Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sex, Power, and Purity in Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll

This post now has 40,088 views, my first post to top 40K. I'd guess it went over in the last day or two. Since I originally posted it on Sept. 18, 2014 2010 that makes it roughly four years old. How long before it gets another 40K views, or tops 100K?
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This post is lightly revised from a set of notes I sent to Tim Perper in September of 2003. Perper is the scholar who introduced me to manga and anime. Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll is the first anime film I watched, on Tim’s recommendation. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the second. Again at Tim’s recommendation. Those of you familiar with anime know that those are VERY different films. And that’s what I was aiming for, maximum contrast. I have, for the most part, retained the informal style of the original note.

As you say, Tim, Ninja Scroll is a popcorn-muncher, rich with action, apparently poor in obvious deep meaning and significance. But no culture produces such complex and finely-crafted objects without packing them full of significance. And Scroll is oozing with it. Keeping in mind my general ignorance about Japanese culture, here’s what comes to mind.

Let’s start with the explicit – though certainly not pornographic – sex. It shows up relatively early in the film and, interestingly enough, in two back-to-back scenes. Surely we are meant to (subliminally) compare and contrast those scenes. So lets do that.

The contrast seems to be that between legitimate and illegitimate sex (that is, rape) between a powerful man and a woman he controls. Both men are large and hulking, but one is clothed in the robes of minor officialdom and has appropriately dressed hair while the other is semi-naked and bald. The two scenes, while both in dim night-time light, are depicted in different colors.

The (attempted) rape is in cool blues, greys, stark white and black while the other scene is in warm browns, tans, and brownish-yellows. Postures are different as well. In the official scene, the woman is on her hands and knees while the man is behind her “doggy” style.

In the rape, the woman is almost upside down and the man moves her around like a piece of meat. Finally, the woman in the rape scene is silent while the other woman moans and cries out.

Notice that, beyond asserting that one scene depicts rape and the other legitimate sex, I haven’t said anything about the relationships between these people. The contrasts I’ve been talking about are all in the visual and auditory presentation of the scenes. This is by no means necessary to the social meanings, but this multi-layered patterning is how art is done.

Now, let’s consider those relationships. The woman being raped (first screen shot) is Kagero, the lone woman on a Ninja team of the Mochizuki clan. The rapist is Tessai, one of the eight Devils of Kimon, who are in league with the Dark Shogun to overthrow the legitimate government. Note that, when he gets angry, Tessai’s body becomes rock-like, making him an earth-man, just barely differentiated from the natural world. Kagero is the only survivor of the Ninja team sent to kill Tessai.

The man in the other sex scene is Kagero’s lord and master, Sakaki Hiyobu, who is the Chamberlain of the Mochizukis. You’ll recall that Kagero had to make a special plea to be sent out on this mission; normally, she served as food taster to the Chamberlain. The woman the Chamberlain is having sex with is unidentified.

The interesting thing about the Chamberlain’s sex scene, and the first thing about the movie to really capture my attention, was that the chamberlain moved easily and effectively between having an official conversation and copulating without ever withdrawing. As you’ll recall, this is the second of the two sex scenes. Kagero – who had been the woman in the first sex scene – has come back to report that she is the only surviving member of the ninja team. Kagero stays discretely at the doorway to the chamberlain’s room and gives her report while the chamberlain replies to her and thrusts away on his woman.

“What is going on,” I asked myself, “that we are being shown sex intercut with official government business?” What kind of sex is that? And, for that matter, what kind of government?

Whatever it is, this is not sex that involves a personal relationship between the parties. This sex act may be legitimate but, it certainly is not at the moral center of this movie. One can easily come up with arguments to the effect that this sex act is as much a rape as the other one – which I’ll get to shortly – but I don’t think the movie will sustain that reading. There is a legitimate social order in this world and that sex act is a part of the social order. But that social order is not the only thing in this world. There is also the world of the rōnin warrior Jubai, a samurai unattached to a lord.

And that brings us to the rape. As far as I can tell, the rape didn’t run the full course; there was sexual violation, but not intercourse. What stopped it, of course, was the arrival of our hero, Jubai. Just as Tessai was about to get really nasty with Kagero, Jubai appears in the room asking for directions.

