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Women’s Fates in Japanese Films


The Japanese society could be classified as patriarchal whereby women are seen as weak and their place is at home to take care of their families. This entrenched belief that women are subordinate and submissive has infiltrated the film-making industry where such themes continue to the perpetuated. The societal perception towards the place of women is changing, albeit slowly, but the majority of Japanese films, especially those produced during the post-war era, seem to promote the traditional roles of females. After the war, Japanese women started demanding recognition in the public sphere, but they were accused of pursuing toxic feminism – one that would tear the societal and the moral fabric of the communities.

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Women agitation for equal rights and recognition would be countered with the discourse of their role as mothers and their place in the family. Most films made during this time contributed to this debate by portraying women as incapable beings that could only stand with the support of their abled male counterparts. This paper explores the role of women in Japanese films by looking at how females are portrayed in different movies and their place in society. Women in Japanese films are portrayed as weak, submissive, and sex objects to gratify men’s amorous urges. Additionally, the place of women in Japanese films is at home where they are expected to bear, raise children, and hold their families together.

The Portrayal of Women in Japanese Films

The Insect Woman is a masterpiece film by Imamura Shohei exploring the life of a strong-willed woman as she struggles to survive in the quickly modernizing post-war Japan. The protagonist, Tome, is born into a chaotic Japan in the early twentieth century where war and economic crises are the order of the day. However, despite being strong-minded, she is ravaged by the stereotypes associated with women and their roles in society. First, she is bizarrely raped by her boss, who happens to be her neighbor. This portrayal fits well into the post-war Japanese film-making industry which was riddled with sexually-themed movies. Vicari posits that during this era, “a Japanese male is permitted to rape or otherwise exploit women as a form of succor, with women loving him for it or at least never complaining” (85). The culture of raping women in Japanese culture was deeply entrenched in the mainstream way of thinking. For instance, imperial Japanese soldiers held this eccentric belief that if they raped virgins they would succeed in battle. They allegedly wore “amulets made from the pubic hair of such victims, believing that they possessed magical powers against injury” (Vicari 85). Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Tome, despite being a determined woman, perhaps independent, is painted in a way that generalizes her weaknesses by being portrayed as a sex object.

This one weakness, which she cannot do anything about it, overshadows all her other achievements. Even after moving to the industrialized regions of Japan, the only job she can find is the one that objectifies her body – prostitution. She becomes a mercenary procuress whereby she sleeps with countless clients including her retarded father. Ultimately, she is betrayed by other girls and she is imprisoned before one of her patrons turns to her daughter for sexual gratification. After coming out of prison, Tome returns to her village, her home, because that is where she belongs, as a woman. The portrayal of women in Insect Woman is grotesque, but it fits well into the narrative that they are weak, dependent, sex objects with limited roles in society.

In Woman of Tokyo, a 1933 film by Yasujiro Ozu, the protagonist, Chikako, suffers the same characterization of women being weak, indecisive individuals whose place is at home raising families. Chikako’s role is to take care of her brother, Ryoichi, who is a university student. Ironically, Chikako is not as educated, and thus the meager earnings that she gets from her work are barely enough. Therefore, she moonlights at a cabaret bar, where she occasionally engages in prostitution. Here is a young woman tasked with a herculean task of supporting her brother’s education even to the highest levels of learning. However, instead of being painted as a hard-working person trying to fulfill duties that would otherwise belong to her parents, her prostituting ways take the center stage.

When her ungrateful brother, Ryoichi, learns about Chikako’s wayward behaviors, he has the audacity to confront and assault her verbally and physically. The least he could have done is to be grateful that his sister is trying her best to keep him in school. In an unexpected turn of events, Ryoichi commits suicide, perhaps unable to handle the humiliation and disgrace of being associated with a prostituting sister. The storyline is the same here, women are not enough and they cannot amount to anything. Even in their tireless endeavors to support families – a role thrust upon them by society, they do not seem to get it right. Chikako suffers the same fate of women in Japanese films whereby she is painted as an indecisive weak woman, despite her selflessness in the quest to take care of her thankless brother.

Rashomon, a 1950 psychological thriller film by Akira Kurosawa, is another movie propagating male dominance while at the same time suppressing women voices. A samurai is dead, and the audience is taken through testimonies of four witnesses to the murder – the bandit, the wife, the samurai, and the woodcutter. On the bandit’s account, he claims that he killed the samurai in a duel fighting for the wife. Allegedly, the bandit tied the samurai on a tree, brought his wife to the scene, seduced her into sexual intercourse, and later battled the samurai to death. While this account of events might be compelling, it does not make sense. It is clear that the bandit raped the wife, but the issue is not even discussed. The wife’s story is different and more credible. She claims that the bandit raped her in front of her tied husband and left. She unties her husband and begs for forgiveness for being raped. Ironically, she is asking to be forgiven for being a victim of rape, but the husband is not willing to accord her such wishes.

