In the Woods Beneath the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom (which is quite a mouthful so, from this point on, I shall refer to this arc simply as Cherry Blossoms) is a metaphorical story of man versus woman, rustic masculine ideality versus progressive feminine liberation.
Before we continue, I would like to warn you that I am attempting to go beyond a surface reading of the text. More importantly, I am not considering author intentionality (to be honest, this blog never has). I’m well aware of Ango Sakaguchi’s views, but authors often convey meanings they never intended. We could see Cherry Blossoms as a rant against modernization, urbanization, etc., but I think such a literal interpretation fails to account for many of the nuances in Madhouse’s complex adaptation. I am aiming for a more complete look at the arc. Please don’t disregard what follows as trolling or intellectual masturbation.
Shigemaru, the burly bandit with his amazing strength and speed, is essentially the lord of his forest kingdom. At the center of his power is his manliness.
He wields dominion over seven (if you include the loli-ish girl) women, but consider also how he defeats his opponents. By stripping men down to their underwear, he effectively emasculates them. For all his masculinity, however, Shigemaru is pathetically afraid of the blooming of sakura trees.
If manliness is Shigemaru’s power, the real threat behind the blooming sakura must be femininity.
Nothing could be more overt than the sakura tree bleeding from the inside out as if it is menstruating. More appropriately, the true threat to Shigemaru’s manliness is women’s “blooming liberation.” Women’s increase in power in an equilibrium means only one thing: the decrease in Shigemaru’s power.
It is rather curious at first glance, therefore, that Shigemaru should desire Woman (I don’t think her name was ever given so I’ll refer to her from this point on as Woman) to be his wife,
but recall that when he first meets Woman, a single sakura petal falls across the screen. She is, after all, from the city, the site of moral decadence. It is in the city where Shigemaru, as we shall see in the second episode of the arc, is absolutely impotent. His brute strength alone gives him no power where one can only survive with equal parts cunning and intelligence. Shigemaru immediately decides to take Woman to be his wife as an act of domination. If he could subjugate her, he could overcome his fears of women’s liberation and, therefore, the fear of his declining masculinity.
Note, however, that upon the unveiling of his new wife, Shigemaru’s expression changes from manly stoicism to shock and surprise, two vulnerable emotional states. I would surmise that what accompanies women’s blooming liberation is also a sense of psychosexual freedom. As a result, Shigemaru is stunned before her sexuality, allowing her to dominate him into fulfilling her every whims and desires.
What separates Cherry Blossoms from other “rawr girl power!” stories, however, is that Woman is equally flawed. She is the female rapist in this story to counterbalance Shigemaru. First, it’s fairly obvious that Shigemaru is a rapist.
His emasculation of others renders upon them sexual shame as they cower before and attempt to hide their practically naked bodies.
He utters, “Just strip already,” familiar words of a rapist to his victim. And of course, we can assume he forcefully took those seven women at home to be his wives. If we’re going to pretend he just wanted them to hang out in his home for no ill reasons, we’d be incredibly naive. The important thing to highlight here is control; before his first meeting with Woman, Shigemaru is firmly in control of himself and all those who dared to enter his forest kingdom. Enter the female rapist.
His first bestial act was the wanton murder of Woman’s two helpers despite being a self-proclaimed “nice bandit.” Using her sexuality and intellect, Woman proceeds to repeatedly egg Shigemaru throughout the two episodes into losing control again–to give in further to his bestial nature. He essentially becomes her pet from the moment he fetches her hairpin against all odds (trust me… searching for a hairpin on a vast riverbed is not an easy task). Recall her words:
Everything on this mountain is yours, isn’t it? If it is, you should be able to retrieve my hairpin. Or can you only collect ferns?
I don’t find it inconsistent that she should desire the deaths of the other wives. She later remarks in the next episode that she would like him to get her the head of a shrine maiden. In a sense, she’s using him to murder the traditional ideality of Japanese femininity, i.e. she sees them as inferior women. As inferior women, however, they also serve to uphold patriarchal domination. These women are a threat to Woman’s liberation and, as a result, she has them killed.
