Features — 16 November 2011 » Written by
OCCUPY NOWHERE: <i>A Woman with Red Hair</i>

The Woman’s hair was reddish blonde. Lifeless and fake-looking. The color suited her rough skin.” 1

If the first Pinku eiga one saw were Kumashiro Tatsumi’s The Woman With Red Hair, one would be starting arguably at the top, as he is considered to have brought the form to an artistic height.  The Woman With Red Hair, recently screened at the 2011 NY Film Festival, is an adaptation of Nakagami Kenji’s equally spare short story Red Hair, which entails little more than a grueling sexual marathon between Kozo (Ishibashi Renji), a rugged construction worker with no conscience, and the nameless redheaded woman (Miyashita Junko) he picks up on the road, as the two escape working-class malaise and personal history.  In many ways it stands as the basest most extraction of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris (1974), the inspiration for which is that Bertolucci once dreamed of seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was.  Though described here in detail, the joy of Kumashiro’s film is not spoiled at all by foreknowledge.  Its utterly earthly expression is its purpose.  The Woman With Red Hair should be seen for its gritty non-intellectualism, where that sole concentration on the body, absent of any morality or “story,” is absolute.

The opening sequence says a great deal rather simply.  With the camera set low, the redheaded woman walks toward us astride cars and trucks in the middle of a busy road.  Framed by the ground and the arc of a distant overpass, she emerges from behind the crest of the road.  Just as in the opening lines of the book (written above), the first visual detail is the woman’s hair.  The woman is established immediately as an object (the hair), and as a motion contrary to the industrial currents of the day (a meaning more significant to Kozo [the driver of the truck in question] than herself).  Cut to a shot that scans the ocean and the surrounding seaside industrial landscape, and ends on the emergence of an oncoming truck.  Elegantly quick editing captures the woman and the truck’s crossing with a sense of electricity.  After the freeze-frame title, the film cuts to a close-up of dirt being dumped from that same truck at a construction site.  The sounds of heavy machinery resound.

Kozo; Marlon Brando to the redhead’s Maria Schneider, is introduced with every bit of his malingering and unscrupulous character on display.  Kozo delivers the truck and conspires with his friend/coworker Takao (Ato Kai) to leave early.  A young woman, yet to be named, sidles Takao to give him a lunch.  He is indifferent.  These events are intercut with another sequence in which Kozo and Takao (in different clothes) have secluded this same young woman in what looks like a seaside parking-garage and gang rape her.  The oppositional sounds of the ocean during the rape, and of machinery during the excavation, amplify the already disjunctive nature of the time/place shifts and establish a kind of seasick violence to both acts.  The back and forth cutting conceals how Kumashiro favors the “long take,” and prefers simply to slowly zoom in and out, or apply handheld techniques to keep actions immediate.  The events at the construction site emerge as the present.  Driving away, Kozo and Takao reveal through ebullient conversation that the rape occurred three months prior and that the woman victimized – the woman who now clamors for Takao’s attention – is their boss’s daughter Kazuko (Ako).

In as unsavory and pointed a way as John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), sexual rape is used to reflect the rape of resources (material and human).  Herein lies the film’s subtext – a vague but physical revelation about the rapacious development of ¾ century Japan earned on the backs of laborers who feel no connection to the result, or even the process. “Buildings come down and go up at a pace unmatched in other cities of the world; six months’ absence from a major Tokyo district is sometimes enough to render it virtually unrecognizable.” 2 To underscore this point during the rape, Kazuko realizes the futility of her resistance and shouts “Okay okay!! But not here.”  Kozo replies, “Any place’s the same,” and the rape continues as planned.  The backfire comes later when Kazuko, the brunt of some revenge act against her father’s rule of law, becomes pregnant and expects Takao to “take responsibility.”  Her logic dictates that Takao is the father because he was the first one inside her.  This thread ironically produces the only opportunity for tenderness in the whole film because Takao eventually rises to the occasion, and the two bolt to Kyoto to start a new scraping life together.

“The days when a laborer rhythmically dug a hole and mixed cement with a shovel were over.  In three or four hours an excavator could do the work of five men working three days.  …Instead of swinging a pick you pulled a handle.  Though he [Kozo] loved cruising around in trucks, [He] hated being sent out by the company to operate excavators and bulldozers at other work sites.” 1

Later that day, Kozo picks up the redheaded woman at a gas station bus stop in the rain, not realizing they had passed earlier.  He brings her back to his squalid cramped apartment, and the two commence a symbiotic coital escapade devoid of identity.  As long as the rains defer construction jobs, Kozo and the redhead isolate themselves indefinitely.  Their malaise is existential but their ultimate act of reclusion is diverting rather than introspective.  Uniquely, Kozo and the redhead understand and assert that very aversion.  Whenever they feel an admission or inquiry bubbling up, they dive into antidotal sex acts as a proxy.  What raises the couple’s entrenchment above a mere exercise in salacious misogyny (a benchmark of the Pink Film industry) is their intent towards mutual exploitation and adherence to anonymity (another quality shared with Last Tango).

