Story of a Prostitute & Gate of Flesh



Director of “Story of a Prostitute” & “Gate of Flesh”

By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Winter 2006 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

Japan’s Golden Age of Cinema, which flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, supplied the international film circuit with a steady diet of respectable award-winning films.  However, far from the lights and glamour of the Cannes and Venice film festivals, a different type of film vied for the attention of domestic audiences.  Unlike their more distinguished kin, these films had no artistic pretensions.  They were the low-budget series of B-movies whose sole purpose was to make a quick yen.  Nikkatsu Productions dominated the circuit and left the high-brow and bigger budget epics to the more established studios.  While working within a limited number of genres – predominantly the yakuza and “prostitute” film – the directors were nevertheless granted a certain amount of creative leeway.  As long as the film delivered what the producers wanted – sex and violence – directors were free to use the resources of the limited budget to their advantage.  Seijun Suzuki, working under contract with Nikkatsu, flourished in this type of setting.  Best known for his series of pop art yakuza films (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill), Suzuki directed two “prostitute” films – Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Gate of Flesh (1964) – that take place before and after the war respectively.  Both films are based on novels by Tajiro Tamura and have been simultaneously released on DVD by The Criterion Collection.

Story of a Prostitute is a tragedy about comfort women serving Japanese soldiers on the Manchurian front in 1937.  The protagonist, Harumi, is played with ferocious fearlessness by Yumiko Nagawa.   The heart of the film revolves around a struggle of wills between her and the tyrannical Lieutenant Narito, played by Isao Tamagawa.  He personifies the ruthless imperial military mindset, dehumanizing everything in his path while she is the vehement woman warrior, who’s brutal only to survive.  Private Mikami (Tamio Kawachi) enters Harumi’s life and offers the hope of redemption.  He is a soldier who has been demoted and passively accepts Narita’s corporal punishment as a form of penance.  Their experience is not a happy one, however, as his desire to redeem himself as a soldier conflicts with her determination to flee the war.  Ultimately his steadfastness in the face of her resolve leads to the destruction of both.  Throughout the film, Suzuki employs such New Wave techniques as reverse negatives, quick cuts, deep focus black and white
photography and slow motion to create a heightened surrealistic anxiety.  Most jarring is Harumi’s point-of-view shot of Mikami – his frame freezes and then shatters into many pieces.  Suzuki served in the Japanese navy during World War Two and, in an interview on the Gate of Flesh disc, comments on the surreal brutality of war.  Directing from first hand experience, Suzuki demonstrates an impressive technical prowess, especially considering the constraints of his budget.

Gate of Flesh takes place after the war and can be seen as a chronological sequel.  Indeed, if Harumi had survived the war, she may have found herself among the street denizens and black marketers that populate Gate of Flesh’s American-occupied Tokyo. Once again, the story focuses on prostitutes, although Suzuki uses five protagonists this time around.  Into the decrepit underworld of Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), Oroku (Tamiko Ishii), Sen (Satoko Kasai), Machiko (Misako Tominaga) and Omino (Kayo Matsuo) comes ex-soldier Ibuki (Joe Shishido).  Ibuki is running from the military authorities and finds refuge within the bombed out building the women call home.  As Maya falls in love with him, she violates the “rules of the house,” in which free sex (i.e., love) is not allowed.  As in Story of a Prostitute, Suzuki eschews realism for a surrealistic approach – this time through a heightened sense of theatricality.  Forced to shoot with little money, Suzuki and his production designer, Takeo Kimura, make no attempt to conceal the artificialness of the set.   The bombed out buildings are meant to look fake and are propped up within the walls of an obvious soundstage.  Suzuki coordinates his five female characters by costume color and, at one point, even shines a spotlight on Sen.  Despite these stylistic flourishes, the film struggles to transcend its exploitative B-movie constraints.  This is unfortunate, for, unlike Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh is a victim of its studio’s low commercial aspirations.  Violence and sex are presented on the literal level and there is little narrative to sustain one’s interest.  None of the characters have the energy or dynamism as those in Story and one longs for a Harumi or Narito to arrive and shake things up.

It is interesting to note that Gate of Flesh, the inferior of the two films, was a big hit in Japan while Story of a Prostitute flopped.  Both films are antiwar and portray the military machine as imperialistic and brutal.  Suzuki seems to attack the horror and viciousness of war in general – not just on the battlefield but in the psyches of those affected by it.  The difference in the commercial fates of the two films can perhaps be explained by the nationality of the exploiter.  In Gate the source of misery is the American military; in Story, it is Japan’s.   One wonders if Japanese audiences, able to sympathize with the destruction of their homeland at the hands of a foreign occupier, were unable to come to terms with their own military past.  Despite Gate’s shortcomings, viewing it after Story of a Prostitute is a valuable experience from this socio-historical perspective.  Once again, The Criterion Collection has provided a valuable service to fans of Japanese cinema with their simultaneous release of these two films.

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