Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1994
Screening Cultural Studies
Edited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller

Letter from Japan: From Girls Who Dress Up Like Boys To Trussed-up Porn Stars - Some of the Contemporary Heroines on the Japanese Screen

Rosemary Iwamura

An incredible number of Japanese films are about women. This seems inconsistent in that Japanese society, and its film industry, is dominated by men. But Japanese women see a lot of movies. While there are more women in the workforce than before, it is still common for Japanese women to stop working after marriage - and although this may mean married women are relatively house-bound, it also means that, after they have cleaned their small homes, they are often left with more free time than Japanese men. So, when producers make films about women, they are, in effect, making these films for women. That is, they are acknowledging the importance of female audiences to the industry and are therefore deliberately catering to women's tastes (Richie Lateral View 151-155).

Another possible reason for the number of films about women could be more traditional. Japanese directors have tended to use female characters to communicate social messages (Richie). Indeed, even as early as the late 1920s, Japanese directors made use of female protagonists to criticise gender inequality, class and political oppression. 1 But while it has been a strong tradition in Japanese film making that women's strength, resilience, and ability to cope with problems has been celebrated, moreoften than not these women were depicted leading self-negating lives (and managing in the process to be both appealing and maternal). In addition, female representations have functioned on-screen in largely supporting roles; that is, to reveal more about, or to guide, the male character (as in The Discarnates, discussed below). And until recently, this kind of representation of 'woman' dominated Japanese screens.

While there are still many female characters fulfilling traditional roles on television and in films, the last ten years has seen considerable changes to women's representational roles. In television commercials, for example, there appears to be an element of parody of the traditional housewife role in that these women are represented as overly zealous, speaking with child-like voices and nodding their heads in feigned innocence. But, outside of traditional representations, there has been a more marked change. That is, Japanese women's representational lot has generally broadened to include women taking on hitherto traditionally male roles. By illustration, the major film production company, Toei, recently made changes to its yakuza (Japanese Mafia) genre with the production of films like Women of the Underworld and Sister (both directed by Gosha Hideo). These films, once the exclusive domain of men, have seen the emergence of what Nicholas Bornoff has called 'a new breed of beauteous bloody mamas' (656). At the same time, adjustments were being made to detective films. Kurasawa Naosuke's Onna go Ichiban Niau Shokugyo (The Most Suitable Vocation for a Woman 1990) is about a female police detective's obsessive quest for a killer of pregnant women. In this film, Momoi Kaori plays the role of a female detective in the manner of Columbo, the popular American television detective of the late 1970s. 2 (Columbo can also be seen to have influenced the female character Ryoko, in Itami Juzo's Taxing Woman films, with her disheveled appearance and her vague but insightful ways.)

The foregoing selective borrowing from Hollywood, and, to a lesser extent, Europe, is arguably integral to the recent changes in female representation. Also integral to how women's films and representations of women have changed is the generally significant influence of comics on contemporary Japanese cinema. In Onna go Ichiban Niau Shokugyo, the male suspect is played by the 'androgynously handsome' popstar, Okamaoto Kenichi (Schilling "Silly Detective Film" 15). Such male characters have become a regular feature in films, and is part of a trend in contemporary Japanese cinema to base male characters on both the shojo (Japanese comics for girls) and the 'ladies' comics' aimed at older female readers. The idiosyncratic style of these comics is popular with readers, so it is likely that film producers are intentionally making use of comic styles and stories to woo a young female audience. For example, a story from a girl's comic enables films such as Summer Vacation 1999 (discussed below) to display real insights into the preoccupations of young Japanese girls. But in addition to this insight and popularity, the influence of comics on films may be also form a direct link with the recent participation of women in the film production process. Apart from acting, women have traditionally worked very little in the production of Japanese films, 3 whereas most of the stories in girls' and ladies' comics are written by women. One Room Story (1991), for example, based on a popular comic series written and illustrated by a woman, Saki, was both directed and scripted by women, and in the comic influenced Onna go Ichiban Niau Shokugyo, Mamoi Kaori both featured in and wrote the original treatment for the film.

Some contemporary Japanese films have representations of female characters based on a much older form of Japanese popular culture, the folktale. Tales about vengeful female spirits have existed for hundreds of years in literature, theatre, and more recently, film - The Discarnates, for example, has a woman character who shares many of the characteristics of these traditional vengeful spirits. But while this film displays an influence of traditional Japanese folktales, it is arguable that the female character is equally based on the demon from The Exorcist. This combination of traditional folktale and American filmic representations of women is possibly related to the preference of Japanese youths for American films. Japanese youth find Japanese films depressing, and are attracted to the comparatively carefree lives that American characters are represented as leading, as well as the tendency for American films to portray a happy ending. With regards to representations of women, Pretty Woman was a big hit in Japan, with its Cinderella story being similar to the stories found in 'ladies' comics' and television dramas. Often these Japanese comic and television stories feature glamorous independent working women who, despite their success, are waiting for Prince Charming to come along and make their lives worthwhile.

