Gate of Flesh (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

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.

Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.