From as far back as the early 17th-century major Japanese cities had their red light districts. The Japanese government of the time created realizing that prostitution was going to take place regardless of legality created these districts as a way to prevent sex from being sold indiscriminately throughout the country. One of the most famed red light districts in Japan was the Yoshiwara in Edo (now Tokyo) just north of the Asakusa. It's estimated that at the time of the opening of Japan at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860's the Yoshiwara housed over 9,000 women licensed by the city as yūjo, or "women of pleasure". There's no telling how many customers came through the area, but for generations the Yoshiwara functioned almost as a city within a city - walled off from the surrounding neighbourhoods, with its own rules and laws, and housing businesses and shops that catered not only to the patrons of the brothels, but to their employees as well. The massive fire in 1913 and then the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 nearly destroyed the historic district, but eventual it wasn't natural disasters that put an end to this lusty corner of Tokyo. In 1956 the Anti-Prostitution Law was passed by Japanese Parliament which declared that "no person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it". The fact that master Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi chose to make a film about the final days of the Yoshiwara just a few months prior to its demise may seem somehow prescient, but for a director who chronicled the uncomfortable place of women in Japanese society it's a move that makes absolute sense. Mizogichi's "Street of Shame" doesn't take us into the halls of power where politicians and lawmakers were legislating prostitution out of existence. No, Mizoguchi instead focuses on a single brothel in the Yoshiwara called The Dreamland and its handful of working women to give the audience a bottom up view of the final days of legal prostitution in Japan.
The talk in the newspapers and on the radio of prostitution being made illegal has made the women of The Dreamland uneasy. While Yorie (Hiroko Machida), one of the older women in the brothel, sees the abolition of prostitution as a great thing mainly because she is engaged to a clog maker who says he will take care of her, the other women wonder how they will survive if they can no longer ply their trade. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) may have a chance. She's still young and pretty and she uses this to milk large amounts of cash from her smitten clients, money that she puts away for a time when the police may shut down Dreamland. The other women aren't so calculating though. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) has spent years working as a prostitute and with a grown son who's ashamed of what his mother does for a living she really has no family to turn to. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) does, but unfortunately it's far from a happy home. Hanae has a young son to look after and her husband is sickly and can't work. It takes Hanae five days just to make enough money to buy the medicine that keeps him out of bed and moving. The only women at Dreamland who shrugs off the news of the abolition of prostitution is the youngest, Mickey (Machiko Kyo), a gum-chewing street wise girl from Kobe who figures if the law shuts down the club then she'll just sell her body herself, legally or not.
The miracle of "Street of Shame" is that with its somewhat meandering, character driven plot and large cast of players it doesn't choke itself off during its spare 85-minute running time. With 33 years of experience portraying the rise and downfall of Japan's female experience under his belt Mizoguchi expertly keeps each woman's story moving and interesting from beginning to end. He also avoids the greatest pitfall of any ensemble piece and gives each woman in Dreamland a distinct personality, especially Kyo's scene-stealing Mickey, and makes us empathize with them as the end of their way of life looms on the horizon. The joys of "Street of Shame" just aren't in its plotting and performances though. The mostly nocturnal and neon cityscapes that the women move through are gorgeously captured by legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, the man behind such Mizoguchi classics as "Ugetsu" and "Sansho the Bailiff", but also Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and Kon Ichikawa's "Enjo (Conflagration)". Mizoguchi fuses Miyagawa's shadowy black and white visuals with composer Toshirô Mayuzumi's queasy score filled with slide guitar and bowed hand saws that lends the film the feeling as if all these women are teetering on the deck of a ship that's about to capsize and sink.
Despite its subject matter "Street of Shame" doesn't come with any moral proselytizing or easy answers, in fact Mizoguchi almost makes the case that the abolition of prostitution may strip the last shred of dignity from these very vulnerable women. Neither for or against prostitution the film instead is a document of the end of a three hundred year cultural tradition. It was also the end of the long and critically-praised career of Kenji Mizoguchi who at the age of only 58 would succumb to leukemia a short time after "Street of Shame" was released.