More cynical representations of women's pursuits of men are Japanese pornographic films and videos. Most of these representations are based on the premise that women use sex as an instrument to get their prey (Richie Lateral View 168), and all stories thus ensue with the male protagonist punishing the "bad woman". The influence of pornographic films and videos on the general representation of women is evident in that many mainstream films have sex scenes based on this formula. (Not all Japanese films, however, adhere to this. Yoshida Kiju's Onimaru, for example, draws attention to the paradoxical representations of women on Japanese screens. But Onimaru's critique of Japan's patriarchal traditions is limited - it also contains contradictory representations which perpetuate these same traditions in other ways.) In addition to the influence of pornography on mainstream cinema, the line between pornography and family entertainment, such as daytime television, is blurred. It is not uncommon in Japan for a waning female television star or singer to feature in pornographic videos. Similarly, there are women actors from pornographic videos who move into daytime television. One example of this is the porn star Kuroki Kaoru. Kaoru, lusted after by men in her very popular pornographic videos, is simultaneously idolised by women for her "feminist" opinions on daytime talk shows.

But while often contradictory, representations of Japanese women in film, television and video have, in the last ten years, broadened and changed signficantly. Influenced by, as suggested, both traditional and non-traditional elements, these films abound, and the following is a more detailed discussion of perhaps why and how this is so.


In homudorama (daytime television drama), many of the series feature female protagonists; moreover, a significant number of the writers are women. The homudoramas of the late 1960s and early 1970s represented a breakthrough for depictions of women on television as they were the first dramas which were centred on women's lives outside the home, women working and even operating their own businesses. The fact that most homudoramas were written by women, represented quite a change for women's televised images. Beforehand women mainly had supporting roles in television home dramas; they played self-sacrificing types in the background of stories centred on men.

One of the women involved in television at this time, Hashida Sugako, wrote many scripts for a particular genre of homudorama in the late 1960s to the early 1970s which showed female protagonists running family businesses such as eating establishments. One centred around the female manager of a shop which sold bento (box lunches); another (co-written by Mukoda Kuniko), Ohayo (Good Morning! 1972), told the story of a woman who runs a restaurant on her own after her husband has disappeared. Tampopo (Dandelions), another drama in this genre, had a male protagonist as a variation of the women mentioned above (Sato and Hirahara 120).

Tampopo was also the name of Itami Juzo's film, 'his Bunuelesque ramen (noodle) western' (Sipe 189), a story about a truck driver who arrives one rainy night at a small ramen shop run by a widow, Tampopo. He decides to stay in town to help her find the perfect way of making ramen. After they succeed, he drives off in his truck again. Itami contextualised his story in a 'Western' frame, but he was also clearly influenced by homudoramas on the same theme. While Itami has not based his character, Tampopo, entirely on these woman-centred dramas, there are similarities which imply references to these early television forms.

In the mid-1970s, these independent woman-centred dramas came to an end, and women's roles in television took a step backwards. But by the early 1980s, women started to secure more prominent roles in television. Now in the 1990s, there are many roles for women, especially in the new trendy doramas. But while the women depicted in the 1970s were middle-aged and preoccupied only by their business interests, the women today are younger, richer, more sophisticated, wear expensive designer clothes and are often successful business women in glamorous companies. But still their main objective in life appears to be love. With many handsome male co-workers, there is plenty to distract them from the little work they seem to do. An example is Dokyusei (Classmates 1989) about a group of modern young women looking for love; it was based on a comic illustrated by a woman, Saimon Fumi. 4

Films Influenced by Comics

Many films made recently in Japan have been either based on or influenced by Japanese comics, or (manga). This has created some interesting female characters, in both animated and 'live action' films. Miyazaki Hayao, a producer and director of animation, started off in comics before moving into film. His early film Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Naushika of the Valley of Wind 1984) was directly based on one of his own manga stories. In the last ten years, Miyazaki has made five animations featuring independent and heroic young women as protagonists. One of these, Majo no Takkyubin (The Witch's Delivery Service made with Takahata) was the top-grossing Japanese film in 1989. While the story is not directly based on Miyazaki's own manga, it is stylistically similar to them. In it, Kiki has to leave her family at the age of thirteen to establish herself for one year as a independent witch in a faraway place for one year. She travels by broomstick to the romanticised European city often seen in manga. The city is everything that cities in Japan are not: quaint, uncrowded, and slow-paced, with old fashioned charm and clean skies. She finds a room with a couple who run a neighbourhood bakery and from here she sets up her own delivery service. Things go well for her as she makes her deliveries on her broomstick, but then she loses her magic powers. It is only when her boyfriend is in danger of falling to his death in his air balloon that she regains her powers and saves him.

Female protagonists with characteristics similar to those of the comics are not only found in animated movies for younger audiences. In Remembrance by Nakajima Takehiro, a young boy goes through a series of difficulties as he, his sister and mother are ostracised because of their poverty and because his father chooses to live with his mistress. The boy befriends another outsider whose parents are also separated, a young girl with bright red hair. This is a sign that she is an outsider; for while it is now fashionable for young people to dye their hair blonde or red, this film is set in the 1950s when dying one's hair red was unthinkable. Her hair colour may be borrowed from manga characters whose hair sometimes changes from blue to red from page to page but without symbolising anything in particular. There is a scene where the boy and the redhead experiment with kissing, on the bank of a river on a sunny day. The camera lens enhances the sparkles on the river and in their eyes, making the event just like the starry scenes in the romantic girls' comics where girls have enormous eyes dazzling with sparkles.

Girl's comics (shojo) and ladies' comics are quite different from men's and boys' comics. One explanation for this difference is that the artists for the former are generally women. Frederik Schodt suggests that these comics 'stress a more passive inner world of dreams and endless musings about human relationships' (88). Like the young girl in Remembrance, the girls in shojo manga have enormous eyes with stars and highlights next to the pupils, suggesting 'dreams, yearning and romance' (91).