Tessai tells him to go away and Jubai, of course, refuses. A fight ensues and Kagero escapes with Jubai. It is then that she goes and reports to her master. Between these two sex scenes we have a lovely night-time conversation between Jubai and Kagero where fireflies mill about. Kagero walks off, stumbles and falls, and begins crying – about what?

As she’s crying her vision lights on a single firefly and we see its luminescent organ turn off and on and then, WHAMO!, there’s a quick cut to the face and noises of the woman beneath the chamberlain. Of course, Kagero is as subject to the chamberlain as the woman he’s having sex with.

So, by this point in the film we’ve seen two very different versions of sex. First of all, they are visually different. But they are also different in their relationship to the social order. One takes place within that order, the other is outside that order. The film clearly rejects both. It’s taking its place somewhere outside that order.

What is there in this world outside of being raped by a man-mountain and having sex with a government official? There’s the relationship between Jubai and Kagero. Jubai is outside The System. But he gets drawn into the plot by a Tokugawa spy who poisons him. What’s the antidote to the poison? As the movie unfolds we learn that having sex with Kagero is the antidote. Her body is poisoned from all the things she’s eaten as official food taster. Her body will cure Jubai. But when she offers herself to him – freely, outside the bonds of either physical coercion or legitimate official privilege – he refuses. He isn’t interested in sex that is offered out of a sense of moral obligation, even if it means his life.

Think about that. While Tessai seemed to get some raw physical pleasure, it’s not clear to me that the Chamberlain was doing anything more than simply wielding power; after all, the act wasn’t compelling enough to preclude having an official conversation. And now Jubai gets an offer, and he turns it down. He’s obviously on a different moral planet from those other two men. And that, of course, is at the heart of the story.

It is only later in the movie, when Kagero is dying, that Jubai kisses her. And that, presumably, was enough to cure him. And thus he emerges alive at the end of the movie, and still free of The System. He alone saw Kagero as a woman, not as a ninja functionary, and that is why she fell in love with him and offered herself to him. Why did he refuse? That would have been a selfish act on his part; he respected Kagero too much to use her in that way, even if that’s what she wanted.

So, love conquers all. Except that Kagero is dead while Jubai remains alive.

There are, of course, many more scenes in the movie. And I certainly don’t want to attempt to deal with them all. But there is a thematic issue I’ve got to deal with – one which, I suspect, infuses all the scenes. That issue is purity and pollution – Mary Douglas’s territory (if you haven’t read Purity and Danger, you should; you’ll find it quite useful in dealing with this kind of material).

I’ve already mentioned that Kagero was officially a food taster. That she was looking for impurities. In consequence, she had herself become impure, which is what allowed her to cure Jubai. For Jubai had been coerced into the action by poison. A spy for the Tokugawa shogunate poisoned him and promised him the antidote only if he helped the spy against the Dark Shogun.

As the movie opens Shimoda village is hit with a plague, another form of impurity. It later turns out that it wasn’t plague at all, it was poison introduced into the well by minions of the Dark Shogun. What’s the Dark Shogun up to? He trying to overthrow the legitimate social order. As Mary Douglas will tell you, taboos, beliefs about pure and impure things, are ultimately about the social order.

So the Dark Shogun is up to no good. But what, specifically, are his minions doing at this village? They’re trying to secure a shipment of gold that had become grounded near the village. What’s the gold for? The Dark Shogun is going to send it to Spain in exchange for the latest weapons, which he’ll then use to defeat the legitimate government.

Now, to you and me, Spain is a moderately exotic nation in Southern Europe. To the Japanese, I suspect that Spain might as well be The West. So at one level Jubai has been drafted into an action intended to protect Japan from being further polluted by the West.

Back to those fireflies. They are fairly prominent in several scenes as I recall. And I will suggest that they stand in contrast to the wasps, which are used as weapons by one of the Dark Shogun’s henchmen. Wasps contain poison in stingers at the rear of their body. By contrast, fireflies emit light from the rear of their body. So even the insects have been recruited into this parable of purity and pollution in which love conquers all.

