Women to be Reckoned With
My Body, Your Look
“I can hear . . . your bad thoughts” (Yukiko
Okamoto, “Another Heaven”)
Ataru Oikawa’s “Tôkyô densetsu:
Ugomeku machi no kyôki” (“Tokyo Psycho,” 2004) is considered a horror
title whereas Takashi Ishii’s “Hana to hebi” (“Flower and Snake,” 2004)
is considered a remake of the “roman porno” films of the same name.
Yet, despite obvious differences in narrative and cinematic sophistication
– “Flower and Snake” having been described by one critic as both beautiful
and depraved – these films suggest a number of interesting points of comparison.
Both focus on the horrifying abduction of a woman who is the central character
in each film. Each character’s experiences and suffering at the hands
of men constitute the narrative. Both women are portrayed as experiencing
real suffering for which they bear no responsibility. Each is stalked
and preyed on so each must struggle to emerge from the resultant nightmare.
Since the elements of horror are created by the acts of ordinary mortals,
they cannot be resolved by extraordinary or uncanny powers. In spite
of their narratives, both films privilege the experience of their female
protagonists and thereby avoid simply presenting women as objects of the
sadistic cinematic gaze.
Despite its budgetary limitations, “Tokyo Psycho”
foregrounds a solid performance by Sachiko Kokubu who plays “Yumiko,” a
fairly ordinary young woman who discovers she is being stalked by a former
high school classmate. After murdering one of her friends, this individual
captures “Yumiko” and takes her to a rural location. There, “Yumiko”
ultimately succeeds in strangling her assailant to death. Key features
marking this as horror include receipt of a mysterious note, the derangement
and heinous acts of the stalker, and scrutiny of the plight of a young
woman utterly alone. Characteristically, sexuality is almost entirely
missing from this variant on the slasher narrative. However, “Yumiko”
does not sit idly by to await her fate. She is depicted as conducting
a web search on her assailant, enlisting a private investigator, and searching
her stalker’s apartment. “Yumiko’s” fear and relative physical helplessness
suggest she is less a prototypic Final Girl than an ordinary person.
Her character is also not transformed by these experiences, but returns
to her apartment and displays her warmth toward the young daughter of the
harried single mother who is a neighbor.
Ishii's film foregrounds an extraordinary performance
by Aya Sugimoto who is known for her ballroom dancing skills. Her
character, “Shizuko Toyama” is the trophy wife of a neglectful and increasingly
alcoholic business tycoon. She begins to experience a number of disturbing
masochistic fantasies and dreams. When her husband is blackmailed
by a powerful yakuza, he agrees to “Shizuko’s” abduction for the pleasure
of a very wealthy 95-year-old voyeur, resulting in the apparent realization
of these fantasies. Her abductor is obsessed with the idea that “Shizuko”
is concealing her deepest desires and, in the manner of Kubrick’s “Eyes
Wide Shut,” “Shizuko” is lured into a lavish sadomasochistic dungeon whose
purpose is to provide a theater of voyeurism for the super-rich.
This involves exposing “Shizuko” to kinbaku (rope bondage) and other forms
of humiliation. “Shizuko’s” suffering may greatly differ in form
from “Yumiko’s,” but the central theme of sudden, destabilizing control
exerted by a powerful male over one’s very survival is common to both.
In spite of superficial resemblances to a long
line of notoriously misogynistic films in which women are subjected to
barbaric treatment, “Flower and Snake” is nevertheless subtly different.
The narrative actually concerns “Shizuko,” and not her oppressors.
It is her “pleasures” in resistance that become articulated through the
text, progressively involving a shift in power relations toward the point
that her elderly abductor crawls toward her feet, abasing himself.
It also blurs the boundaries between the possible and fantastic until it
becomes difficult to distinguish “Shizuko’s” fantasies from her actual
experiences. Despite the obvious criticism that this device of masochistic
fantasy can serve to legitimize what would otherwise constitute exclusively
sadistic control, the film nonetheless poses interesting questions about
the potency of thought and wish fulfillment as well as the intricacy of
entanglements between gender, exposing, voyeurism and any performance art.
Perhaps it is all really a dream, imagined like any fictional text.
Although the content of such imaginings might
seem to affirm a blatantly sadistic cinematic gaze, the gender of the person
responsible for the imagining (“Shizuko”) may subvert the power of this
gaze or even appropriate it as the necessary counterpart of “being looked
at.” This point is made at several junctures in the narrative.
Elements of the “sadistic” gaze identified by feminist film theory involving
fragmentation of “Shizuko’s” body by paired close-up shots of her eyes
and red painted lips (aligned toward the vertical) are used to knowingly
self-conscious effect. Her elderly abductor, “Tashiro-san” (Renji
Ishibashi), who is, in effect, also a stalker, is initially seen gazing
enraptured at a giant screen filled by “Shizuko’s” eyes and lips, seen
in full makeup while dancing. Her eyes appear to return the camera’s
look, and the accompanying music of the waltz she is performing is used
throughout the film as a signifier of the desire associated with “display”
and performance. Significantly, these exact cinematic elements are
also the focus of on-screen looking at “Shizuko” by her female bodyguard
“Kyoko” (Misaki Mori), who, after using martial arts to save “Shizuko”
from a kidnapping attempt in a parking garage, becomes imagined as another
desiring figure. She is later not only subjected to the same treatment
as “Shizuko” to coerce “Shizuko’s” cooperation, but also makes love to
her while confessing her feelings. In the end, it is “Kyoko’s” name
that “Shizuko” calls out as she finally escapes from the physical limits
of her imprisonment before ultimately shooting her husband – inviting a
reading on figurative escape from patriarchal control and all its implications.
Toward the end of the film “Shizuko” imagines herself dancing as element
of mise-en-scene are stripped away – the other dancers, her partner, her
clothes – until she is dancing alone, naked, spot-lit on an otherwise darkened
stage. This image suggests a disturbing reductionism implicit in
the visual pleasure associated with watching the “high culture” performance
art of dance and, perhaps, of being watched while performing. This
point may also bear on difficulties associated with an earlier work of
Ishii – “Freeze Me” – which articulates an uneasy dialectic of viewer identification
with “Chihiro” (Harumi Inoue) while also staring at her naked body.
The resulting discomfort subverts simple genre expectations and may provoke
the viewer to become aware of their potential complicity (by looking at
“Chihiro’s” body) in the very type of acts she is struggling against (a
struggle with which the viewer is invited to identify).
Ultimately, both “Tokyo Psycho” and “Flower and
Snake” may pose the same fundamental questions about gender and “psychic
monsters.” If the capture and control of women self-evidently constitutes
sadistic violence, what might this imply about preliminary looking and
fantasies – and about the film text’s audience looking at these?
If they are related, how can the viewer avoid partial complicity by also
looking at the preliminary elements? Although the female protagonist
bears no responsibility for the approach of the male predator, does she
bear any responsibility for the opportunity to gaze at her? “Shizuko”
explicitly fantasizes dancing naked and being not only exposed to, but
actively recruiting and then controlling the most intrusive gaze of all.
An equivalence is also drawn in “Tokyo Psycho” between “Yumiko’s” physical
attractiveness among her classmates and the resulting obsessive interest
of one of them. Significantly, “Yumiko” later wears shapeless fatigue-style
clothing after her attractiveness is commented on. The horror film
can, indeed, confess the most elemental relations between gender, the cinematic
gaze, and control.