Post-war Japan is a harsh place, the dog-eat-dog mentality engendered by the war mixed with the disappointment of defeat. The citizens live in a situation of dire poverty, surviving on rations and basic supplies, watched over by the keen eyed Military Police and the prowling US occupiers. A young woman, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), is caught stealing food to survive. She is taken to Sen (Satoko Kasai), the strong-willed leader of a group of prostitutes, as a way out of her situation. This band of women have set up their own business in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned building. They wear their profession as a badge of honour, working for themselves, driving other women from their territory, and having strict rules about who they will sleep with. Their number one rule is that they must never sleep with a man without payment. However, when ex-soldier Shintaro Ibuki (Joe Shishido) turns up looking for refuge after stabbing a GI, he threatens to destroy their carefully managed business.
Director Seijun Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine take us right to the heart of the action of post-war Japan, with the streets bustling with people from all walks of life trying to survive. In contrast to the greys and browns of their surroundings, the central cast of women are always dressed in the same single bright colours, that helps identify them and sets them apart from everyone else. The actresses all do a fantastic job with their characters, giving them a sense of individuality. Yumiko Nogawa’s defiant leader, Sen, Tomiko Ishii’s upbeat Roku, Kayo Matsuo’s wily Mino, Yumiko Nogawa’s fragile yet determined Maya, are a charismatic quartet whose wild, funny, unpredictable, even cruel antics, are always a pleasure to watch. Joe Shishido gives a strong performance as Ibuki, who is putting a brave face on his inner turmoil. Misako Tominaga is also excellent as Machiko, a member of the group who gives in to her feelings and is cast out. All the characters appear fiercely independent but each harbours their own personal tragedy, whether the loss of a husband or a brother in the war. One of the strengths of the film is that it does not create heroes. Every character is flawed, often being cruel, malicious, or greedy, but it is clear that they are products of their environment. The score by Naozumi Yamamoto features a plaintive melody with repeated snatches of song that are often hummed or whistled by characters. There are also several songs that are performed by the cast at various points. The use of a pounding drum at moments of crisis for Maya is powerful. It breaks up the flow of action in a way that suddenly brings home to the audience the impact of everything on her. Suzuki also uses cross-fading imagery to good effect, especially in the moments when we see the ghosts of the past appearing before characters in a moment that moves, like much of the film, from joyous to morose.
“Gate of Flesh” begins with titles shown over drawings of naked corpses. This understanding of the fragility of life seems to haunt both the characters and the audience as the drama unfolds. Following any war or great loss of life, the old certainties disappear. To see a corpse makes us wonder what the point of living is in the first place, given the inevitable conclusion. This is a question posed by one character in the film. This nihilism also helps to explain the mindset of the women, who see their bodies as no more than flesh, a commodity to be sold and for them to profit from. They base their self-worth entirely in terms of business transactions, which in turns strips them of their inner selves, leading them to cruelty. At first they may seem heartless, but it becomes clear that they are simply keeping their emotions buried in order to adapt to a world that seems to have abandoned morality and compassion. In one powerful moment, Maya seduces a priest who had tried to help her, and this is a confirmation that human beings may aspire to higher things but their nature will always draw them back to their primitive urges. It is interesting to consider the male-female dynamics in the film, with the group of women being a strong group who are disrupted by the appearance of a man. Their reactions to him seem over-the-top, even childish, which may be a release of their pent-up emotions in reaction to the cold personas they have assumed. The colour-coded dresses they wear may also give an insight into each of their true personalities, or perhaps represent how they wish to be seen. They are holding on to a brightness and hope that is disappearing from the world around them. “Gate of Flesh” is a masterclass in directing with excellent performances and a story that touches on the very nature of humanity.