Except death.

And so it goes, symbols within symbols. And all this within an action-adventure popcorn-muncher of a cartoon. Tricky stuff, these movies.


  1. Awesome read, I'm glad I stumbled across this article, good job!

  2. cool story bro, could have used dragon's and shit.

  3. yay~~ i liked this!

  4. Good anime should be inspected and dissected in this manner. Perhaps one day western animators will be taken seriously and allowed to produced art instead of shallow marketing vehicles. Jolly good review.

  5. I've no idea how I stumbled across this article. I saw Jūbei Ninpūchō and was interested in reading the IMDB article about it, but instead wound up here, and I'm glad I did.

    I was wondering if you noticed these metaphors while (re-)watching the film, or if they slowly dawn upon you afterwards? And I'd also like to know your opinion about the Japanese films and their style. Like you said in the introduction, there is a huge contrast in anime films like this typical tale of a hero slaying whatever is thrown his way and upholding the virtues of the White Knight, and a story like Spirited Away, or any of Miyazaki's beautiful, dreamy (or nightmarish) works.

    Personally I wonder if this violent, sexual and rather bizarre nature is one cultivated in Japan, or if it is inherent to mankind itself. I think we Westerners might have simply embraced the part that is deontologically correct (according to Western ethics, anyway) more and oppressed the extremes of it. We see sex in almost every single one of our adds, violence is something common in our media too, but it's rare to see films as gruesome or sexually abusive as certain Japanese films. Do we fear confronting ourselves with the animals within, or are we just a bit less violent and twisted? Or would that be fooling ourselves?

  6. Hi Jeroen,

    Glad you dropped by. And I'm especially glad you commented so intelligently on this post, which is by far the most popular one on the sight.

    As for how I noticed the features I comment upon, I did my basic work on the film some time ago, a couple years before I did this post, so I don't quite remember how it went. I'm sure that I viewed the film for a second or third time before writing up notes, and I also examined the relevant scenes fairly closely. I couldn't have done this work without a DVD player (my computer, actually).

    As for anime in general, about all I can say in the space of a comment is that it's a whole aesthetic world with many different styles. The Ghost in the Shell franchise is yet a different style from Miyazaki and from Kawajiri, and then we have something like Little Snow Fairy Sugar, which is every bit as saccharine as the title suggests and yet which deals with a young girl's grief for her dead mother.

    As for the sexuality and violence, that's a very tricky issue. I'd say that, yes, both are "cultivated" in Japanese art, cultivated in the sense that Japanese takes sexuality and violence, and sexual violence, seriously and so treats them carefully. But there's no evidence that the Japanese are themselves particularly sexually violent. Here you should look at Perper, T. and M. Cornog. (2002) Eroticism for the masses: Japanese manga comics and their assimilation into the U.S. Sexuality & Culture, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 3-126 (Special Issue).

    And, yes, we Westerners ARE fooling ourselves about our sexuality, and our violence.

    1. Thanks for the swift reply (I bookmarked this page just for that) and thank you for your opinion and the referenced works that deal with the topic.

      I do wonder though, if it really is true that the Japanese aren't more violent in their sexual, and perhaps even in their general behaviour. I'm sure you also know of the atrocities in China during World War II, which were extremely similar to the things that happen in parts of Africa these days. Rape and massacre as a weapon of terror; something that hasn't occurred in Europe or Northern-America in many centuries. However, if it did, I don't know of it anyway and I'll have to excuse myself.

      But even that wouldn't really conclusively determine if bloody violence really is just part of their culture, or if it is more inherent to the people themselves. And this is really what I'd like to know. If I was brought up in Japan, a very civilized country but with a very different culture than my own Belgian one, would I share exactly the same vision the average Japanese 25-year old would have, or are some values & preferences actually predetermined in our DNA? And if so, how much influence do both factors have?

      This is probably a question where the experts will never completely agree with each other, and one that is quite a sensitive topic. Because I'm by no means trying to imply the Japanese are a cruel people, but I can understand people read that in between the lines of what I said. I'm just interested in why evolution made cultures what they are and if our DNA is actually behind much of it, if the situation and geography of the culture is the most determining factor or if DNA adapts to that situation in a very meaningful way. I'm sure the latter is a fact, it's pretty much the thesis of Darwin's philosophy, but I wonder in what measure it is so.

