Sex on Screen and Objectification of Women in Rashomon

Written by Issy Smith, Edited by Owais Azam

Sex and depictions of the erotic are an inherently political tool for filmmakers. With understandings of sex being ever evolving and extremely culturally specific, the ways in which sex is depicted on screen reflect the context of the production as a social and cultural artefact. Through a racialised and feminist lens, it becomes that much more important for audiences to retrospectively investigate depictions of sex and how Western audiences may excuse these depictions as a means for fetishism and exoticism of the foreign woman and the suffering of the East. In exploring how sex is depicted in Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950), I shall negotiate depictions of consent on the screen through a modern feminist lens and explore how Kurosawa’s relationship to Japanese cultural values alters the portrayal of sexual politics. 

Rashomon approaches its representations of sex as a means of understanding its characters, neither challenging nor actively engaging with politically relevant discourses around sex. As a period drama, the film in many ways misrepresents the politics of the past by portraying 1950s Japanese depictions of sex as an unnegotiated standard.

We understand the unnamed character of the “wife” through her relationship with sex and her sexualisation. She is presented through an orientalising male gaze consistently throughout the film. We are first introduced to her through Tajimaru’s perspective, her face veiled. This presentation offers a distorted image of her, emphasising the costuming while implying her beauty with a chime like melody added to the score as he scans her body. Her face is obscured multiple times throughout the film as we view her through an abstracted lens. Immediately we are led to associate her with the innocent and passive stereotype of the Japanese woman, draped all in pale colours and whites. 

As with many representations of Japanese womanhood, the wife initially falls into the tropes of the docile and submissive, often motherly figure. The “good wife and wise mother” archetype prevails amongst perception of women extending outside of fiction and, as Koyama Shizuko states in her breakdown of Japan’s ideology towards women, even now “we cannot say that the image of the “good wife and wise mother” is a thing of the past. Although the number of employed women is increasing, women are still primarily called upon to fulfil the roles of housekeeper, wife and mother” (Koyama Shizuko, 1994).

These stereotyped depictions and ideologies of the submissive Japanese housewife only reinforce exoticized Western narratives of Japan; the East as the hapless, submissive feminine, often animalistic and to be protected by the West’s aggressive and dominant masculine has been a common depiction. The East’s “separateness, it’s eccentricity, it’s backwardness, it’s silent indifference, it’s supine malleability” (Edward W. Said, 1978) has been easily twisted into sexual notions or demonised tropes to fit the narrative of the era. Similarly, the assumption of domestic compliance often manifests in depictions of Japanese women as sexually submissive and, if not, than defiant, cold, and cunning.

We see this dichotomy of representation throughout the film through the wife’s reaction to her own rape. In the wife’s testimony, we see the role of these stereotypes as roles women feel forced to fill as she depicts herself in contrast with “the fierceness (Tajimaru) spoke of”. Instead, she depicts herself as docile, the only version of the story in which she has no agency or fierceness as she portrays herself as fulfilling the role of the good wife.   

The rape itself is used as a catalyst for themes of doubt as we understand it from multiple perspectives. While the GHQ (General Headquarters) banned films promoting “violence and actions that threaten peace” (Naoko Kato, 2002), the film excuses its depictions of rape with the implication that it was consensual. In Tajimaru’s depiction of events, the wife actively participates: she holds him close as he rapes her, and later in the woodcutter’s story the wife says she stopped crying when she realised who Tajimaru was, implying that even if her consent wasn’t initially willing she accepts it retrospectively. The film thus asks the audience to question the rape, with the woman’s retelling of events being the only version to actively condemn Tajimaru’s actions while the others shift blame partially to the woman herself. This reflects modern rape narratives in lieu of the “Me Too” movement and the backlash portraying the accusation of sexual assault as equivalent to a witch hunt (Sarah K. Burgess, 2018).

Importantly, in the post-war Japanese context, the portrayal of a woman actively participating in sex was extremely radical, especially out of wedlock. At the time the film was made, The Meji Civil Code, which introduced Western ideas of virginity and female purity, was widely in effect having been established in the late 1800s. These changes also lead to presumptions of the idealised otome (maiden) as lacking sexual desire, with sex promoted as a means for childbearing in post-war society for women. Women were once again relegated to the role of the domestic while their male counterparts were expected to engage in sexual activity as “any blockage in the natural flow of men’s sexual energies would cause physical and mental debilitation” (Mark McLelland, 2010).

Thus, the wife’s participation villainises her, contrary to her submission, as she is engaging with sex to fulfil her own desire rather than to reproduce as the domestic woman would. Tajimaru’s actions then are not condemned by the film due to the lack of consent but rather for taking what is not his, portraying the wife as property in the eyes of the men around her. Her husband disregards her as tarnished regardless of whether she actively participates, dismissing her when she is no longer the otome we see her as initially.  

However, it is important to note that these cultural factors are reflections not only of the specific geopolitical landscape the film was produced in but also the specific post-war period, especially when compared to more recent Japanese films. In the decades following Rashomon, depictions of sexual violence became much more explicit but were often sources of conflict and horror within films, such as the rape and subsequent ectopic pregnancy of the widow in Woman of the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964) or the rape revenge narrative at the heart of Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Ito, 1972). More recently, the pink (pornographic) film has been used to dissect and question the role of female sexual pleasure in a modern society. Antiporno (Sono, 2016) and Tokyo Decadence (Murakami, 1992) epitomise this shift in Japan’s narrative sensibilities, using BDSM and kink iconography to explore the modern submissive woman and the toxic cultural obsession with sexual purity, actively presenting these standards as exploitative and fetishistic. They allow their female characters to fulfil both dominant and submissive roles and present non-explicit consent through the lens of the victim as uncomfortable and unwanted. 

It could be argued that Rashomon suffers from being embedded in its cultural context, with the Japanese writer and director having a potentially narrow perspective on Japanese social constructs around sex. However, upon returning to this film as a modern viewer, what stands out is not only the reflection of past social and cultural contexts but the reflection of modern ones. With sexual assault and female sexuality still controversial topics of discussion, critically engaging with depictions of sex on screen within the accepted canon remains necessary and important. 

Bibliography:

Burgess, Sarah K. “Between the Desire for Law and the Law of Desire: #MeToo and the Cost of Telling the Truth Today.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 51:4 (2018).

Kato, Naoko. War Guilt and Postwar Japnese Education (The University of British Columbia, 2002).

McLelland, Mark. “‘Kissing Is a Symbol of Democracy!” Dating, Democracy, and Romance in Occupied Japan, 1945–1952.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19:3 (2010), pp. 508–535.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

Shizuko, Koyama, and Gabriel A. Sylvain. “The ‘Good Wife and Wise Mother’ Ideology in Post—World War I Japan.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. English Supplement, no. 7 (1994) pp. 31–52.

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