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Gender Representation in Akira Kurosawa’s Films

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. He was taking an active part on many levels of the creation of his films, often serving as a screenwriter and editor. Kurosawa was investigating various themes in his movies, including human identity, heroism, class differences, and many others. There is a great field for discussion of any of these themes. This paper, however, is intended to analyze one of the most controversial topics of Kurosawa’s films, specifically gender representation. Male characters of his movies are usually shown as central figures possessing such typically masculine features as strongness, aggressiveness, and bravery. Women, in turn, have far less screen time and usually perform traditionally feminine roles being mothers and wives. However, Kurosawa also represents a deeper understanding of his female characters. Although Akira Kurosawa’s films can be considered totally masculine in their spirit, women in his movies are more complex than may appear at first sight.

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Prior to the analysis of female figures in Kurosawa’s films, it is necessary to discuss the cultural background. The traditional view of Japanese women is characterized by the perception of females as the core of families, performing domestic and mothering roles. According to Reynolds, Japanese people for a long time lived by the principle “men superior, women inferior” that began to give way only after World War II (129). After the war, women got equal legal rights to men. However, as the scholar notes, “the average person’s image of women” did not change significantly, and women still were expected to behave politely and submissively (Reynolds 129). In this regard, Japanese society was used to seeing women as male dependent and domestic.

As for Kurosawa’s perception of women, it can be considered somewhat controversial, as can be seen from his autobiography. Martinez notes that Kurosawa “plays down his interest in or ability to understand women” (112). According to the researcher, he “presents even his marriage as somewhat accidental, arranged by his friends rather than being an outcome of his own romantic interests” (112). It is possible to agree that this fact represents him as a man who is not interested in a woman’s personality.

However, a different approach can be seen through his mother’s description. Kurosawa calls his mother “impossibly heroic” and tells how she prevented their house from burning down by carrying a flaming pot outside and how she silently suffered pain from burns afterward (qtd. in Martinez 112). He also describes her as having a gentle soul and belonging to one of those women who “were still expected to make extreme sacrifices so that their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons could advance” (Kurosawa 21). All these descriptions create the image of a woman who willingly sacrifices her interests and herself, soundlessly suffers staying submissive and modest but who, nevertheless, remains impossibly strong.

Women with similar characteristics can be seen in many of Kurosawa’s films. As Orbaugh points out, Kurosawa’s works are full of strong silent wives (qtd. in Martinez 112). However, it is necessary to remember that Kurosawa was more open to Western traditions than many other Japanese directors. As a testimony to this view, Yoshimoto provides the fact that “Kurosawa’s name is often written in katakana, a type of Japanese syllabary usually used to write Japanese words of foreign origin” (2). It is possible to agree that Kurosawa’s films are characterized by certain complexity in the representation of gender issues due to his openness not only to his own culture but also to the Western views. To investigate women’s representation in Kurosawa’s films, this paper will discuss three films released in a postwar period between 1946 and 1954.

Analyzing one of the most famous Kurosawa’s movies, Seven Samurai, it is possible to agree that through its female characters, it clearly represents the theme of motherhood. According to Martinez, women’s link with motherhood is “established in almost every scene that involves a woman” (115). One of the most vivid scenes shows a mother carrying her child out of the burning Mill; she hands her baby to one of the samurai, falls down, and reveals the spear in her back. As Martinez notes, “this young woman, a minor character who appears only a few times in the film and speaks only one or two lines, embodies what the director considered the best of Japanese womanhood” (116). This aspect of representation shows Kurosawa’s female characters as strong women and probably correlates with the strongness of his own mother. However, Seven Samurai also raises the theme of violence against women.

In the movie, female characters are often being violated by males. One of the men suggests to try a bargain with bandits and give them Shino, the main female character of the film. Her father tries to protect her but does it in a rather aggressive manner. He decides to cut her hair to make her look like a boy and grabs her almost violently when she resists him. Although Shino avoids the fate of being taken by bandits, it turns out that there is another female character in the movie, Rikichi’s wife, who was given to them to be raped. Martinez assumes that men in the village were too frightened to fight (120). They decided to bargain with bandits using their women, which can be seen as a betrayal of not only their daughters and wives but also of “the family, hearth, home, the land itself” (Martinez 120). When considering these parts of the plot, it can be assumed that women in Seven Samurai experience only fear and violence. However, analyzing the film deeper, one may agree that its female characters are brave enough to stop their silent suffering.