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The samurai alleges that after the bandit raped her wife, she voluntarily left with him. The woodcutter apparently saw the rape of the wife and the murder of the samurai, but he refuses to testify. Despite the conflicting account of what happened, the issue of rape is silenced throughout the movie. Lofgren says, “Frequently missing from the critical conversation is the original crime of rape committed against the wife which is an absent presence in the film” (113). A serious crime has been committed here, but it is unimportant because women are expected to be raped – after all, they are sex objects for men. As such, this film succeeds in trivializing the role and place of women in Japanese culture and society.

In the film, A Japanese Tragedy, the director, Keisuke Kinoshita, explores the role of women as family creators and providers despite the underlying circumstances. The war was one of the greatest tragedies of Japan, and in its wake, it left untold suffering especially for widowed mothers. The protagonist, Haruko Inoue, is a widow and she is expected to take care of her two children. Without the means to support her family adequately, she lives in abject poverty together with her children, but she saves every coin to afford them a decent education. Haruko hangs out in the local drinking places where she is occasionally paid to have sex to supplement her insufficient finances. The film follows the common storyline in most Japanese films, where women are shown to be uncreative, and thus often they turn to prostitution as the only viable way of earning a living.

The storyline could be different whereby Haruko defies the odds to scale the corporate ladder inspired by the need to provide for her children. However, such a line of thinking would be unpopular with the targeted audience of the film. Therefore, she has to be fitted in the common narratives and ultimately become a prostitute. Interestingly, her children do not appreciate her selfless efforts, and thus after getting a good education, they disown her. This theme is similar to that of Woman of Tokyo whereby Ryoichi ungratefully disapproves her sister’s engagement in prostitution despite being a beneficiary of such activities. This issue of dependents being thankless to the efforts of women to provide for their families underscores a twisted entrenched belief about the role of females in the family. The place of women as providers and caregivers is seen as a duty, not a privilege to the dependents. This explains why Ryoichi commits suicide and Haruko’s children disown her with a sense of entitlement without appreciating the sacrifices made for them to get a decent education. Ultimately, women’s place and roles in society remain unchanged.

Tompopo by Juzo Itami is a 1985 a comedy film with a troubling portrayal of women. Produced in 1985, it would be expected that the film would paint women differently from other movies made in the 1950s when Japanese women were struggling to be heard and valued in the public sphere. Even though the film departs from the disparaging portrayal of women as prostitutes, it adopts another subtle way of belittling female characters as voiceless individuals in society. Tampopo is a widow, but she has worked hard to start a business, even though it is struggling. Two truck drivers, Goro and Gun, come to her aid when she is harassed by a customer known as Pisken. When she asks the drivers about their opinion concerning her noodles, Goro indicates that while they are “sincere”, they “lack character.” Instead of the film focusing on Tampopos hard work, her weaknesses become the central point of plot development.

Goro takes charge of the business and Tampopo, despite being the founder, operates from behind the scenes. The film views women from a Freudian view of a paternal society whereby a woman “stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman” (Iles 70). In other words, women are just bearers, not makers of meaning. As such, they are uninventive, and they cannot succeed on their own. The film underlines this premise by painting Tampopo as a struggling business owner and her saviors are clueless truck drivers. This portrayal of Tampopo promotes the narrative that women are weak, voiceless, dependent beings lacking the spine to stand on their own.

In another film, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Mikio Naruse, the director continues to advance the narrative that women cannot succeed on their own. Their only hope is to depend on men for success or become prostitutes. This view is disparaging, but it is common among Japanese films. In the film, a young widow, Keiko, has to take care of her family, and thus she finds work as a hostess in Ginza nightclubs. She is determined to open her own club and become independent and successful. However, the film changes the storyline to fit this intelligent woman full of integrity into the mainstream viewpoints of seeing women as weak dependents. Keiko faces a seemingly insurmountable task of raising capital to start her new business. However, she has the option of marrying a rich man to earn her ticket to success. Alternatively, she could become a mistress to some of her rich patrons and earn some money on the side.