Kumashiro presents his content not intellectually, but within a framing that is bodily.  Thus it is dangerous to flirt too strongly with conceptualization when discussing The Woman With Red Hair without overstepping the bounds of a story deliberately concerned with surface values. French conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin of the Philadelphia Orchestra poignantly observes of his own discipline, “the first quality of a conductor is to be absolutely without afterthought, without anything between the mind and the gesture. As soon as we start to think about the physicality of the thing, I think we are lost.”

Nakagami, author of the source novella, is even more insistent of the redhead’s anonymity than Kumashiro, simply calling the story Red Hair and not The Woman With…, she is defined by façade even in the title.  Only the fact that she has two children (one three years and the other four), the impression that she is escaping an abusive relationship, and that she learned her favorite sexual position from her husband, are expressed.  Yet Kumashiro makes it stirringly evident that her history claws from within.  Director and author alike, fully appreciate the potential of withholding her history.  The audiences’ curiosity is activated without ever being satiated.  All throughout, torrents of emotion swell within the redhead and in true bipolarity, they spurt out of her in sudden episodes of tears, which she alternates with sexual elation and banal conversation.

“On the way home from Sakoto’s [Kozo’s Cousin] house, the woman wept.  But Kozo had no interest in finding out about the woman’s past.  All he needed was a warm body….The woman washed her tear streaked face at the sink and dried it with a towel, and a few minutes later spoke in a voice that sounded as if it was someone else who had been weeping so pitifully.”1 Kozo does in fact wonder about her past, with a shallow insecurity about the source of her sexual prowess, but he quells that curiosity, as does she, by diving into more unthinking sex.

With his short story Red Hair as no exception, author Nakagami Kenji (1946-1942) is venerated for giving voice to the Burakumin minority of Japan, himself a Burakumin – the prejudice against whom was virulent in the early to mid 20th century.  Nakagami speaks of alienation from within an unspoken alienation, and breaks open a gritty, unkempt, sexually unhindered, morally ambiguous swath of society.  Kumashiro’s film, made shortly after the publication of Red Hair, has the same brazen spirit of marginal individuals writhing in marginality, which cannot help but reflect something of Japan’s then-modernity.  Like the terseness of Nakagami’s prose, Kumashiro’s use of rough Kansai accents and carefree popular music places the film in time and buoys his characters’ evasions of a reality that is only ever shown in periphery.

The Woman With Red Hair is elementally diametric to an upcoming film in the OCCUPY NOWHERE column:  Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Woman in the Dunes (1964).  Where Red Hair – awash with rain, water, the sea, menstrual fluids, semen, sweat, saliva, urine – has fundamentally to do with saturation and evasion, Dunes pervades with depravation – sand, heat, dryness, scraping, the panic of a man imprisoned, and his industrious efforts to get out of a massive sand pit that he finds himself stuck in with a woman.  Both films have to do with forms of decay, and the fragmentation of human identity into body parts, instincts, and textures.  Both films depict in different measure, and with different meanings of the word “pleasure,” how “the search for pleasure involves taking hostages and exerting control over a limited environment when the world outside is beyond one’s control.”1 However the glaring divide is that Dunes’ captivity is forced, and Red Hair’s hostages are elective. (Zimmerman)

Kozo and the Redhead’s alienation is essentially nonparticipation-as-protest against working-class/status-quo distastes, and a reaction to the rapidity of change.  Kozo cares little for his specialized skill in the professional sphere because it is ultimately abstract to him.  In the interim of a rainy season that halts construction, Kozo is addicted to acts of penetration in the intimate sphere; in bed with the redhead where they perform all manner of sexual acts which are direct and appraisable to them both.  The film’s entire metaphoric potential is drawn across this thread; industry and construction which level history in architectural terms, parallel to sexuality which is here used to level the past in sensual terms.  The finitude of the couple’s escapism, and the fact that mitigating circumstances (the weather) have allowed that very escape, becomes clear to them.  The final lines of the film, uttered unexpectedly by the redhead reveal this awareness.  “It’s raining again, we can stay in bed all day.  But its not always going to rain like this.”

Nakagami ends his story where it began; with hair.  “The woman with red hair pressed her lips to Kozo’s throat.  Her lips were wet and unbelievably warm, thought Kozo. The red hair shone.”  Kumashiro interprets by freeze-framing the woman’s face and hair in a throw of pained ecstasy as the credits roll.  She remains an object…but an object by her own design.

1. Nakagami Kenji, Eve Zimmerman (translation by), “The Cape: and other stories from the Japanese ghetto.” Stone Bridge Press, 2008.

2. Donald Richie, “Introducing Japan.” Kodansha, 1978.

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Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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