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«Woman in Japanese Cinema: A Comparative Study on the Woman’s Film of Naruse and Imamura By HUANG Kun Department of Comparative Literature In this ...»

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Woman in Japanese Cinema:

A Comparative Study on the Woman’s Film of Naruse and Imamura


Department of Comparative Literature

In this essay, I will examine how woman’s identity is represented in Japanese cinema by comparing

Imamura Shohei’s The Insect Woman with Naruse Mikio’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Ascends the

Stairs). I argue that the The Insect Woman offers a New Wave intervention into the woman’s film of

classical Japanese cinema. I will begin with an outline of the Japanese woman’s film and proceed to the comparison of the two films in terms of form and content.

The woman’s film was a mainstay of the Japanese film industry from the late 1920s to the 1960s (Russell 26). Although Hollywood melodrama of the 1930s and 1940s might have yielded considerable influence on Japanese cinema during the American occupation, the Japanese woman’s film also responded to the social historical context and followed cinematic traditions specific to Japan. During the 1950s, the postwar democratic reform brought the issue of women’s rights and social roles to public debate. Whereas women demanded recognition in the public sphere due to their widened access to the workforce, the discourse of motherhood and the family was quick to surface in opposition to women’s labor movements (27). As a cinematic practice, the Japanese woman’s film can be situated in the tradition of gendai geki (modern drama) as opposed to jidai geki (period drama), and shoshimin eiga (a genre in Japanese cinema which focuses on the family lives of the lower middle class or working class people). As a commercial product of the studio system, the woman’s film featured and enhanced the images of major female actresses associated with specific film studios and targeted at female audience (28), who demonstrated increasing capacity as cultural consumer.

Naruse is recognized as a major director working in the tradition of the Japanese woman’s film.

Thematically, his films center on “social injustice, material hardship and emotional turbulence” (Russell 3) associated with quotidian female experience. Sharing with the western melodramas the emotional intensity, Mercury - HKU Journal of Undergraduate Humanities: Volume 1 Issue 1 31 his films nevertheless reject their “gestural, visual and musical excess” (Gledhill 30) and displace it with formal “passivity and restraint” (Russell 3).

Naruse’s Ascends the Stairs (1960) can be taken as an example of the classical Japanese woman’s film that deals with the working woman. The protagonist, Keiko, serves as a hostess (mamasan) at a bar in post-war Ginza, downtown Tokyo. Middle-aged and widowed, her charm still draws to her constant attention from various male customers, from whom she strives to keep her integrity. Tosupport her needy family, she struggles for a better way out in an honest manner, either by marrying a worthy man or opening up her own bar, resisting the easier option which many others facing the similar condition prefer: being the

mistress of a wealthy man. The climax consists of a series of overwhelming incidents that disillusions Keiko:

death of a friend, a marriage scam, seduction and abandonment by the man she admires. The denouement puts her back in the original position, where she steps up the bar stairs every day to greet her customers with a heavy heart and a perfect smile.

Imamura Shohei’s The Insect Woman (1963), also explores the life of a lower class strong-willed woman who struggles to survive in the modernized urban Japan. Tome is born into a rural family in early 20th century Japan. Raped by her boss and neighbor and leaving a daughter behind with her family, she heads for the more industrialized region to earn a living. She has worked as factory worker, housemaid and prostitute before becoming a mercenary procuress by selling her own procuress out. She also has intimate relationships with different men besides her customer, including, arguably, her retarded father, her boss at the mill and the patron that supports her prostitution business. Tome’s downfall is signified by the betrayal of the girls, which sends her into prison, and by her unworthy patron, who turns to her daughter for sexual benefits. In the end, an aged Tome returns to her village on her patron’s request to get back her daughter, who has decided to make her own living on the farm with her young lover.

Despite produced at almost the same period with common thematic concerns, The Insect Woman radically differs from Ascends the Stairs in terms of form, the representation of woman and sexuality and the strategies of woman’s survival. In the following paragraphs, I will compare the formal and stylistic features of the two films and argue that the classicism of studio production as exemplified by Ascends the Stairs is

–  –  –

challenged by The Insect Woman. On the basis of formal comparison, I will then proceed to discuss the difference of the two films in the representation of woman, sexuality and strategies of survival.

The visual composition of Naruse’s film is characterized by symmetry and balance, with medium shot as the predominant shot scale. In regular conversation scenes, characters are positioned in the center or symmetrically on the two sides of the frame with minimal on-screen movement. The cutting between the interlocutors draws little attention to itself, as the characters in the subsequent shot occupy almost the same or symmetrical visual areas with those of the preceding one. Naruse’s resistance to radical on-screen movement and camera movement results in his reliance on quick paced editing. His editing style is “invisible” and “rhythmic”, which attaches importance to the timing of scenes and the flow of the narrative (Russell 6).