The film does not pursue the storyline where Keiko can open her club and become a successful business owner. On the contrary, the storyline throws the protagonist into the conventional struggles that women have to face in society. Keiko approaches some wealthy patrons to lend her money, but they are unwilling to do so – they want to pay her for sex. Her dreams of ever owning a business are silenced after being hospitalized with peptic ulcers. When she resumes work, she reluctantly starts entertaining a heavy-set man with the hope of marrying him. However, he turns out to be a fraud and Keiko shifts her focus to Fujisaki, a married and successful businessman. He promises to give her money to start her own business if she agrees to sleep with him, and Keiko obliges. However, Fujisaki flees after the sex without keeping his promise. Ultimately, Keiko gives up the ambition to own a business, and she resigns to the fate of working as a hostess. This film twists an otherwise promising storyline and reverts to the common themes in Japanese films where women must rely on men for any form of success.

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In the film, Dolls, by Takeshi Kitano, women are portrayed as weaklings, which is surprising given that this movie was made in 2002. Someone would expect the Japanese filmmakers to have evolved to embrace a different view of women in the twenty-first century. Regrettably, even in the 2000s, women continue to be portrayed as voiceless, weak beings that have to cling to their male counterparts for sound decision-making. In the first story of the film, Matsumoto and his fiancée, Sawako, are about to get married as they continue sharing their undying love for each other. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Matsumoto’s boss, a president of a large corporation, wants him (Matsumoto) to marry his daughter instead of Sawako. Matsumoto is reluctant to accept this offer, but he ultimately abandons Sawako for her boss’ daughter. Feeling betrayed, Sawako tries to commit suicide and even though she is saved, she becomes insane. Two issues about the negative portrayal of women in Japanese films arise in this case.

First, Matsumoto’s boss chooses a husband for his daughter. This act underscores the fact that women are seen as indecisive and poor decision-makers, hence weaklings. The boss cannot trust his daughter to make the right choice and decide whom to marry. Second, Sawako is painted as faint-hearted, which explains why she cannot deal with Matsumoto’s rejection. She thus decides to commit suicide instead of fighting to assert her place. In another story in the film, Hito leaves his childhood sweetheart, Rykyo, to look for wealth so that they could live a good life. Before he leaves, Rykyo promises him that she would visit the park every Saturday carrying lunch to see if he had returned. After many years, Hito returns and finds Rykyo still waiting for him at the park. However, he is too embarrassed to introduce himself to Rykyo because he has been gone for many years. While this act could be interpreted to underscore the power of love, it also paints women as weak. This argument explains why Rykyo spends years waiting for a man who promises to come back with wealth for a better life. She could have moved on with her life, but she is a weakling who cannot make such an important decision.


Japanese film-making has borrowed heavily from its patriarchal culture whereby women are seen as weak, dependent, sex objects that have to lean on their male counterparts for any meaningful success in life. Specifically, the theme of women using prostitution (sex objects) as a way of earning a living is common in Japanese films. Out of the seven movies analyzed in this paper, five of them carry the theme of prostitution. In The Insect Woman, Tome, a strong-willed woman becomes a mercenary procuress after being raped by her boss and neighbor. The culture of rape is also common in Japanese films. However, this culture is entrenched in society and imperial soldiers would routinely defile virgins with the hope of becoming lucky and successful in the battlefields.

In Rashomon, the samurai’s wife is raped bizarrely by the bandit, but this topic is not even explored. The film is silent on this heinous crime, which is the genesis of the movie’s storyline. In Woman of Tokyo, Chikako becomes a prostitute to get enough money to support his brother at the university. Similarly, Haruko, the protagonist in A Japanese Tragedy, chooses to engage in sex for money to cater for her two children. In When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Keiko comes out as an intelligent woman, but she is ultimately compelled to sell sex to raise capital for her business. In Dolls, Sawako tries to commit suicide, Matsumoto’s daughter cannot choose whom to marry, and Rykyo waits for years to be reunited with his lover. In these movies, as representatives of Japanese films, women’s body is objectified, which explains why the majority of them turn to prostitution. They come out as weaklings, and thus they have to depend on men. Additionally, their role in society is to remain at home to bear and raise children.

Works Cited

A Japanese Tragedy. Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, Shochiku, 1953.

Dolls. Directed by Takeshi Kitano, Bandai Visual Company, 2002.

Iles, Timothy. The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film: Personal, Cultural, National. Brill, 2008.

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

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Rashomon. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1950.

The Insect Woman. Directed by Shohei Imamura, Nikkatsu, 1963.

Tompopo. Directed by Juzo Itami, Itami Productions, 1985.

Vicari, Justin. Japanese Film and the Floating Mind: Cinematic Contemplations of Being. McFarland, 2016.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Directed by Mikio Naruse, Toho Company, 1960.

Woman of Tokyo. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, Shochiku, 1933.

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