katsushiro’s expense, but I see Katsushiro as showing that men have feelings too and that sometimes it’s the man who has romantic feelings that the woman doesn’t return. That’s certainly something that happens in real life; why not in the movies? And if that’s perceived as “feminizing” him, which is an analysis I will grant you has some resonance, that has more, imo, to do with society’s hangups than with this movie.

    On the other hand, I think you and Martinez, to whom I’m becoming more and more endeared, are onto something regarding how the way using women as bargaining chips with the bandits in the past has left the village with few options for defending themselves and decreased the respect the men command from everyone else. Thanks for pointing out that the first bandit killed is killed by an old woman with a grudge — someone who’s only allowed to kill because the village elder condones it as a way of redress for the privations she’s suffered in the wake of her grandson’s death. I don’t tend to subscribe to analyses that ascribe allegorical or societal meaning to period films like this, as I don’t think Kurosawa consciously intended to address the postwar situation in this film, but I can see in interpreting it as a theme that is subconsciously embedded in the film.

    Vili said:

    I have been wondering how much Manzo’s strictness to protect his daughter actually does the very opposite, and makes Shino determined to have that affair with Katsushiro, and break away from what she perceives as the tyranny of her father’s rule (a view, I suppose, fairly common amongst teenagers).

    I couldn’t agree with you more. In a very literal sense, his strictness is his undoing; if he’d left her hair alone, Katsushiro, who is nothing if not a gentleman, would never have gotten close enough to her to start a love affair.

    In the end, for all that I’m annoyed with Rashomon’s presentation of rape (and as you can tell from my comments, I’m plenty annoyed with it, although it hasn’t been until recently that it’s dawned on me that this is much of what bothers me about the movie now that I’ve come more to terms with its critique of the nature of truth, reality, and our ability to perceive either of them), the depiction of Shino — and every other woman who gets screen time and is, as Martinez points out, important to the plot — makes up for it. Maybe that’s part of the reason why this is my favorite movie of all time even though none of the main characters are female. In it, Kurosawa treats women and their concerns — rape, keeping themselves and their families alive, sexual desire — with respect and seriousness.

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