Saturday, April 24, 2010

Female Sexuality as Alternative Way to Sexism in Film

I had never heard of “auteur” until I start reading “Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film”. To be honest, I still don’t understand it fully, but as far as I read the article, my understanding of auteur is film directors who reflect their ideas, messages, voices, or perspectives in their own styles or techniques through their films. Thus, films are their way of expression, not merely entertainments or business, and they have the exclusive controls on the film’s structure, concepts, mode, and authorship.

(This image is from )

When I think about female film auteurs, the first one who came to my mind was Sachi Hamano, who is one of the first Japanese female award-winning film directors and has been in the film industry for over 40 years. She has played a very important role not only as a film director but as an advocator to fight against the patriarchal Japanese society and to rectify the wrong and insulting representation of women.

Since she was a child, she has always been loving movies and used to watch about 8 to 10 movies a week when she was in high school. As she saw European women wearing red coats and high heels and looking cool in the nouvelle vague films, she became wondering why women in Japanese films are depicted as only four roles: mother, wife, daughter, and prostitute. Women were always serving for men and depicted as just like slaves. She realized that there are only male directors, so all of such portrays of women are men’s point of view. It was the reflection of Japanese society at that time. After graduating her high school, she decided to become a film director to depict the “real” women although it sounded such a crazy idea in the 1960s in Japan.

Yes, it was extremely hard for Hamano to enter the filmmaking industry because it was the norm that only male graduates can become film directors at that time in Japan. No production or studio accepted her, a female high school graduate. The only way to get into the filmmaking world was “pink film” which is “Japanese soft-core porn” where women were inevitable sex objects. It was completely male-dominated world and she had to endure countless suffering, bullying, and sexual harassments from men there. According to her, a word “sexual harassment” didn’t even exist at that time. There was no question to abuse women. However, she survived. She survived because she wanted to become a film director.

Ever since she debuted as a director when she was 21 to the present day, she has stuck to her belief as a female pink film director consistently, which is to film female sexuality from female perspectives. Pink films were usually all about satisfying the distorted sexual desires of men, so female sexuality was always depicted from men’s point of view. Hamano once said in an interview, “Rape and violence are two of the most popular themes in pink films. For instance, if a girl has been raped, in a minute, she has to appear as if like she is having good time with him, and the male figure, the rapist, always says, ‘hey, you are actually feeling good, right?’ No woman feels happy to be raped. I thought I have to break down such unacceptable fantasies of men. I want to say that women are not sex objects for men through my films.” She continues, “so my films have never shown any rape or violent scenes. What I have been trying to show is female sexuality for their own pleasure and sexes which women willingly chose to have” (Jyoshi-bu, March 2009)

Hamano’s belief is what Josephine Donovan calls “gynocriticism”, which is “a way of assessing works of art specifically in relation to the interests and desires of women. As Donovan points out it involves a separate female way of thinking, and a recognition that women’s experience has been effectively silenced by a masculine culture. This response to that silencing, is a new epistemology which creates or uncovers a ‘newly visible world of female culture’ opening up and sharing this world with women readers/viewers.” (Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film). In pink films, and even in the Japanese society, women have been silenced by men for a long time in any situation. As Hamano pointed out, women had to play the passive roles given by men perfectly, which were “mother”, “wife”, “daughter”, or “prostitute”, and they were not allowed to have any desire. Hamano broke the convention by using pink films where women are usually just “silenced” and “used” as sex objects. She looked at pink films from a different perspective and considered it as “the women-centered world”.

(This image is from

One of the huge groups of silenced women in Japan is elderly women, and their sexuality is what Hamano depicted in a film (this is not a pink film) called “Yurisai” (“Lily Festival” in English title), which sets in an apartment building where the main character Mrs. Miyano and her five female neighbors who range in age from 69 to91 live in. When a 75-year-old charming man called Mr. Miyochi moves in, older women’s undisclosed sexualities are stirred up and find that they don’t have to pretend like a “cute old lady” and they can do whatever they want to in the rest of their lives. This film portrays cheerfully reawaking older women and is the liberation from the Japanese old-fashioned idea both that women are not supposed to talk about anything about sex in the public and that older people especially women are “over” after 60. Hamano said, “The sexuality of post-menopausal is one of the taboos to talk about”. She continues, “Most of Japanese think that sex is all about reproduction, not the act of love or human beings’ natural desires. So if you can’t have babies, you cannot have any desires for sex and your sexuality has gone. It is wrong. It is absolutely natural for older women to have love, sex and desires. That’s my point of the film.” (Daun Center, No. 2003) The women in this film beautifully changes after Mr. Miyoshi’s arrival. Mr. Miyoshi treats each of them as “a woman” not “an old lady” and respects their beauties, softness, and intelligence. Because they haven’t been treated in that way for a while, they are immediately attracted by him and trying to be more beautiful. It seems true that love and sexuality are essential aspects to keep people young.

Hamano was inspired by a novel of the same title “Yurisai” written by Hoko Momotani in 1999. However, she filmed it in her own way and put a lot of her originalities on it. The most eye-opening difference is she indicated the possibility of lesbianism as the extension of female friendships or “lesbian experience” in words of Adrinne Rich. There is no depiction or indication of lesbianism in the novel, so her idea actually surprised the author of the novel. After it was revealed that Mr. Miyoshi had sexual relationships not only with one of the residents but with most of them (each character was thinking that he is seeing only her), Mrs. Miyano and one of her neighbor Mrs. Yokota leave Mr. Miyoshi, and they found that they actually fall in love each other. It sounds too sudden to happen, but it is Hamano’s massage that the female solidarity which they established by sharing their love for Mr. Miyoshi can be stronger that their love for Mr. Miyoshi. As Gorris did, this “lesbian experience” seems to refuse to share the relationship between Mrs. Miyano and Mrs. Yokota with the male viewers. It implicitly says that this is “the women’s world”. In the very ending of the film, Mr. Miyano wearing Japanese traditional clothes called kimono says, staring at the camera (viewers) with a smile, “You never know what we did last night.”

Hamano knew that the lesbian scene would cause the harsh criticism by the male viewers, and as she expected, it did. She said an interview, “the male viewers would expected to see the conventional happy-end, which is Mr. Miyoshi and Mrs. Miyano get married. But I didn’t want to do that. It’s too boring, and I wanted to show that women have the right to decide what makes them happy. In the Japanese society, marriage is traditionally considered the ultimate happiness for women. It is ridiculous. It is not happy to stay at home all day long and do whatever the husbands say. I want women to be more active after they see my films.” (Jyoshi-bu, March 2009)

“Yurisai” has played at many film festivals all over the world and been highly praised. It won awards at the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian film festival, Turin International Women’s Film Festival (Italy), and the Mix Brasil. She believes that there are definitely massages which only female directors can convey through films because women have different points of view from men’s especially about the female sexuality. She said, “I don’t think that no male director would want to film ‘Yurihana’ because they are not interested in old ladies having sex. I was the only director who could do.” (Jyoshi-bu, March 2009)

Work sites (some of the following links are Japanese websites, so I translated some quotes of Hamano to English)

Joshi-bu (Japanese)


Dawn Center (Japanese)

Chicago Reader

After Ellen

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such an interesting post. Do you know if there is an English translation Yurisai?