      In any way, it's all stuff worth thinking about, but it's also a very sensitive topic that needs an extra careful approach. I also share your opinion that we Westerners are restraining our sexuality to 'fit in', though I'm quite happy I'm all for romantic and tender sex :) And I just realize I drifted very much off-topic here, so I'll keep it at that.

      Kind regards from Belgium and I look forward to more of your reviews,


    2. Rape and massacre as a weapon of terror; something that hasn't occurred in Europe or Northern-America in many centuries. However, if it did, I don't know of it anyway and I'll have to excuse myself.

      Then you've got some reading to do. While the Japanese were murdering the Chinese in WWII the Germans were exterminating the Jews and the Russians. And then there's the sordid history of Western colonialism, which caused untold death and mayham throughout North and South America, Asia, and Africa over the last three or four centuries.

      I'm just interested in why evolution made cultures what they are and if our DNA is actually behind much of it, if the situation and geography of the culture is the most determining factor or if DNA adapts to that situation in a very meaningful way.

      On this my standard analogy is that of a game such as chess. Biology provides the pieces, the game board, and the rules. Human culture dictates the larger strategy of playing the game.

      The constraints of biology are as real as those of chess. Bishops can’t move rectilinearly, rooks can’t move diagonally, and pawns can only move one or two spaces at a time. Similarly, reproduction requires two, death is inevitable, and oxygen is a requirement of life. Unyielding thoough these constraints are, there is much freedom in playing chess and there is much freedom in organizing human society. Culture trumps biology every time.

    3. I'm aware of the colonial atrocities and of course of the Holocaust massacre and I guess you're right that those are enough proof to show we're hardly saints ourselves. I even thought of a third example: the Balkan wars. My father used to work with a man from Kosovo who was one of those handymen that could do everything: carpentering, masonry, you name it. He and his wife sometimes came over for coffee and lunch at our place, and they told stories about how Serbian and Kosovar soldiers alike pillaged villages and did atrocious things to their enemies. The man said how he saw his brother shot before his eyes on the street, while his wife told of the cruelties she and her sister had to endure at the hands of the Serbian soldiers.

      I guess it's not that we've come a long way since our barbaric days of the Middle-Ages, because we hardly have when the stakes are against us. It's that in wars like both world wars in Europe, there was at least some sort of respect for the enemy, so brutal behavior towards citizens was at a minimum. When there's sheer hatred for one another, all civilized behavior disappears. The most extreme Nazis vs. the peoples they hated (not just the Jews), the often extremely condescending and racist colonial attitude and most recently, the Balkan Wars.

      But just like I'm convinced not all of the Japanese soldiers thought the Chinese were less than animals, I'm sure most Germans certainly didn't want the mass-extinction of so many people either. The colonials in Africa of the 19th and 20th centuries indeed felt superior, but they often liked the people there too and wanted to impose their lifestyle to them, because that's what they thought was best for them. I guess those kinds of colonials were acting like strict parents to their children, though some of them were just cruel racist bastards, and would've preferred the entire population to be erased.

      I like your comparison of culture and biology to chess, and I largely agree. But there's certainly a genetic difference between the average Joe from one part of the world and the average Joe from another. And I don't just mean the colour of our skin or hair, but rather the psychological characteristics of certain races. I believe everything and everyone has evolved to be as successful as possible in their environment, which is obvious. But that means that in a climate that requires creativity and empathy to survive, people who are intelligent and caring (and this is largely part of your upbringing as well, but definitely also partly genetic) will thrive. In a culture where success is largely determined by physical dominance, the stronger and more aggressive individuals will rule.