In the ladies' comics, female characters dress like fashion models. Often they have similar facial features and can only be recognised by differences in hairstyle. Both female and male characters also have the long 'leggy' look of fashion models. The men, frail and effeminate, have long beautiful hair and wear floral shirts; they are often indistinguishable from the women except for their angular cheekbones and flat chests. Nudity and sex scenes appear in nearly every comic 'unfolding orchids and crashing surf are superimposed on scenes of lovers embracing' (Schodt 101).

A surprising amount of female characters in contemporary Japanese films share much with those in shojo manga and ladies' comics. Shin Dosei Jidai (The Era of Living Together For The First Time) is an anthology of three Saimon Fumi stories for a popular ladies' comic. (Fumi was also the woman behind the television drama, Tokyo Love Story). Shin Dosei Jidai was directed by Takahara Hidekazu who had previously only made soft porn films. Each of the three stories is about one of three 24 year-old girls falling in and out of love. In the first segment, one girl who thought she was happily married, meets an old ex-rock musician boyfriend. She has an affair with him but then decides not to leave her husband. The next story is about the rivalry between two sisters in love with the same baseball coach. The last is about an O.L. (office lady) who falls in love with a salaryman (business man) who is in love with his former fiancee. While the stories sound trite, Schilling ("Film brings Comic" 15) writes that the film:

provides a window on the world view of popular entertainment for young Japanese women. The film's men, with the possible exception of the ex-rocker, in the first segment, are handsome long legged non-entities. They are little more than dolls the women clothe with their dreams and desires (one is even called Ken).

Schilling goes on to say that 'the heroines are all living independent lives of middle class comfort in completely Westernized surroundings'. He thinks that the heroines are like 'the typical shojo manga reader': they are 'totally self absorbed, living in a romantic world which has only a tangential relation with their own' ("Film Brings Comic" 15). While Schilling is harsh about the shojo manga reader - after all manga is for escape and fantasy - it is true that the lives of the heroines in manga are different from those of the readers. Generally women are not independent, and while they live in a country much influenced by Western thought, most girls and women are caught up in customs unrepresented in the comics.

Another film based on a popular manga written by a woman (Saki Hitomi) is One Room Story (1991). The scriptwriters, directors and stars of the three segments of this anthology are all women. All the stories are about women who live in one-room 'mansions' (a Japanese loan word used to describe modern, small apartments). In one story, a beautician keeps bringing cats home against the landlords wishes; eventually her passion for cats begins to strain her relationship with her roommate, the perfect male - always good natured, funny and ready with a delicious meal for the beautician when she comes home from work. The next story is about a television reporter who loves her work and has no time for romance, although she does have men in her life, a Mr Foot who runs messages for her, a Mr Financier who buys her concert tickets and so on, and a Mr House who cooks and cleans for her. Bornoff suggests that 'female emancipation Japan style veers towards a peculiar self-possession rendering the male as superfluous as the rosy sapphic fantasies in ladies' comics' (685).

The shojo and ladies' comic artists are probably not motivated by feminist concerns when they create malleable male characters. Rather they are inventing what they see as the ideal man for their female readers. Through making the male characters effeminate, the female character automatically becomes the male's equal, and a more willing participant in the pastel-coloured, floral romantic dreams of the shojo manga reader. Perhaps the most significant consequence of the male characters' emasculation is that, when a female and a male character make love in a comic, it is difficult to know who is whom; especially if the male character is illustrated from the back, the lovers look as though they are the same sex.

While homoeroticism is hinted at here, in other shojo comics and ladies' comics, homoerotic tendencies are far less subtle. One of the first girls' magazines had a story, "Ribon no Kishi" ("Princess Knight" 1953) which had a 'love story, a foreign setting, and a heroine with large eyes and a somewhat bisexual personality' (Schodt 96). Stories featuring homosexual boys for a female readership did not appear until the 1970s when there was a genre of stories in shojo manga about boys' boarding schools in Europe. One of these stories Kaze to Kino Uta (The Song of the Wind and the Trees) was about a boy, Gilbert Cocteau, who lived in a French boys' boarding School. He was always late for class as he spent his nights making love with the other boys. There have also been films with homosexual themes about teenagers in dormitories. One of these, Teenagers' Sex Manual, was directed by Koji Shima in 1953. The story takes place in a girls' boarding school where one of the girls finds out that her roommate, who is also her best friend, is going out with a boy, so she slashes a photograph of them together with a knife.

Girls who Dress up as Boys

Another film with homoerotic overtones which is also influenced by shojo manga is Kaneko Shusuke's Summer Vacation 1999 (1989). This film was inspired by a shojo manga story Tomo no Shinzo (Tom's Heart) by Hagio Moto. It was also set in a school dormitory, this time in Germany. Although this film is ostensibly about boys, girls play the roles of the boys and the film relates more to the lives of Japanese females and what they look for in popular culture than it does to the lives of boys. 5 Shusuke Kaneko wrote three drafts of the script before he got a woman, Kishida Rio, to write the fourth and final draft (Variety 24/3/1989 22,28). (Subsequently Kishida wrote a play Woven Hell (1991) which was about a woman's search for true identity in a world 'where women are expected to conform to images created for them by men' (Radic 9). Having Kishida write the final script helped create a voice which, although spoken by boys, added a distinctly feminine nuance to the dialogue.

