By Corey Birkhofer
Angel Dust, Japan, 1994
Directed by Sogo Ishii
Feminism and its viewpoints on the portrayal of woman in the history of film focus primarily on patriarchy and how it functions to reinforce the status of women in any given society. This status is one of submissiveness to men and undying conformity to the good of the male-dominated social system. Since film could simply be said to be a visual medium that is chiefly influenced by the culture from which it spawns, then the societal practices within said culture are transferred to film, and thus influence and reinforce the individuals who see them. In the case of film noir, the presence of patriarchal influence is more than evident, and in Sogo Ishii’s 1994 film noir, Angel Dust, we see what happens to those who conform and those who do not in a patriarchal society.
Film noir is a French term literally meaning “black film.” The name, coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, captures the essence of this style of Hollywood filmmaking. “In fashioning film noir,” Frank says, “Hollywood borrowed heavily from the expressionist film techniques and lighting used by German directors in the 1920s.”
However, despite the low-key lighting and dark, shadowy, contrasting images reminiscent of German Expressionist films, Frank also saw the influence of French Poetic Realist films. “In the ’30s poetic realism,” he states, “with its moody sense of suspended lives on the verge of doom, perfectly expressed a nation’s fatalism and despair.” Thus, with the two styles combined the famous term was born. Emerging during a time when post-war France was starting to watch a lot of American films in the 1940s, film noir is oftentimes thought of as an actual genre. Complete with its own common codes, themes and settings, “it will rely upon a system of well defined conventions and expectations like other genre-defined movies.” But in the opinion of many (including myself), film noir is simply a style of filmmaking that emerged in America and reigned throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Therefore, due to the specific time frame in which film noir prevailed, the nature of the style is very patriarchal.
Fresh out of the war, America was in an economic explosion. Money was being earned and spent like never before. America was fast heading towards its current state of hyper-consumerism. Even more important, though, in regards to society, is how women, who were once needed in the factories for building the war machine, were now expected to give up their jobs and return to the home. The home, being seen as the “proper” place for women in the eyes of a patriarchal society, was where they belonged. Here again women were being corralled into their expected place. But why was the home considered the expected place for women to be? Why were men seen as the providers while women were the dutiful homemakers? The summarized answer is simply this: patriarchal society programs individuals into believing they have a “proper” place, and leads them to believe that there is no alternative other than the status quo. And in the case of film noir, two very differing types of female roles are commonly portrayed, as well as the consequences of their conforming, or not conforming, to the patriarchal way of life.
These two types of female character archetypes in film noir are none other the whore and the madonna. The whore in this case is also known as the femme fatale. The madonna, on the other hand, is the femme fatale’s opposite; she is typically a saintly and patriarchally submissive housewife. The important element of these two archetypes is that the femme fatale is portrayed as the “wrong choice” for the hero of the film, while the madonna is totally devoted to her husband (the hero) and considered the “right” choice in the moral dilemma of who the male protagonist should pick in the end.
In Sogo Ishii’s film Angel Dust, although the two female character archetypes are present, the typical genders have of course been switched. Instead of a femme fatale there is a homme fatale, Rei Aku (Takeshi Wakamatsu), while the madonna archetype is even more altered, being the hermaphrodite Tomoo (Etsushi Toyokawa). Ishii takes this even further by having the typically male protagonist, Setsuko Suma, played by a female (Kaho Minami). But despite all of the “gender-switching” in Angel Dust, the film still retains the noir style. What’s even more compelling is that the character archetypes, while retaining their underlying function in the film noir style, also retain the overall representation of their function in a contemporary patriarchal society. However, one character, Setsuko, is very unique in comparison to the typical portrayal of women in film noir, not to mention the cinematic portrayal of women in general.
At the beginning of Angel Dust, we are introduced to a very masculine Setsuko. Because she is the only woman present when she walks into the massive police conference hall, she commands the attention of all the men before her. But she keeps her composure, and in a very “man-like” way takes her position amongst the other detectives. Already we are shown that for a woman to be accepted into an environment such as this, she has to take on “manly” traits. This, from a feminist perspective, shows that, in other words, one must take on the traits of a man in order to assert any power in one’s environment. As the film progresses, we are shown more of Setsuko’s personality. In one scene, we learn that Setsuko smokes and drinks only when she is on a case. Cigarettes, from a psychoanalytic angle, are looked at as very phallic in nature, and when smoking, not only are oral fixations satisfied, but the desire to assert oneself into an environment, to take up space, to extend one’s existence (symbolized by the smoke) out into the world, is achieved. The fact that Setsuko smokes only when on a case is simply the film hinting at how she needs to take on the traits of a man (smoking) in order not only to work in a man’s world, but to be able to solve the cases brought to her. Here again, it is subtly reinforced that men are the gender meant to dominate the world.
