Burning the single story: how modern Japanese art shatters relativist myths

A scene in My Love Has Been Burning (Waga Koi wa Moenu) where one woman, Chiyo, burns down the joint.

A scene in My Love Has Been Burning (Waga Koi wa Moenu) where one woman, Chiyo, burns down the joint. (And yes, they did, in fact, have it coming.)

The month-long retrospective of Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s films at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York provides for a unique angle of vision on the role of women in both cinema and society—as well as an overdue consideration of whether or not feminism is truly a “Western” phenomenon.

Watching them as a woman of color was a fascinating exercise in self-discovery and a reminder of why cultural relativism can be so deleterious to our empowerment; shuffling different peoples of color into separate silos not only denies us empathy with whites, but with each other, and cribs our ability to learn and grow together. Cultural relativism would hold that I, as a Puerto Rican lass who grew up on the Mainland, have nothing to learn from the experience of Japanese women, and that “feminism” was an imperialist intervention upon non-Western peoples; Mizoguchi’s cinema, as well as modern Japanese literature, puts the lie to both.

Mizoguchi, relatively esoteric today to Anglophone audiences, was a passionate feminist writer and director whose black-and-white images of gendered society were at once Spartan and elaborate. From shoestring budgets he created masterpieces that still unnerve 21st century sensibilities. Were he a woman pitching ideas for these films today, he’d doubtlessly be castigated as a shrill and strident harpy by an industry whose male dominion is itself a fitting subject for a Mizoguchi film.

For him, the subjugation of women was the ball and chain to all human progress and was an especially sonorous leitmotif in Japanese history. There is a pessimistic sorrow to his often angry films, but they are hopeful in ways that should interest modern feminist audiences: they furnish us with painterly images of forthright and unbowed women; women who take refuge in one another; women who are activists; women who are not bound by essentialism or traditionalism. Mizoguchi’s 1949 historical drama, My Love Has Been Burning (Waga Koi wa Moenu), is powerfully resonant across oceans and decades. It depicts Japan in the throes of political transformation, leading in 1890, to the nation’s first elections. Our heroine is Eiko Hirayama, a women’s rights activist who runs a school and has ties to the revolutionary Liberal Party.

The drama that unfolds is drearily familiar to anyone on the feminist Left. Men give stentorian speeches in public that extol the rights of all oppressed peoples, but quietly forget about women’s rights when the chips are down; never mind how they treat the women in their movements in private. Hirayama finds herself betrayed by her family, her Party, the men she loved, her country and its nascent constitution.

The story does not necessarily dwell overmuch on character in the psychodramatic sense. Instead, it makes a living, breathing thing out of the oppression of women—detailing everything from micro-aggressive slurs and objectifying glances, to rape, torture, and political imprisonment. Reinforced like rivets into a steel hull is the clear, unambiguous vision of women’s subjugation being the iron cage of modern society.

Hirayama’s parting soliloquy to her soon-to-be ex partner, the Liberal Party leader Kentaro Omoi, who sold out women in public and in private, is unsentimental and toweringly impersonal and makes a manifesto of the film:

“It’s not a personal matter. It affects all women. You’ll say that it’s useless to fight alone; that is the reason I must leave you. As long as men won’t consider women to be human beings, and keep treating them like domestic tools, there can be no freedom or ‘rights of the people.’ I leave you these words of hope as a farewell gift.”

The unfolding story tracks both the triumph of women’s consciousness and the litany of broken promises that characterize early modern Japanese history. Hirayama evokes women like Kita Kusunose—the “grandma of people’s rights” for arguing that she had a right to vote—or the scholar and lecturer Toshiko Kishida. The betrayals of the Liberal Party and Omoi evoke the laws against adultery that came into force in 1880, or Article 5 of the 1900 Police Security Regulations which banned women and children from joining political organizations or even attending political rallies. Just as in the West, patriarchy’s current shape is less timeless than it was an innovation of an industrial and imperial era. The 19th Century was a crossroads at which societies on both sides of the Pacific chose the patriarchal on-ramp.

And this, indeed, is very much the point. A perverse kind of Orientalism persists in many leftist circles in the West that treats non-Western “others” as possessing an essentialized, simple, unchanging culture entirely impervious to discussions of gender equity. In response to the neo-colonialist and imperialist impulses of those who misuse gender politics, like American presidents who see local patriarchies as a bullseye for drones and invasions, many Leftists simply give a film-negative impression of the situation that substitutes violent interventionism for moral handwashing.

Gender equity is for white Europeans only, it seems, and there were never any women of color who spoke for themselves and put the lie to the essentialist fantasy of “authenticity” in non-Western societies.

Mizoguchi’s films are a moving reminder that, as historian Kaneko Sachiko puts it, “in the face of such prevailing [patriarchal] attitudes, many Japanese women struggled for their rights.” Feminism—broadly defined, at least—was not an imperialist import, but rather something that arose from humanistic self-determination amongst Japanese women themselves. This is noteworthy to recall because the relativistic impulse that essentializes non-white women as alien others also prevents white activists from learning from such women’s experiences. Their own dogma teaches them that we have nothing to say that is in any way relevant to their lives or praxis.

The cultural relativism that is de rigueur on the left today is, unsurprisingly, not truly a creation of women of color, and its proudest exponents tend to be white activists who wish to tout their anti-racist bona fides. They understand us so well that they assert we cannot be understood. Needless to say, this always left your Boricua correspondent rather cold; I never much liked being thought of as an alien whose strange culture and strange ways could be tolerated, fetishized, but never understood as human in the same way white activists get to be human—diverse, irrational, incongruous, colorful and contradictory.

We get saddled with what Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of the single story.”

The danger of this lies not only in its insulting indifference to the cultural diversity of any society dominated by people of color, but also in how it silos us into essentialist categories that can never be bridged. Yet, as I watched My Love Has Been Burning I found myself relating to Hirayama or seeing my mother in Chiyo. Something stirred in me when Hirayama’s father bitterly lectured her, telling her “daughters don’t argue with their fathers!”—something I’ve heard one too many times, myself. These were women I could relate to, who I learned from and whose lives said something about my own—it was a transcendental picture of the very humanity denied me by relativism, that essentializes the wit and rebellion of these women as somehow inherently Western.

As if it could never belong to us.

“I’m ready to fight with all my heart for women’s true happiness,” Eiko Hirayama vows at the end of My Love Has Been Burning. I’d proudly call her “sister,” and no cultural difference or historical gap could efface that.

The film itself has an epigraph from the director, proclaiming it to be “a call to future generations for true women’s liberation.” We’d do well to answer that call.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross has no single story.

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