The storyline runs as follows: four boys are staying unsupervised during the summer holidays in a school boarding house which resembles a spacious European mansion set in the countryside. One night one of the boys, Yu, kills himself by jumping in a nearby lake and drowning. He kills himself because one of the other students, Kazuhiko, does not return his feeling of love. After Yu's death, the other students try to continue with their lives, studying, playing and cooking for themselves. But the death causes tension amongst the students and one of them blames Kazuhiko for Yu's death because he had been unkind to him on previous occasions. Then one day a mysterious new boy named Kaoru arrives at the boarding school, looking and behaving like Yu. While Kazuhiko finds the likeness disturbing, after a while he finds that he is attracted to this new boy and the two become very close. But the eldest boy Naoto, suspects that Kaoru is actually Yu. Naoto believes that Yu has come back from the dead to make Kazuhiko fall in love with him. One day on the cliff by the lake, Naoto and Kaoru confront each other and Naoto tries to push Kaoru over the cliff. Kazuhiko comes along just in time, and saves Kaoru. Then Kazhiko and Kaoru kiss. Kaoru admits that he is actually Yu and he tries to persuade Kazuhiko to join him in a suicide pact. When they fall in the lake together the other students manage to save Kazuhiko but Yu dies for the second time. The students' lives slowly return to normal; that is until a new boy arrives at the school who looks just like Yu.

As with the girls' comics, the characters in Summer Vacation 1999 are totally isolated from society. There are no adults; they don't shop; their food is delivered, and they do all the cooking and cleaning themselves. There are no teachers or adult supervisors; the only mention of an adult is when Kaoru has imaginary conversations on the phone with his mother (who is actually dead). Being far away from adults, the implication is that they are so far away from their own adulthood that it is no longer a threat waiting around the corner to get them.

This is just like the stories in shojo manga. As Buruma notes

the young girl's dream, then is to go as far away as possible, sexually, emotionally, geographically from everyday reality: in outer space or in fantastic pseudo-European palaces.

In Summer Vacation, the location in not only a mythical Germany but it is even further away than that - it is in the future. Just before Yu and Kazuhiko fall into the lake they simultaneously call out 'Let us die together you and I. Die together and be born again. Childhood is the loveliest of times, so let us die together as children.'

At the beginning of the film, an adult narrator says that he recalls the summer of 1999 as if it was just yesterday: 'that summer I broke out of my shell of ignorance'. This is repeated again at the end. This and the multiple returns of Yu, suggest that their life is indeed an ongoing childhood. This film, shojo manga and the Takarazuka Young Girls' Company create illusions based on this fantasy of an endless childhood.

The Takarazuka Young Girls' Company is an Osaka theatre company. Its girl performers play male and female roles, and many of their plays are based on shojo manga stories. As in Summer Vacation, these women actors all have short hair and look like schoolboys; indeed their plays are sometimes about boys in love. Takarazuka productions are popular with young girls. But while there are similarities with Summer Vacation, Takarazuka's plays are more kitsch and theatrical. Takarazuka's performers dance and sing cabaret style while the performances in Summer Vacation 1999 are more conventionally 'realistic'.

The lives of the Takarazuka troupe, off stage, are similar to the fictitious world represented in the girls' comics. (But then it is common in Japan for performers to live lives like the ones they act on stage, like the onnagata - female impersonators - of the Kabuki who often play the parts of women in their own lives as well.) However, the lives of the Takarazuka troupe are far more surreal. They live the stunted lives of children who never grow up. The troupe is forbidden to have relationships with men or boys, and if they have any sexual contact with the opposite sex they are dismissed. They live in a secluded town in Osaka, called Takarazuka, which is painted pink and is a 'feminine Disneyland with rose coloured bridges spanning artificial water courses' (Bornoff 647) just like the settings in comics. The Takarazuka is the realisation of the ultimate comicbook fantasy where the company members ward off the fear of adulthood by remaining virgins and living in a separate imaginary world.

Buruma writes about the popularity of the girls who get male roles in Takarazuka performances: 'fans staged a protest demonstration when one of their idols was required to play Scarlett O'Hara, they've turned Mari into a woman, they screamed' (see Buruma "Third Sex"). The popularity of these idols who play the roles of men can be attributed to a desire in young Japanese girls to temporarily postpone the roles of women. In Japan, people conform to stereotypes as a way of giving their life validity and maximising their potential. Most women conform to an image which is a combination of concentrated femininity and childlike affectations. The forms of entertainment discussed here may therefore offer an escape from these standard gender positions. 6

Moreover, female idols and characters in Japanese popular culture who dress and behave like men are assertive and free. This quality seems to appeal to young Japanese girls who feel they don't have the same freedom and are not encouraged to be assertive. Boys are also not encouraged to be assertive, but they do have slightly more freedom than girls. Indeed girls seem to envy the fictitious masculine woman or girl more than do their male counterparts. Some of these dynamics are played out in both Japanese television animation and films. Dr Slump, for example, is about the eponymous inventor, his wife and their robot children. The favourite game of Ararechan - the robot daughter and main character - is playing with the faeces she finds in the street. In one episode, her body is damaged after a fight with another robot. As Dr Slump repairs Ararechan's body, he takes off her head and puts it on the body of a male robot. Ararechan is delighted and shows her new penis to all of her school friends. And in a similar vein, Obayashi Nobuhiko's Tenkosei (Exchange Students 1983) is about junior high school lovers who find, by some strange accident, that they have swapped souls. The girl has the boy's body and the boy has the girl's. This means that they must adopt the physical and social roles of each other's gender. The film explores the changes of adolescence, seemingly the more dramatic as they are experienced by the couple in reversed roles.

