Tuesday, February 24, 2009

REVIEW: Story of a Prostitute

春婦伝 (Shunpu den)

Released: 1965

Seijun Suzuki

Yumiko Nogawa
Isao Tamagawa

Tamio Kawaji
Hiroshi Cho
Kotoe Hatsui

Running time: 96 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Sejuin Suzuki’s 1965 film “Story of a Prostitute”, based on a story by novelist Taijiro Tamura, is a love triangle. Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), a Japanese woman volunteering (Volunteering? Say what?) as a “comfort woman” for the Imperial Army becomes the favorite of Narita (Isao Tamagawa), the drunken and abusive adjutant in charge of a garrison in far flung Manchuria, but Harumi has her heart set on another. Mikami (Tamio Kawaji) is Narita’s subservient orderly, a man set apart from the brutality around him, a man who Harumi falls desperately in love with. Their story unfolds in windswept deserts on the edge of the Japanese Empire during the Japan-Chinese War of 1937.

Sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it? Well, that’s pretty much what this film is. Don't come to "Story of a Prostitute" looking for any kind of historical document of Japan's agression during WW2. Yes, there’s a lot of grunting and “banzai-ing” from the soldiers, but there's also long pregnant glances between Mikami and Harumi, and Yumiko Nogawa’s performance (her second for Suzuki after 1964’s “Gate of Flesh”) as Harumi is...well... loud. She revels in or rages against her fate with throat tearing screams and heaving bosoms. Suzuki also capitalizes on her natural beauty by having her rushing in and out of barracks sometimes clothed, but often not. Isao Tamagawa, another Suzuki regular, nails his performance as one right bastard and leader of a band of horny young military men.

So at this point in the review you’d think that I hated “Story of a Prostitute”, but I didn’t. I didn’t really like it a great deal either. It is what it is: a sometimes romantic, sometimes naughty entertainment that keeps your attention for 90 minutes with no small thanks to the usual visual inventiveness from Suzuki’s frequent cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka and Suzuki’s own brilliant use of collage in one scene involving Narita literally being torn apart by rage. It seems that with his black and white films Suzuki was forced to be even more creative, including the collage touch mentioned above and some very nice lighting effects, simply because he he couldn't rely on his famously garish colour palate that he is so famous for splashing around in films like "Tokyo Drifter" and "Kanto Wanderer". In the end, though, even these creative flourishes didn't keep my attention like those other films; and I do think that the subplot involving the bookish soldier and the lone Chinese prostitute (who I’m assuming did not “volunteer” her services) could have made a more interesting story, but all in all this is an alright example of a minor Suzuki work that loyal fans of his should enjoy.

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