Gate of Flesh

August 12, 2011

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?

Family Scene

She broke the rules

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.

Nude, but not quite exposed

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.)

Two kissing on a revolving platform

Self-degradation by seducing her former benefactor

Keeping the rules

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.

He resists her advances

With her, he finds love for a while

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?

Last thing he sees

The End


Stray Dog

July 24, 2011

A stray dog becomes a mad dog.  A mad dog sees only straight paths, and can’t shoot very well either.  This we learn from Stray Dog, a 1949 Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.  The two actors would later become world famous as samurai, but in this film, they navigate a decrepit, post-war Tokyo during a heat wave, patiently going through the steps of a police procedural.  Shimura has a full head of hair and constantly wipes sweat from his face with rag:  in The Seven Samurai, he’s bald, and does his signature gesture of absent mindedly scratching his chest.

The film is usually classed as a film noir in style, but it seems more like a straight procedural.  Of course, the entire opening credit sequence treats us to the image of a panting dog – that tips us off that things are not the norm.  Mifune plays Murakami,  a complete greenhorn homicide detective who’s gun is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus.  He’s mortified, and offers to resign, but the seasoned detectives tell him to cut the crap, “This isn’t the army!”  and they assign Sato (Shimura) to help him on the case and show him the ropes.  Sato is a zhlubby family man who dispenses philosophical wisdom and police tips with world-weary authority.

The action takes us through the seamy precincts of the city, a city without air conditioning – everyone sweats buckets.  As Murakami’s gun is implicated in one crime after another, he is consumed with anxiety, foreboding, and guilt over his stupid carelessness.  Sato tells him, if it wasn’t your Colt, it would be another Browning.

Murkami tails a showgirl who knows something and visits her home.  He won’t leave until she talks.  She blames the world for the crimes of Yusa, her boyfriend, it’s so unfair.  Some people have everything while they have to scrounge for scraps.  Yusa had his knapsack stolen on the way home from the army – that’s what set him off into crime:  who would do such a lousy thing!  Murakami tells her that he too had his knapsack stolen the same way:  two paths, a crossroads.  One became a stray dog and chose crime, one the straight and narrow.  That fate thing again.

 

From here the film takes off into another realm, of brilliant poetry, that only someone like Kurosawa can create.  A cleansing rain breaks the heatwave as the climax comes -Sato is shot trying to capture Yusa.  Murakami and the girl hear it happen over the phone.

Sato will live, and Murakami catches up with Yusa.  Murakami has no gun, he left it with Sato, but Yusa has his!  The chase leaves the town, and continues into the woods as they blunder and crash through lush, flowering meadows and undergrowth.  Beautiful flowers everywhere!

 

Murakami catches up with the mad dog who is shaking with fear in this standoff which could be, or will be, right out of Sergio Leone.

Murakami’s shot with his own gun, but Yusa is so scared, he just wings him.

It all happens on the lot of a suburban residence where a woman is playing the piano.  What was that noise?  Who are those men?  Nothing going on – she goes back to her piano.

We get an almost hyper-real set of images of Murakami’s suffering as the standoff continues

The blood drips slowly from his hand onto the pretty flowers at his feet.  Time is standing still…

Yusa is out of bullets:  a little more running through the flowers, and he’s caught and handcuffed.  The hunter and the mad dog lie in the foliage,  out of breath, while children walk by in the background, singing.  The juxtaposition is marvelous, and we know from earlier scenes that Murakami has developed a sympathy, almost sentimental, for his prey.

Yusa, looks at the sky, the flowers, and like a captured dog, begins to howl horribly.  It’s all over for him, he’s finished.  Why did it have to happen this way?

The film is elevated beyond procedural, beyond noir, into the realm of tragic humanism.  Sato tells his young protegé that he’ll stop sympathizing with the poor creeps who turn to crime after he’s arrested a few more of them.


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