The films based on or influenced by comics are, in some ways, a response to the rigidity of Japan's social structure. This does not mean, for example, that women who enjoy going to movies about love between gay or androgynous characters, are any the less heterosexual. It is probably more likely that these films offer an escape from lives in which women traditionally conform to a fixed image. Effeminate male characters appeal to young girls because they seem closer to them than other boys or men. The girls can relate to the effeminate male and his gentle ways, while more masculine men may seem mysterious to them.

Many of the female protagonists in comic-influenced films are purposeful in almost a transcendental way; they are a little distant and look different from the typical Japanese girl. Their legs and their necks are long and slim and they have large wide eyes. Invariably they appear in control of their lives and, in the adult films at least, the male characters seem to be there to satisfy their needs. Even in the animated films for younger audiences, the female characters are often self-possessed and seem to have little need for their parents.

Vengeful Female Spirits

In 1988, Obayashi made The Discarnates. While this film is a departure from Tenkosei's theme of adolescence and transsexuality, the story derives from a frequent popular cultural theme: vengeful spirits which can found, as noted above, in both movies and early folktales. One evening a recently-divorced television scriptwriter, Harada Hideo, finds out that his best friend has fallen in love with his ex-wife and intends to marry her. After making this discovery, he sits around in his apartment drinking, feeling confused and melancholic. The proceeding events unfold like a drunken hallucination: a beautiful woman knocks on the door and asks him to share her bottle of champagne as she is feeling lonely; he declines and closes the door. She goes back to her apartment in the same block as Harada's and kills herself. When Harada bumps into her in the elevator a few days later, he has no idea she is a ghost. They start going out together and eventually Harada returns to the part of Tokyo where he had lived as a child. He feels drawn to an old vaudeville theatre which he goes into and watches a show. He sees a man who resembles his dead father; the man smiles at him. And in fact it is his father. His father takes him back to his apartment where Harada's mother is waiting. His parents are as young as Harada remembers them, as they are the ghosts of his parents who had died in a car accident when Harada was twelve. After this strange encounter, he starts to visit them often. But, as a result of cavorting with the dead, Harada starts feeling unwell. He decides that he must not see his parents' ghosts anymore. But his health still does not improve. Slowly it dawns on him that the woman he has been seeing is also a ghost. After a confrontation with her, she makes an Exorcist-like exit and once again Harada is alone. As a result of these encounters he is able to reconcile his misgivings about the new relationship between his friend and his former wife, and in the last scene he is together with them as friends.

Obayashi has taken a traditional character, the vengeful female spirit, from Japan's history of storytelling and combined it with an Exorcist type of demon borrowed from the West. This is in line with those broad changes to depictions of female spirits in the cinema since the success, in Japan, of The Exorcist in 1973 noted by Gregory Barrett in his book Archetpyes in Japanese Film. For hundreds of years the Japanese have told stories about dead spirits capable of harming the living. Eventually, under Western influences, the idea developed that such a spirit could only torment the guilty, and this is the basis for Obayashi's character, Katsura, Harada's ghostly lover. Yet there have been stories of vengeful spirits in Japanese films since the 1940s. Most of these spirits have been wronged women. Often a man is haunted by the spirit of a woman whom he has mistreated. While she may have been his victim in life, she is empowered in death and tenacious in her desire to take revenge. Thus Katsura in The Discarnates kills herself when Harada rejects her advances; but she returns to haunt him and he nearly dies as a result of keeping her company.

But to read this character purely in terms of the coded archetype of the vengeful spirit conflicts with the fact that most of the characters seem to exist only to reveal more about the protagonist, Harada. Everything that happens after the first scene could be seen as Harada's drunken hallucinations as he reviews his breakup with his ex-wife at one remove. The woman, Katsura, would then be a fantasised image of his ex-wife. The death of Katsura represents the "death" of his marriage and the spirit of this woman symbolises what is left of the marriage. The spirit is a personification of the emotions he had, until this night, suppressed. As long as he fails to confront them, the spirit stays around to haunt him.

Through the spirit, Katsura, we are able to experience his emotions. She forces him to look at his face in the mirror when he is sick. As he looks, his face starts to decay; but when he turns from the mirror it returns to normal. This suggests that the experience he is having is an encounter with himself and his pent up emotions.

When he first sleeps with Katsura, she will not let him look at her chest because she is disfigured. This disfigurement is later revealed to be a scar from when she has stabbed and killed herself. But the scar is also a symbol of the hurt and pain experienced by Harada and his ex-wife during their marriage. While on the surface he gets ill because he is cavorting with the dead, the underlying reason for his illness is his mulled-over anguish. Then Katsura, like the archetypical vengeful spirit, not only gets revenge but also restores balance. Through her, Harada is able to transcend his sense of loss. While the vengeful spirit can lead men to destruction, then, she can also work positively as a guide.