      So basically, I think that the chessboard is almost identical for humans throughout the world, but the pieces aren't 100% the same. That's why I initially wondered if the Japanese are born with a taste of violence more than people elsewhere, or if it is a thing bred in the culture. I think I realize now that it's not that the Japanese are a more cruel people than others, but their style of portraying evil things is much more honest than ours. We shy away from showing very graphic violence, sexual and purely physical, because it disgusts us and we aren't used to displaying that. But deep down, I think all people in the world have some corrupted and sick thoughts. Some more than others, but in general I've now convinced myself that it's not that Japanese films (etc.) are often so cruel and bloody because they are a cruel race, but because they allow their fears, their nightmarish ideas to be displayed freely, with little restriction, unlike the Western arts. Come to think of it, it's controversial that the Japanese, traditionally a very closed and strict people, are so expressive now. Maybe these sort of films are a way of reacting to that traditional culture of holding back your emotions and thoughts to fit in the society.

    4. These comments sent to me by Tim Perper might be useful to you:

      For Japan, sexuality is lodged not in Calvinism or Puritanism nor in Eurocentric conservative/reactionary Roman Catholicism but in a long agricultural history admixed with Shinto and Buddhism. In certain forms, Buddhism can seem anti-sexual, but over the centuries, Japanese Buddhist thought has become far far more complex than any simple Puritanesque formula can convey. It is therefore a fundamental aesthetic principle in manga (and anime deriving from manga) that sexuality is intrinsic to the substance of the cosmos itself, meaning that it is embedded in all reality. This vision of sexuality is, in my experience, quite alien to what many people in the US believe about sex and about art, and such viewers are often profoundly startled, and sometimes disturbed, by the ways sexuality is portrayed in manga and anime. "We" -- meaning us in the US -- do NOT draw cartoons like that. In particular, US viewers are often very puzzled by the portrayals of female sexuality in manga as a natural, inevitable, and intrinsic component of the life of girls and women.

    5. In the sexual violence subject that the westerns were, in thesis, a little more sensitive, we have the My Lai Massacre that shows the exact opposite:

  7. Here's a thought about death - Gemma conquers it. And in a sense, love does also conquer death, because it saves Jubei from death, even though it can't save Kagero - but that seems to imply more that death is about impurity... she is impure, thus love cannot save her, but Jubei is pure and thus is saved by their love.

    So if impurity leads to death, what's up with Gemma who never dies? My thinking is that Gemma is either so impure, so vile and evil that his impurity goes all the way to the end of the impure spectrum and then wraps around again to pure (the purest impurity); or he's basically achieved such a high level of ninja skill that he has created a "forced" purity where he is so in tune with (or in violation of) the orders of the world that he can "mechanically" make himself technically pure through ninja technique and force of will.

    Either way, Gemma is clearly the ultimate evil because he achieves this purity without having to be good or moral in any way, so it's the ultimate disruption of every man-made and natural order in the world (as he demonstrates by trying to establish his own order). In the end, the only thing that can wipe out his impure purity is the most pure purity. Not even Jubei can defeat him with all of his pure rage and pure love - the only thing that can stop Gemma is molten gold; the purity of fire burning him, the purest and most precious metal of the earth encasing him, and the cold, deep, pure water of the ocean entombing him for an eternally undying hell of darkness and silence. There could be a case made for a combination of the Japanese and Chinese elements destroying him: they share earth, fire, and water, but differ on wood, metal, air, and spirit - though all of these were present at his end (I do recall him being staked by a bunch of wood).

    Another note: it's not 100% certain, but Gemma may be already posing as the Chamberlain when he's having legitimate sex. This might be another angle to consider, as the only people having sex may be the Devils of Kimon. The entire act of sex itself may be an impurity, whether it's part of a moral order or not. There might even be a case to be made that morality and impurity are not mutually exclusive; doing the right thing may still be corrupting, damaging, and polluting.

  8. No episode, just the film itself.

  9. What a wild chronology, Bill:

    A post dated "Saturday, September 6, 2014" which claims "Since I originally posted it on Sept. 18, 2014 that makes it roughly four years old" and with comments from as early as March 8, 2011!

    The URL claims it's a post from 2010/09/, too.

    Me, I like it -- but I suppose you may want to tinker with some of the details.

    1. Thanks for the catch, Charles. I fixed the date.

  10. For me and in the country where I live both scenes are illegitimate sex. The second woman seems to be a prostitute so is a sexual violence victim too. No matter her consent...