The Insect Woman radically departs from the formal elegance and restraint of Ascends the Stairs.

Above all, Imamura prioritizes mise-en-scène over editing and camera movement. He repeatedly uses deep space with shallow focus, which allows complex positioning of characters and choreography on different spatial planes. The richness of his mise-en-scène demands the audience’s active participation in the meaning making process. For example, when Matsunami and Tome address the female workers with the labor union announcement, they are placed at the back of the factory and framed by the operating machines and workers at the front who are out of focus with only part of their bodies visible. The couple’s spatial position implies the powerlessness of labor movement discourse against the booming industry and the disinterested individuals. Radical on-screen movements, sometimes rendering characters out of frame, add to the destabilizing effect of Imamura’s film. This is well illustrated by the scene in which Chuji (Tome’s retarded foster father) fights with the family members who send Tome to the landowner’s son. The camera only catches glimpses of their passing, blurry images. Imamura’s film is further characterized by ambivalence and uncertainty resulting from the conscious treatment of negative and off-screen space, which is unusual, if not absent, in Naruse’s cinema. Both En (Tome’s mother)’s and Tome’s sex scenes on the farm are presented in off-screen spaces with only the peeping kids visible. Furthermore, Imamura’s regular use of low-key lighting renders his characters underlit or even drowned in total darkness. It contrasts Naruse’s cinema which

–  –  –

not avoid extreme camera angles. For instance, the crawling insect in the opening sequence is magnified in an extreme close-up, adding to its discomforting effect. En’s suffering from giving birth to Tome is captured in extreme high angle, which produces physical as well as psychological disorientation. Besides destabilizing visual elements, the narrative flow is disturbed by the insertion of year numbers that reveal the lapse of time and draw attention to the documentary quality of the film medium. Tome’s sporadic voice-over, often accompanied by freeze-frame images, introduces further obstruction to the narrative flow. It can be compared with Keiko’s voice-over in Ascends the Stairs, which is presented with subtlety and calmness that helps build up the internal drama and contributes to the overall atmospheric unfolding of the film.

Imamura’s iconoclastic subversion of the established form and style of the studio-produced woman’s film can be understood in relation to the emergence of the Japanese New Wave. David Desser points out that most of the important figures of this new generation of directors, including Imamura, began their film careers as assistant directors at Shochiku and consciously rebelled against their mentors (44). He quotes Imamura’s comment on his mentor, Ozu Yasujiro, saying, “I wouldn’t just say I wasn’t influenced by Ozu. I would say I didn’t want to be influenced by him” (44). Naruse shares with Ozu similar cinematic style and was regarded as “poor man’s Ozu” (Sato 194). It is therefore reasonable to infer that, while making a film about women, Imamura was working in and against the shadow of Naruse’s woman’s film.

Moreover, Imamura’s cinematic representation of woman is related to, while contrasting with, that of Naruse. Admittedly, both of the female protagonists are members of the labor force rather than domestic figures. Coming from a lower class background, they succeed in gaining financial independence in the city and provide for their families. They excel in women’s circles and can be loosely identified as matriarch figures, i.e. Keiko as mama-san in Ginza bars, Tome as madam of the prostitution business. Despite all these commonalities, the representations of the two female figures reveal significant differences. Whereas Keiko is presented with unchanged gracefulness, composure, restraint and dignity, which comes close to idealization of womanhood, Tome is portrayed as uncouth, tough, unrestraint and even vulgar, demystifying potential idealization.

Throughout Ascends the Stairs, Keiko rarely departs from her signature appearance in quality

–  –  –

a veteran bar hostess, she exhibits refined manners and sophisticated interpersonal skills that testify to her mastery of social propriety. For instance, she never directly rejects customers’ invitation to dinner and avoids collecting their debts in person. Except for occasional temper facing her friend and manager Komatsu and her families, she exhibits emotional restraint. The second half of the film witnesses Keiko’s physical or mental breakdowns. But even in these scenes, she maintains some degree of self-control and is not portrayed in a degraded manner. For example, she confronts the scam revealed by Sekine’s wife with composure. Her exquisite hairdo and clothes also remain largely intact even when she is drunk or forced into sex by Fujisaki.

The denouement sees Keiko’s restoration to grace and dignity. She returns Fujisaki’s stock to his wife with gifts for his child and resumes her duty at the bar with her signature smile and greetings to customers.

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