This B-movie from 1964 is discombobulating. Trashy pulp? Arty, subverting cinema? Retrograde trash? All of them?? Well, it’s in The Criterion Collection, so it must be good, right?
Four prostitutes in post-war Tokyo, a bombed out, rickety metropolis of crowds and slums, set up house together with some strict rules. One rule is supreme: no man gets sex for free. That would undermine their business, and that means their survival in the violent dog-eat-dog world they inhabit. Into this world falls Shin (Joe Shishido) a macho returned soldier who navigates the criminal underworld. They give him shelter while he recovers from a wound, and, of course, they all start to fall for him. Who will break the cardinal rule first, and suffer the consequences?
Watching the girls administer a whipping to a rule-breaker, Shin only says, “Nice body!“ He has learned a lot in the war: now he lives for two things – sex and food!
An interesting interview on the DVD concentrates on the director (Seijun Suzuki) and his production designer: both are serious artists, the designer with a background in theater design. Refusing the directorial assignment was not an option in the studio system, and, he remarks, it was not his role to comment on the nature of the film. Two creative guys trying to make something good out of pretty low-class material. The studio wanted something “erotic,” something similar to “Romano-porn,” and the censors had to be placated. Studio actresses, except one, would not take the roles because of the story and the nudity.
The colors and sets are weird, sometimes surrealistic. There is no attempt at ‘realism,’ it’s all very theatrical in appearance. The decrepit Tokyo was built on a backlot with hijacked plywood and whatever came to hand – verisimilitude would have blown their B-movie budget out of the water! A couple kisses and rotates in front of the camera; a prostitute seduces a missionary in Gothic churchyard (the designer comments that such a church would have never survived intact in reality); and the girls administer punishment in a half-destroyed warehouse that sets the mode for innumerable cheapo-porno-S&M imitations. Even the girls’ dresses, each a bright solid color, were selected because anything else was too expensive. (The director comments wryly that later critics insisted on finding significance in their costume colors.)
There are things going on in this film that are hard to process as an American viewer in 2011. Why does Shishido look like what one critic called, the world’s most badass chipmunk? Turns out, he had cheek augmentation surgery. Yes! Before that, he was a typecast as a standard romantic lead – he looked the part, all slick hair, matinée idol good looks. And there’s the portrayal of Americans and the use of the American flag – not at all positive. Why should it be? The director notes that he served in the army when all he did was flee; Japan was reeling and on the defensive. In this movie, his “grudge” was apparent he remarks years later.
The film has many split scenes in which the thoughts of one character are present as a fuzzy image over the main scene, as well as a lot of short takes representing the fantasies of the individuals. In one striking sequence, the girl who seduced the missionary is determined to have Shin. She follows him and throws herself down, shouting, “Take me!“ Never mind the rules! He looks at her, and there is a sequence of black and white newsreel images from the war with nothing but an infernal racket and images of tracer bullets flying. Shin lunges for her.
All the women in the house want Shin, but he tells them they are children, playing at being tough chicks. Only the one who still maintains elements of Japanese culture is a ‘real woman’ to him. He respects and longs for that – a counter to the humiliation he feels at being part of a defeated army in a destroyed and occupied land.
Shin’s ‘real woman’ is whipped into a pulp for breaking the rules, and he decides to get away after making a deal. He’s double-crossed and shot at the bridge in the center of the neighborhood. The last thing he sees is a mother playing with her baby on the edge of the ruins. Japan and life itself carrying on, reborn, perhaps?