Man, Woman, and the Wall is a Japanese movie I stumbled across on Netflix while looking for gratuitous nudity. In this particular case, I found a great deal of nudity, but none gratuitous.
Now, the distinction between gratuitous and non-gratuitous nudity is not incredibly important to me. The moral ambivalence at the core of American culture thrives on the term, because people want to see boobs, but they also feel they need a justification for that desire beyond the desire itself. So they imagine that enjoying nudity that’s “necessary” to the plot of the movie is less prurient and juvenile.
The truth, of course, is that nudity is never necessary to the plot. The plot of a movie – or a book, or anything else that has a plot – is not sacrosanct and is almost never inevitable. Yes, this includes the plot of any Shakespeare play, any great novel, and any classic movie. If a director doesn’t want to show boobs, they can change the plot of the movie to avoid it, and it’s entirely possible that the movie won’t be any worse for it. Or, if they want to titillate the audience without getting an R-rating, and are willing to sacrifice verisimilitude for that purpose, they’ll do something idiotic like depict a stripper who doesn’t strip, or a woman who just had sex with her lover but keeps her breasts carefully covered.
That being said, the nudity in Man, Woman, and the Wall is entirely necessary. It’s not necessary to the plot. You could easily write a movie about voyeurism without actually showing any nudity – turn to the Lifetime Channel right now and there’s about an even chance that you’ll see an example. But that movie wouldn’t be about what this movie is about. A Lifetime movie about voyeurism, a squeaky clean one with plenty of implied, above-the-shoulders nudity, reinforces the cultural norm; it allows the viewer to watch at a safe distance, condemning the antagonist without participating in his crime. In a sense, this is antithetical to the visual nature of television.
A movie like Man, Woman, and the Wall attempts to be much more challenging to those norms, and in some ways it succeeds. It doesn’t defy or condemn the voyeurism taboo, but it questions it by placing the viewer in the middle of it and examining its boundaries. Less than five minutes into the movie, Ryo has already started deliberately listening in on his next-door neighbor through their mutual wall. This entirely non-visual form of voyeurism tends to raise fewer red flags for the moralists, but in a sense it’s more unsettling because it’s less clear what Ryo gets from it. At the very least, his intent is clearly sexual – he masturbates while listening in more than once.
Ryo is hardly a noble protagonist. In fact, he’s pretty creepy. But you can’t watch the movie and condemn his actions at the same time, because as the viewer, you’re getting much more titillation out of it than he is. As he listens to Satsuki shower, we actually see it, with the camera panning sensuously up her body, prominently displaying her breasts for several seconds. To paraphrase Professor Farnsworth, who’s the real voyeur?
Television is an inherently voyeuristic medium even outside of a sexual context, a fact which is more obvious than ever in the recent glut of reality TV and shows filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. Americans attempt to deny this fact by maintaining a superficial, entirely visual level of censorship which does nothing to truly mask the sexual nature of the content. Man, Woman, and the Wall exposes this false distinction by breaking that thin veneer of censorship. If Ryo can masturbate while simply listening to Satsuki having sex, are we really getting anything more explicit because we also see it?
Admittedly, the visual element of the medium allows for some easy shortcuts. A master writer like Nabakov can force this sort of participation on us through words alone; even if we don’t really sympathize with Humbert Humbert (as we shouldn’t), when reading Lolita we can feel the same charismatic pull that allows Humbert to win the trust of everyone around him. By addressing his narrative to his jury, he attempts to place on the reader a responsibility to judge his actions without the kneejerk reaction to pedophilia most people feel in their gut.
I say all this to point out that, in place of such artistry, the director of Man, Woman, and the Wall pretty much gets his point across by showing boobs. I won’t pretend it’s any more than it is – it’s boobs. Attractive boobs, no less. They’re shown with an intent to arouse the portion of the audience that likes boobs. It’s the bald directness of this fact that conveys the point, however.*
What the director does deserve credit for, on the other hand, is his insightful portrayal of the motivations of a voyeur. Oddly enough, I’m not talking about Ryo here. The story of his relationship with Satsuki is a bit of unconvincing romantic comedy fare tolerable primarily because of the presence of boobs. But Satsuki’s boyfriend, Yuta, also turns out to be a voyeur, and he turns out to be one of the real-life kinds of voyeur. This revelation makes the otherwise whimsical movie take a turn for the ugly.