Most of the female spirits in films have been created by men. Barrett suggests that we might interpret them through Jung's concept of the anima: 'the personification of all feminine psychological tendencies in a man's psyche, "the woman within" [who] conveys vital messages from the unconscious' (104). The emotions are seen as feminine inclinations that are better expressed through a woman. Obayashi has an apparently powerful female character in this film, but her significance is reduced by the realisation that she really only exists as a mirror to the male protagonist. Indeed her power only exists if we are aware of her traditional precedents. Her potency is further weakened by her Exorcist type disappearance towards the end of the film when she hisses and evaporates like a cloud of smoke. If this resembles the quiet fizz of a flat Coke, it is still of interest as a combination of a very traditional Japanese female archetype and a western demon. Even with the introduction of the Exorcist-like spirit, the film is more a psychological drama than a horror story. Like the traditional Japanese female spirit, Katsura can be pacified before she kills the man she haunts, Harada. Usually the western demon is less easily appeased. While Katsura does disappear like an exorcised demon, it is also true that she is easily frightened off once Harada simply accuses her of being a spirit.

Konuma Masaru's Shojo Jigoku (Hell of Maidens 1977) provides an interesting variation to this combinatory theme with its two female avengers: one a traditional Japanese female spirit, the other a western-style demon. This film tells the story of a shy and withdrawn highschool girl tormented by fellow students and teachers alike. She makes friends with one of the students and they have a lesbian relationship. But one day the shy girl is seduced by her school Principal and she gets her pregnant. After he forces her to have an abortion, she sets fire to the school in desperation and dies in the fire. She returns as a spirit to torment the Principal. In the manner of the traditional female spirit, she becomes a living avenger against whom the Principal doesn't stand a chance - she does not rest until she sends him crazy.

Konuma Masaru made this film as part of the production company Nikkatsu's roman poruno or "romantic pornography" genre. The film is innovative in many ways. This is partially because of the freedom that Nikkatsu gave its directors. So long as Konuma satisfied the guidelines of this genre, he was free to make an experimental film.

Screen Sex

Many Japanese filmmakers started out making either pink eiga (soft core porn) or roman poruno films. Kaneko Shusuke, for example, made five roman poruno sex comedies for Nikkatsu before Summer Vacation 1999. Furuhata Michio's film, Kantasubaki (Winter Camellia 1992), is part of a series about women who lived and loved members of the yakuza in the early 1900s. The story is about Botan who works in a brothel as a low class geisha; her father has effectively sold her into prostitution. Two politicians vie for her affections while also competing against one another in an impending election. Both men employ yakuza gangs to help them achieve their goals. After a fight between the two gangs, one of the members from the "good" gang rapes Botan. Initially she struggles but then surrenders and finds herself enjoying the experience. Eventually she falls in love with her rapist, Nioyama. This film was aimed at women and was based on the work of a female romance writer, Miyao Tomiko.

The idea of a woman being raped and then eventually finding she enjoys it, is a popular theme in Japanese films and pornographic videos. It is so commonplace that, in pornographic video production, often what is seen is not all an act but genuine action. One director of these "adult videos", Ishigaki Akira, says that he likes to give the impression that the girls in the videos 'are going through an actual struggle in front of the camera. It won't be a good video if there isn't a little resistance' (Tokyo Journal, July 1992 34)

When applicants apply to be "AV girls" they fill out a form detailing how much or how little they are prepared to do in the videos. One of the questions Ishigaki asks is whether or not the girl is prepared to have real intercourse; but even if the girl answers negatively, it is quite possible that she will later be talked or coerced into it. Ishigaki says: 'my job is to get them horny and ready for the inevitable. They're prepared for sex but they hesitate. I demand more and more feeling and they finally get drunk on the atmosphere' (Tokyo Journal, July 1992 34).

This sounds just like the rape scenes depicted in videos where the girl finally succumbs to what is apparently her desire to be raped. This scenario is mirrored off-screen where the assumption prevails that the actor will finally enjoy being ravaged by cameramen, male actors, rope artists and directors who sometimes spontaneously join in the action and have sex with her as well.

When the roman poruno genre lost its place in the film market, many of the women actors moved into pornographic videos. But more recently girls and young women from many different fields are applying to be AV girls. To be an AV girl is often seen as an easy path to fame. It is becoming attractive to girls because the successful ones are celebrated in the mainstream media. They are portrayed as stars; magazines feature their photographs; they are shown to be living glamorous lives, sipping exotic drinks in faraway countries. One Japanese girl said to me 'often AV girls are more beautiful than actresses in mainstream movies or on television'. (But sometimes thses can be the same people, because some of the more popular AV girls go on to become television stars, appearing on television commercials and on talk shows.)

Kuroki Kaoru is probably one of the most famous AV girls. She started out in S & M adult videos and then started appearing on late night television promoting porn videos. She caught public attention because she was both unusually outspoken about sex and used a very polite form of Japanese to talk about it. Subsequently she appeared on television chat shows, in advertisements and even as a campaign girl for a famous department store. She has a knack of making her work in adult video seem like a political and feminist crusade. As a protest against the censoring of pubic hair, she refused to shave her underarm hair. Kaoru changed the image of AV girls; she didn't seem to be making videos because of a lack of options but rather as an informed choice. She denies that when she is beaten and raped in videos that it is a sign of submission. Instead, she says that she has masochistic tendencies, 'on screen and off, the winning side is the one that gets an orgasm' (Bornoff 616). Kaoru believes that she is a model to women, 'that she draws out their desires and helps them discover themselves' (618). But in some ways she is indicative of the paradoxical representation of women in the media. As one journalist, Shoji Suei, notes, Kaoru is pandering to the man's idea that woman is his servant; but on the other hand, her outspoken views and her assertive behaviour in some of her videos intimidate men (Bornoff 618). And while she may be a turnoff to some men, women enjoy hearing her outspoken views.