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Despite having little screen time, women set in motion many events of the film. At the very beginning of the movie, the viewers can see a woman who is crying and screaming with her head bowed. The bandits are going to return, there is no help from the government, and she wails that villagers might as well kill themselves. When not getting any adequate reaction from men, she finally stands up and starts shouting, implying that it is necessary to do something. As Martinez notes, exactly her public outcry makes men start acting (116). Given the Japanese perception of women, this moment when a woman speaks up and becomes the voice of all villages can be called very significant for gender representation in Japanese films. According to Martinez, many of Kurosawa’s films represent the mothers, daughters, and lovers who turn out to be the only heroes in war and “must endure the worst that men can do” (121). Even considering just the episode discussed in this paragraph, it is possible to agree that Kurosawa shows complex female characters who no longer remain silent.

It is worth discussing another well-known Kurosawa film, Rashomon. The movie represents the story of a bandit, a samurai, and his wife, Masako. The viewer hears four different versions of one incident: how Masako was raped by the bandit, and her husband died. Masako is surrounded by men being the only female character in the film. As Jang notes, “in Rashomon, Kurosawa conveys the stereotypes that continue to define the lives of Japanese women” (24). All male versions of the story represent Masako from the negative side, and the seriousness of the crime against her is understated. When Masako starts to testify, viewers may expect that she will discuss rape as a true crime. However, this part is almost completely omitted, and the woman’s narrative is focused on her trying to earn her husband’s forgiveness.

In Rashomon, even though a female’s voice, Kurosawa represents the patriarchal picture of the world. The woman is blamed for being raped and becomes despised by her husband as she is no longer pure for him. As Lofgren notes, Masako’s “narrative is, at a fundamental level, not hers at all” (121). She is enclosed in a patriarchal world where there is no justice and an opportunity for her to speak up. The presence of rape as a crime is obvious for the viewers, but this crime is being repressed in the narrative. However, as Lofgren points out, this repression is only partially successful, “and in that tension, we see the possibilities for a more equitable treatment of women, a hint of the possible” (124). In this regard, one may agree that, in Rashomon, Kurosawa questioned the adequacy of traditional features of the patriarchal world. From the point of view of gender representation, the film implies the necessity for women to speak up and break free from oppression.

The third Kurosawa film to be discussed in the paper, No Regrets for Our Youth, represents the image of a more independent and self-sufficient woman. The main female character, Yukie, starts to go beyond the framework of the traditional world picture. Yukie’s parents want her to marry Itokawa, seeing him as a proper husband for their daughter. Yukie, however, is against this marriage and decides to leave home. She manages to start a new life in Tokyo, becoming financially independent. According to Jang, through Yukie, “Kurosawa breaks the unspoken rule that all women must be married to be supported by their husbands” (23). Thus, in this movie, Kurosawa shows a female character who can overcome the influence of people whose decisions would be unquestionable for a traditional Japanese woman.

One may conclude that Akira Kurosawa often represents complex women characters in his films. Even though he usually places male protagonists in the center of the plot, female figures play a significant role in his works. They can lead the story into action, even having a few lines and a few minutes of screen time. Kurosawa gives them voices allowing female characters to scream and be heard. Although some women in his movies are oppressed by men and face injustice, the director gives the viewers an opportunity to question this picture of the world. While other female characters, on the contrary, break the traditional framework of women’s lives where they are limited to being mothers and housewives. Kurosawa might not understand women, but he certainly was able to create strong and complex female images.

Works Cited

Jang, Alice Jiron. Strange Women: The Evaluation and Comparison of Female Characters in Akira Kurosawa’s Films. 2017. Web.

Kurosawa, Akira. Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography. Translated by Audie E. Bock, 1982. Web.

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Lofgren, Erik R. “The Interstitial Feminine and Male Dominance in Rashōmon.” Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 113–132.

Martinez, Dolores P. “Seven Samurai and Six Women: Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai (1954).” Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, edited by Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer, Routledge, 2007, pp. 130–141.

Reynolds, Katsue Akiba. “Female Speakers of Japanese in Transition.” Aspects of Japanese Women’s Language, 1990, pp. 129–146.

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. Duke University Press, 2000.

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