It’s sometime after the end of World War II, and Kenji Mizoguchi watches "Rome, Open City". It’s obviously a powerful and moving experience for him, as he finds inspiration in Italian neo-realism. To what degree is debatable, but something inside him clicked, and sought to use what little film stock he could find to create a tale of women forced into prostitution in the war torn, rubble ruins of Osaka.
Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) struggles to make ends meet, selling her belongs to feed her tuberculosis ridden child. A friend suggests she sell her body. “Everybody’s doing it” she tells her. Fusako leaves offended, but shortly thereafter discovers her husband has died a prisoner of war and her child from his disease. She reunites with her sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who just returned from Korea following the death of their parents. Living a bittersweet life together, the sisters take under their wing the young Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), who seems to be on the verge of taking the wrong direction in life. She looks to Fusaku and Natsuko for guidance. Together the three women, all isolated, all alone, save each other, struggle to live in the harsh reality of post war Osaka .
The locations and the production design clearly scream Italian neo-realism. If there was one thing Mizoguchi sought to bring to "Women of the Night", it was the neo-realism aesthetic. Most of the film’s exteriors are shot in the real locations around Osaka , in real fields of rubble, or among the ruins of the city. It doesn’t get anymore real than the slums and ruins the characters inhabit. And the film stock is obviously patch work at best, but this is still Mizoguchi. It may have some of the immediacy of Rossellini’s classic, but the mise en scene of Mizoguchi still takes over. He’s a perfectionist. The devastating climax takes place in a slum run by prostitutes, and whilst the scenery is convincing, it’s obviously not a real location. Mizoguchi warped his style slightly, maybe to separate himself from the jidaigeki he made over the last decade, and moved into a turbulent modern world. He uses the design and immediacy of the real Osaka until we are accustom to its aesthetic, and then switches us to a studio, where he has complete control.
By this time in his career Mizoguchi has mastered the long take, and entire scenes unfold all within one shot. It’s breathtaking. Without a close-up, without any cut away, he allows an entire scene to unfold right before our eyes, and yet each action and movement is executed with precision. Nothing’s superfluous, and it’s all used for devastating effect. Most of these classic Mizoguchi style shots do unfold in a more controlled environment, whether it be indoors or in a set such as the finale. He wanted complete control to allow his takes to become complex in their movement and blocking. Either way, it’s all bittersweet.
Fusako soons becomes employed by an importer, and Natsuko becomes a dancer at a club. They soon fall victim to his vile ways, and find themselves on the wrong end of the law when he’s arrested for selling drugs. Prostitution, rape and jail soon follow. Even their fellow women treat them like dogs, ganging up on them, taunting and beating them. “Women must unite to improve their condition” a doctor tells Fusako. And that becomes the crux of the film. Mizoguchi places no judgment on anyone in particular, it’s more general, more a shot at society as a whole. No one person, gender, or class is responsible for these women’s plight. Everyone is, even them. They still, in the end, make the choices they make.
Besides the small reach Mizoguchi makes towards making a film that utilizes the spontaneity of reality to set his scenes, the film also contains more rage than most of Mizoguchi’s films. You feel a subtle sense of anger permeate many of the films scenes, an unplaced anger that has no one in particular to direct itself at. And so it lingers, and remains, even after the film ends. This approach was a small diversion for Mizoguchi, almost an experiment for the master, and one that succeeds immensely.