As the film introduces the whore and madonna archetypes, we are shown an interesting switch of the genders commonly connected with these roles. As mentioned before, the femme fatale is actually a homme fatale. Despite his being a man, within the functions of the femme fatale in classic film noir, Rei’s role falls perfectly in line. Simply put, he represents everything that is wrong or negative in Setsuko’s life. He is not only the mastermind of the serial killings, he is also the distraction from Tomoo, the madonna archetype. Also in line with film noir, in the film’s conclusion he brings about the destruction (in this case psychological) of the protagonist.
As for the madonna archetype Tomoo, despite his being a hermaphrodite, his role more or less remains in line with film noir’s conventions. He is the source of Setsuko’s stability, he is completely devoted to her, and he represents the right choice in the dilemma of who the protagonist should choose. And in nearly every scene he is in, he has what patriarchy would deem womanly traits. He cooks for Setsuko, grows flowers for her, and is there to receive all the emotional baggage she picks up while she’s out in the harsh and cruel world. However, it is in this neediness, this basic thirst for human contact that, from a patriarchal perspective, reveals Setsuko’s femininity. Furthermore, in the film’s conclusion we see how Setsuko’s earlier personality traits are affected and altered by the homme fatale. However, before completely analyzing the film’s conclusion, there is one other important female character in Angel Dust who deserves analysis as well. This is none other than the cold and sterile assassin Yuki Takei (Ryoko Takizawa).
When we first meet Yuki in the film, we are shown how weak, how hysterically emotional and “feminine” she is. Through the use of tapes documenting her “therapy,” we get an intimate view into who the assassin was before her brainwashing had taken full effect. First of all, it is made obvious that she carries a great amount of guilt. It is also made evident that she has relied on the Ultimate Truth Church religious cult to give her life meaning. In the tapes we see Rei attempt to convince her that she has been brainwashed by the church. In one scene, it is shown that Yuki blames herself for the death of her mother. “I tried to save mother,” she cries, “but a bee stung me.” Rei later uses her guilt to his advantage at the film’s conclusion, manipulating Yuki to commit suicide. More important, though, is the fact that here again, Rei, a man, is controlling a woman. He is exerting his force on her and using her to carry out his whims. But despite Rei’s manipulation, Yuki still has a lot of power, and in the views of a patriarchal society, a woman who has too much power should be put in her “proper” place. So with this analysis it can be seen that, in a way, Yuki is another possible example of the whore in the film. She is worthy enough to be used by a man, but she is not deserving of his love, because only good and honest girls can receive compassion. Patriarchal society doesn’t reward women who exert too much power; it rewards women who submissively conform to their proper place beneath the domination of men.
Returning to the protagonist, however, as mentioned earlier, Setsuko shows very masculine traits in the beginning of the film. But as the interaction with her former lover increases, it becomes evident that even though their relationship has been over for quite some time, Rei still has power over Setsuko. As the film nears its conclusion, in a very brief scene we see Setsuko standing still in a crowded subway. As the camera shows various people moving about, Rei appears from the crowd. He confidently walks towards Setsuko and stares intently at her as he walks by. It is hard to tell if he even touches her or does anything more than make fierce eye contact, but the point in this scene is that Rei, a man, has been in control at all times. He has been calling the shots from the opening scene. He knows where Setsuko is at all times, whether on the phone at the Ultimate Truth Church or home alone without Tomoo there to support her. In other words, he has complete control over her.
When he passes by her in the subway and she subsequently falls down a moment later, Rei is, for lack of a better term, claiming his woman. “You are mine,” he might as well say. We next meet up with Setsuko in a recovery ward of some kind. Clearly she has had a breakdown, and the only person who she believes can help her to be normal again is not only the homme fatale, but the one she sees as the only man for her: Rei Aku. In the final scenes of the film, we see Setsuko as the complete opposite of her once strong and masculine self. She has been reduced to the patriarchal stereotype of what women are: emotionally needy and hysterical people. Basically, the conclusion of Angel Dust shows that Setsuko is convinced she needs Rei to go on. Because she is convinced of this, and with Yuki and her husband now dead, Setsuko submits to the manipulative Rei Aku.
Obviously, since film noir emerged and predominated during a time when America was even more patriarchal than it is today, the style has many patriarchal elements. Whether the creators of these films knew what they were doing, or if it was unintentional, the codes and conventions in film noir speak for themselves. But as the 1950s drew to a close, so did the abundance of noir films. Over the years, of course, there have been remakes of classic noir films, as well as new spins on the classic codes and conventions, but because classic film noir is so much a part of the ’40s and ’50s, the essence of the style can never fully be recaptured. In the case of films like Angel Dust, we have a perfect example of a contemporary twist on classic noir conventions. However, even though Sogo Ishii proves that it is possible to make a new twist on classic film noir, Angel Dust still cannot transcend the patriarchal nature of film noir in general. This is especially evident in the style’s portrayal of women in that it shows their destructive struggle for independence as a response to the restrictions that men place on them. As Angel Dust shows us in its treatment of Setsuko, Yuki and women overall, when women struggle for that independence, when they challenge the rules and norms of the patriarchal status quo, simply put, they must be punished.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com