Starring: Jo Shishido Yumiko Nogawa Satoko Kasai Koji Wada Tomiko Ishii Kayo Matsuo
Running time: 90 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Part of his remarkable run of films from the 1960s, “Gate of Flesh” shows Seijun Suzuki tackling more politically charged subject matter than that of his popular crime thrillers. It could be seen as a companion piece to his “Story of a Prostitute,” which was made one year later in 1965 and focuses on a group of prostitutes living on the Manchurian front during the China-Japan conflict of 1937. “Gate of Flesh”’s premise is similar (both are based on novels by Taijiro Tamura), but bears a significant difference: it is set not near the start of World War II, but just after its fateful conclusion in an American-occupied Tokyo .
The main character is Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), an innocent girl desperate to find a way to survive in the city. She joins a tough “family” of prostitutes who live in a derelict building and are led by the street-smart pro Sen (Satoko Kasai). Soon after, Maya successfully becomes one of them, armed with the proper knowledge and attitude for the dog-eat-dog world they live and work in. Yet complications arise in the form of Ibuki (Jo Shishido), a returned soldier-turned-scoundrel who stirs up trouble with his numerous dirty dealings and the feelings of desire he ignites within the circle of prostitutes.
The most fascinating aspect of “Gate of Flesh” is Suzuki’s vivid realization of the historical setting in which the film is set. Though he uses several techniques that undeniably call attention to their artificiality, the dominant tone that endures throughout the film is one of gritty realism. The market where much of the action occurs is constantly crowded and dirty, filled with merchants (both legitimate and not so legitimate), civilians, Americans, military police and the prostitutes hard at work and defending their territory, all of them coexisting in a Petri dish of heat and filth. The Japanese knowingly live in a country just beginning to recover from its recent defeat in the war. The stinging injury done to its national pride is clearly felt through the blame for the loss freely passed around, the need to rebuild and recover voiced by Ibuki and the ever-present, bombed-out ruins. Significantly, one character says, “We all got hurt in the war,” and none of them will be forgetting it any time soon. Maya often speaks of her brother who was killed in the war, and his flag that she keeps becomes a symbol not only of her loss, but of her country’s disgrace. In one memorable scene, Ibuki drunkenly sings wartime songs and reminisces about his experiences in Northern China before forlornly draping the flag over his head.
Another deeply interesting element in “Gate of Flesh” is the community of hookers and their self-made way of life. Savvy and sly, they follow a tough code that allows them to maintain their independence. Along with eschewing pimps and fiercely guarding their territory, they enforce one particularly important rule: never work for free, or else suffer the consequences. When it is broken, the other girls deliver upon the unlucky offender humiliating and terrible punishments, usually including a good beating. They view sex solely as a business, forsaking genuine romantic relationships and sacrificing happiness for the cruel yet necessary survival tactics of a world left in tatters. While somewhat admirable for the spirit of feminine independence that defines it, this rough justice is clearly another sign of the war’s damaging, dehumanizing effects.
Consideration of the amount and quality of ideas explored in Gate of Flesh alone would qualify it as a great film. However, being a Suzuki film, it is also a pure visual delight. Its story is told with plenty of energy, enlisting a confidently mobile camera (operated by Shigeyoshi Mine) to dive into the bustling city head-first – or, at certain points, to look down upon the masses of humanity from above. Several techniques are deployed for purely theatrical effect, such as the spotlight that follows Sen around a room before and after she services a customer and the constructed studio set in which Maya seduces a priest. Striking superimpositions and editing methods also stand out (as does one scene that Suzuki devotes in grisly detail to the killing and carving of a cow), but it is the film’s dazzling use of saturated color that really puts the icing on the cake. Each of the four main prostitutes is assigned a different color (yellow, purple, red for Sen and green for Maya), highlighted through their wardrobe, vibrant backdrops and screen tints with painterly exuberance.
“Gate of Flesh” provides a perfect blend of social commentary and intoxicating style, making it my favorite of Suzuki’s films that I’ve seen so far. I can imagine it making an interesting double bill alongside either Shohei Imamura’s similarly themed “Pigs and Battleships” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Dodes’ka-den,” which bears a resemblance to it both through its impoverished setting and kaleidoscopic visuals. In any case, fans of Suzuki or the excitingly radical Japanese cinema of the ‘60s would do well to add this film to their collection pronto – as I myself will be doing before too long.