In Japan there is not the same line drawn between pornography and family entertainment that there is in the West. Here in Japan, a more liberated view about sex blurs that line. Pop singers who have sung on television, can suddenly and unexceptionally turn up in adult videos. And in turn, stars of pornography can move readily onto television which. moreover, has its own risque programming. Of course there is censorship, but this is imposed unsystematically at the whim of a powerful right-wing group which, for some reason, has taken upon itself to be Japan's moral guardian. In addition, feminist groups have sometimes removed advertisements that they find offensive. Other than these voices, there is a permissive attitude towards the representation of sex in Japan.

Yoshida Kiju's Onimaru (also known as Arashigaoka 1988) has a rape scene which leaves a lasting impression. While this is only one scene in a complex movie, it is shocking. Unlike most other rape scenes in Japanese films, the woman does not appear to enjoy being raped. She commits suicide the following day. Onimaru is an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Yoshida reworked it into a Japanese medieval setting. In the film, Kinu and her brother live with their father on top of a mountain where their ancestors have lived for hundreds of years. Their cousins live on the other side of the mountain but they never see them because of an old family feud. Both families are isolated from the village at the foot of the mountain because the village people regard them as both deities and outcasts. The families seem to have a curse which they have inherited from their ancestors. The villagers consider the family to have great powers and if the families go down to the village the people throw stones at them. Their presence would be apparently enough to make the crops fail or cause some misfortune.

One day the father brings home a wild young boy called Onimaru whom he has adopted both for the amusement of the children and to work as a servant. As in Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff and Catherine) Kinu and Onimaru fall in love but, in this medieval setting, tradition dictates that when a daughter in the family first menstruates she must leave the mountain to become a nun. When Kinu reaches this age, she is first put into a small crudely built hut for the duration of her menstruation while she is considered to be 'polluted'. Kinu does not want to leave the mountain but the only way that she can stay is by marrying someone in the East House, where her relatives live, on the other side of the mountain.

She decides that this is what she will do, so she breaks the silence between the two families and goes to the other house to ask her cousin to marry her. He agrees, and they set a date for marriage. She returns to her house and that night seduces Onimaru, in a room where Kinu's father used to lock her for punishment. It is an eerie room which looks like a torture chamber, with bloodstains all over the walls. While their love-making is tender, the macabre setting gives the scene a sadomasochistic touch. Kinu soon marries and goes to live with her husband in the East House. But, when Kinu gives birth to a girl (of whom Onimaru is possibly the father) she becomes very ill and is unable to move from her bed; she starts believing that Onimaru has put a curse on her. Meanwhile Onimaru decides to leave the mountain because Kinu's brother mistreats him.

While Onimaru is away, he gains favour with the Shogun who rewards him with the rights of ownership to the mountain. Onimaru returns to the mountain and throws Kinu's brother and his wife out of the family's home, which he now owns. He moves in with the son of Kinu's brother and wife, whom he keeps on as a servant. Kinu senses the danger that Onimaru presents, and sends her sister-in-law to placate Onimaru. Instead he becomes angry and rapes her, which results in the sister-in-law's suicide the following day. Soon Kinu dies after a long illness but, even in death, Onimaru wants her. He digs up her corpse and takes it home with him. Kinu's daughter goes to Onimaru hoping to save the rest of the family from being destroyed. In turn Onimaru tries to rape her, but she is rescued by the servant who is also her cousin. Wounded, Onimaru madly rides off on his horse dragging Kinu's corpse behind him. Finally Kinu's daughter and her cousin fall in love. The implication is that the incestuous cycle will continue on between these families for more generations.

Using Women to make Social Criticism

The representations of women in Onimaru follow patterns typical of Japanese "New Wave" directors. Like their predecessors in the keigo (the tendency films of the 1920s & 1930s) and the femininsuto genres, they often use female roles to make socio-political statements. Yoshida uses the medieval context to condemn Japanese patriarchal traditions; he also combines this criticism with an eroticism reminiscent of the "New Wave". In the West, it is paradoxical to be both critical of patriarchy while perpetuating the same traditions by subjecting female characters to rape. Perhaps the film is best understood as a revelation of Japan's paradoxical representations of women.

Yoshida likes to hint throughout the movie that a prohibited sexual act may take place. He uses this as a device to add scenic tension. This adds an unpredictable element to the film because almost nothing seems to be taboo for him. One scene where prohibited sex does take place is where Onimaru rapes Kinu's sister-in-law. Yoshida films it in such a way that we are reminded of an earlier scene where Onimaru and Kinu make passionate and tender love. The contrast with the rape scene is striking. Onimaru appears to be punishing the woman for not being Kinu. While it is raw and violent, there is an element of theatricality to it, possibly calculated to distance the audience slightly, in order for it to be viewed as a performance. Similarly in the earlier scene where Kinu and Onimaru make love, their movements are so choreographed that it is like watching a slow dance. But even their lovemaking has a forbidden nature in this medieval setting, when everything was bound by tradition, superstition and custom. When they make love, it seems that they have violated the rules. As a consequence, all the disasters they lived in fear of actually occur. The room they make love in, with its walls stained with blood, is symbolic of a forbidden love which leads to so much trouble.