Moving Shigemaru to the city only serves to render him increasingly impotent. Rape is not (typically) about sexual fulfillment. Rather, it is about control–it is about domination. Woman does not need to physically rape Shigemaru; by making him utterly submissive, she has turned the tables against tradition through her sexuality.
In Shigemaru’s rant regarding city life, we see an honest confession of misogyny. Like the city, a liberated woman represents the unknown. Shigemaru bitterly remarks,
Shigemaru shortly laments later, “…look at how pitiful I am. I can’t hunt and I’m not smart enough to do business.” Removed from the forest and within the artificial confines of law and society, man’s advantage over the female sex diminishes. Of course, powerful men in the city exist, but they achieve their dominance through means that Shigemaru admittedly finds impossible. After all, he’s only a country bumpkin.
At one point, Woman leaps at Shigemaru with a drawn blade. Although her silly attack failed, Woman smirks not because she has been defeated, but because she knows deep down inside that she doesn’t need physical strength to dominate Shigemaru. Her mind games continue, pushing him, at this point, to murder again and again. An interesting moment has Shigemaru in drag.
On the surface, he has to be in drag to complete the murder, but by this point, we should be able to see this gender reversal as simply another example of his increasing loss of control over the sexual games between him and Woman. Her fetish for the heads is nothing more than another aspect of her mental dominion over others in her lives, Shigemaru included.
“In that instant, he realized. The woman was a demon.” Or does he? Unfortunately, many will take the demon interpretation literally. I, on the other hand, see it as a red herring. Consider the story’s many anachronisms (Shigemaru listening to what looks like Ipod earphones, Shigemaru telling a third party to “use the right footage”). The story is telling us that this is pure fantasy. Shigemaru’s wife turning into a demon is thus another fantasy. From Shigemaru’s point of view, her dominion over him is unnatural, un-womanly, and obviously the result of a demon at play. Woman’s liberation is perhaps nothing more than a subversion of all things right and moral. There is no doubt that Woman is an evil character; she is materialistic, selfish and complicit in Shigemaru’s acts of murder. These are, however, still human flaws. Human beings are capable of such atrocities, but by rendering Woman a demon, the story dismisses the notion that a woman could sink to such lows. It stunts her free will and thus her humanity.
Why did Woman write a note saying that she’ll be back soon? Perhaps she became overconfident. Perhaps she felt she could strike and dominate Shigemaru again when he least suspects it, but deep in the forest yet amidst the blooming sakura, neither truly wins in their final struggle. She may have lost by dying, but she may have also won in another way.
His hair becomes undone and his stare is absolutely vacant. Shigemaru struggled mightily against Woman and thus becoming her pathetic pet, but in the end, his triumph is hollow. He has become the wild beast.
Upon self-reflection, Shigemaru looks down to see not Woman but himself sprawled on the ground like a rape victim. Rape turns the victim into an object, a tool to be controlled and manipulated by the transgressor. Men and women are, for all intents and purposes, virtually the same in every human aspect, i.e. human in the sense that these qualities exist only in us and not in animals. What truly separates the sexes are natural or, to put it in a more illustrative way, animalistic differences (i.e. strength, speed, the ability to bear children). At some point, Shigemaru realized he could never be on equal footing mentally with Woman. Perhaps other men could stand toe to toe with her in a complex chess game of mental wit, but not this country bumpkin, a fact that the story repeatedly hammers into the audience. As a result, his only trump card over Woman is his physical strength, one of the few animalistic differences between men and women (I think it’s safe to say men are generally physically stronger than women). I have argued up to this point, however, that bringing out the animal in Shigemaru is exactly what Woman wanted. As a result, we get such a double-sided, complex ending where Shigemaru is both victor and victim. He may have won, but an animal has no free will. Woman has ravaged him mentally, stripping Shigemaru of his humanity. Had he decided, however, not to become a wild animal, he would have just continued being Woman’s pet. Shigemaru was in a game he could never win.