What the director exposes through Yuta is that, like virtually every male-controlled gender interaction, voyeurism is ultimately about power. While the act of seeing his own sexually intimate girlfriend naked seems innocent on the surface, Yuta gets off on the lack of consent. From the beginning of the movie, Satsuki is being sexually harassed by a telephone stalker. After every call, she gets scared and calls Yuta over to comfort her. It’s no real surprise when Yuta turns out to be the caller; his clandestine stalking is not some quirky attempt to see her more often, but a malicious act of control. Later, he installs a camera and microphone in her apartment without her knowledge. This time, when he calls her as her stalker, he watches her on his computer and masturbates, and for the first time, he declines to come to her apartment to comfort her. Instead, now that he has the camera, he chooses to remain the voyeur so that the lack of consent can be maintained.
His obsession with control becomes more obvious when Satsuki begins defying his expectations. Satsuki and Ryo eventually become friends, with her still unaware that he’s listening in on her, and when Satsuki eats dinner at Ryo’s apartment one night, Yuta becomes enraged. He’s angry not because she’s eating dinner with another guy, but because she’s not in her apartment when he expects her to be, and thus not subject to his unconsented watching.
What follows is the most disturbing scene of the movie. When Yuta arrives at Satsuki’s apartment, he’s desperate to take control of Satsuki back, and so he forces her to bed. With her wrists bound as Yuta has sex with her, she weepingly says, “I don’t want this.” The movie allows no ambiguity that this is an act of rape.
The connection between voyeurism and rape is one that few people pick up on, which is why I was impressed when this movie did. Now, I’m certainly not saying that all voyeurs are rapists. But am I saying that voyeurism and rape are related? Yes, very much so. Not in the sense that conservative moralists mean it – I’ve seen the term “visual rape” used to describe voyeurism before, and that’s bullshit. Voyeurism is not rape, and the idea that it is is based on a fundamentalist concept of feminine purity, a belief that no man should see a woman naked except her husband.
But I’m not being soft on voyeurism here. It stems very much from the same set of motivations as rape: power, control, objectification. It’s an assertion that the female body exists for the enjoyment of men, when and where the men want it, whether or not the woman wants it. It’s an assertion that women aren’t entitled to privacy, because that privacy inhibits the control over them that men are entitled to.
Privacy is the crucial distinction here, because I don’t believe that appreciating a woman’s body is necessarily sexist or objectifying. If a woman is naked on a beach, or on a movie screen, or in any other public or semi-public context, looking at her is hardly a crime. But if she’s in a place where she should be able to expect privacy, to violate that privacy is a crime. I’ll even take this point further than some would: if you look out your window and see a woman next door undressing through her window, looking is not wrong. If that view is available to you on your own property, letting those photons hit your retinas is not going to hurt anyone. It might be considered creepy or, by many, rude, but the key fact here is that the viewer is not in control. He can’t decide when the naked woman will be visible, or if she’ll be visible – she decides that.
The line is crossed when the viewer decides to seize control, by planting cameras, by sneaking onto the woman’s property in order to peek through her blinds, or by drilling a hole in her wall. This is why, like rape, voyeurism is about control.
This all leads up to a critical difference between Yuta and Ryo. Ryo hears Satsuki through her wall and listens – while creepy, this isn’t a violation. Pressing a microphone against the wall is a lot more ambiguous, ethically speaking, but whatever your opinion on that, I have no real desire to defend Ryo in this situation. What’s important is that he doesn’t listen to Satsuki in an attempt to control her, but in an attempt to know her. He wants to sincerely learn about her, and when they finally truly meet, he treats her as a person rather than an object, as Yuta does.
Don’t get me wrong – while Ryo’s a decent guy in the movie, I don’t believe for a second that this sort of thing happens in the real world. If I knew a guy who obsessively listened to his next-door neighbor through the wall, I’d think he was a bit of a creeper and also assume he was a stalker. In fact, Ryo crosses pretty blatantly into stalker territory when he starts tracking Satsuki’s movements. To his credit, at least, he doesn’t harass her or make repeated, unwanted contact with her. He respects her wishes, not as a delicate woman who needs a man’s protection, but as another person to whom he happens to be attracted.
But I simply don’t find that kind of character believable, and this is where the movie breaks down. But in pretty much all other ways, I found Man, Woman, and the Wall to be an incisive examination of voyeurism and gender politics, and more importantly, a movie that punches a hole in the wall of defenses that the patriarchy builds to protect and justify men who thrive on controlling women.
*Incidentally, this is also the reason that neither of the two Lolita movies is any good. If you can’t look at a naked 12-year-old girl without feeling like Humbert, this is something about yourself you should probably be aware of before you judge Humbert. Hopefully you can, but neither movie is willing to challenge the audience in this way.