When Kinu goes to the East House to meet her cousin for the first time, she covers her face with veils and holds a fan directly in front of her face so that he is unable to see her. But it is this inaccessibility which bewitches her cousin. He is attracted to her small, measured movements and to the sound of her voice. These hints of mystique are very central to this scene; it is the same kind of appeal which the geisha offers. A geisha has a particular kind of sensuality which she has spent years refining. Her appeal is in desire alone; sex is not necessarily on her agenda. But this subtle sensuality was, in medieval times, the manner of the elite andas. Onimaru is from another class and his methods are more obvious and direct.

Here it is often not actually what happens but rather what is implied that is important. Towards the end of the movie, when Onimaru tries to rape Kinu's daughter, there is a lot of tension created just from the possibility that he might do so. What makes it even more provocative is the contrast with the scene where Onimaru makes love to the girl's mother. He is obviously aware that he is trying to rape someone who could be his daughter. Then, at the end of the film, Kinu's daughter and her cousin are together, just as Kinu and her cousin were. Incest, it is suggested, was natural at that time.

Yoshida criticises patriarchy with his bleak references to the lives of women in medieval times, how they were confined to small huts for the duration of their menstruation, or when giving birth. This and other references to the oppression of women can be interpreted as the director's condemnation of patriarchal traditions. But when the woman is raped, Yoshida makes use of a conventional erotic device. This seems to counteract his protests concerning the bad treatment of women because it is apparent that he is making use of the same patriarchal patterns that he criticises. When the film is looked at as a whole, and despite its theatricality, it can be seen as a microcosm of contemporary Japanese society.

At the beginning of the film, Yoshida concentrates on conveying the rules, traditions and the rigidity of the community that his characters are part of. In the second half, his characters break most of the rules. So Yoshida is criticising the authorities who make strict rules and regulations and thereby create an oppressed society which then looks for an outlet for its frustrations. In Onimaru, the forbidden sexuality and the destruction that Onimaru causes, are reactions to oppressive rules. Bornoff offers an explanation for the sometimes sadistic and violent theatrical forms of entertainment that the Japanese enjoy. 'Due to the rigidity of the social structure, the escape rules are apt to go to extremes' (Bornoff 14). This film is both indicative of the kind of movies which audiences look for when they are looking for escapism as well as being a comment on the escapism offered.

The representation of girls and women on the Japanese screen becomes paradoxical when there are both films which feature self-possessed female protagonists and films and videos where the women are trussed up and subjected to violence. Perhaps these films and videos reflect positive and negative Japanese attitudes towards women. There is discrimination against women in Japan and this can be seen in films and videos. But with the number of films featuring female protagonists, there are many different images of women. In some, the female characters reflect the perceived roles of women; while in others, the characters are an expression of Japanese female aspirations. And, interestingly, many of the films expressing the concerns and aspirations of women seem to have been those most influenced by popular culture. There has been a tendency for Japanese cinema to concern itself with a 'faithful delineation of all aspects of Japanese life' (Richie Lateral View 153). This may be one reason why there are so many films about women and why Japanese women are portrayed so variously and paradoxically.


1. Before the early 1920s Japanese films did not feature women as women's roles were played by the male actors from Kabuki onnagata trained to play women's roles; women replaced the onnagata as the Japanese film industry started being influenced by Hollywood's film techniques and codes (see Desser 109).

2. Columbo seems to strike a chord with Japanese audiences, as it is one of the few American television series on television in Japan in 1993 despite being produced over a decade ago.

3. Donald Richie writes that Ichikawa Kon made some of his best films Enjo, Kagi and Bonchi when his wife was writing his scripts; indicative of the lack of recognition given to women who worked in production, Richie neglects to mention her name. (See Geisha 138.)

4. Saimon Fumi stories formed the basis for another movie discussed below Shin Dosei Jidai (The era of living together for the first time).

5. It is interesting to note what director Kaneko Shusuke says about the production of Summer Vacation: 'a lot of pains were taken to eliminate the physical aspects of love. In a sense I was reacting against earlier Japanese films (particularly Nikkatsu's roman poruno genre) in which sex provides the only real motive energy' (Variety 24/3/1989 22,28). But even if Kaneko is reacting against those films, in some of the scenes where the boys tussle together in games, there is a sexual charge conveyed although it may be through connotation.

6. In contrast to these films and comics for women in many of comics read by boys and business men feature stories of big dominating women dressed in bondage gear, stomping on men, whipping them and then forcing them to make love.

Works Cited

Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: the sociopolitical and religious significance of the principal heroes and heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna, 1989.

Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai. London: Grafton Books, 1991.

Buruma, Ian. A Japanese Mirror: heroes and villains of Japanese culture. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985. Especially chapter entitled "Third Sex".

Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana U P, 1988.

Radic, Leonard. "Outstanding woman in man's world". The Age, 14 December 1991, Arts Extra, 9.

Richie, Donald. A Lateral View. Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd., 1991.

_____. Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1987.

Sato, Masunori and Hideo Hirahara. A History of Japanese Television Drama. Tokyo: The Japan Association of Broadcasting Art, 1991.

Schilling, Mark. "Silly detective film stretches credibility". Japan Times, 8 January 1991, 15.

_____. "Film brings comics to screen". The Japan Times, 15 October 1991, 15.

Schodt, Frederik. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983.

Sipe, Jeffrey. "Death and Taxes: a profile of Juzo Itami". Sight and Sound, (Summer 1989): 186-9.

Tokyo Journal, "A star is porn: the 400 billion yen adult video world". July 1992. 34.

New: 30 November, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015