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

Fasten your seatbelts!

February 2, 2010

In All About Eve, another female screen icon, Bette Davis, says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”  Not a bad warning for those who decide to watch Elizabeth Taylor in The Driver’s Seat! (1974, aka Identikit) This movie is, well, awful…but you may find it interesting.

I am not of the aesthetic school that says, “Ooh, it’s so bad, it’s good!”  No, bad is bad, and good is good, but when the blogger at Swiftly Tilting Planet, who shares my taste for French realist novels and film noir, commented on my post about Butterfield 8 that I might want to see it – he didn’t say it was good – I decided to take a look.  What kept me watching?  Was it seeing the great Liz playing a ridiculous role?  No – the film is weird.  Repeat, WEIRD!

The plot is absurd:  an unhinged woman leaves her home in northern Europe to go to Rome, looking for a man who is “her type.”  At the end, or if we read the DVD notes, we learn that her type is the murderous type, with her as the victim.  No wonder she’s always asking, “Why is everyone afraid of me?”

The dialog is absurd: Men seem to want to have sex with Lise (Taylor).  She, however, will have none of it.  “I’m not interested in sex.  I have no time for sex!  You won’t be having sex with me!”

Ah, but the weirdness pulls it through.  Lise throws a fit in a clothing store when the salesgirl tells her the fabric of the dress she is trying is “stain resistant.”  Infuriated, she shouts, “Do I  look like someone who will get stains on her dress?”  Andy Warhol, who had no need for fifteen minutes of fame, has a bit part as an Italian nobleman encountered at the airport.  Is he her type?  Hmmm…maybe.  She flashes her legs, and more,  to come on to a good looking mechanic who then takes her for a ride, for sex, he thinks, but she fights him off, wheezing as if she’s having an asthma attack.  (Oh yeah, this happens after she takes refuge from the chaos in the street caused by a terrorist assasination of a visiting Arab dignitary…)  And then there are those faces, starting with the housekeeper who breaks out into raucous laughter as she leaves for her Roman holiday:  “Those clothes!  You look like you’re dressed for the circus!”

Special note goes to the weird cum comic effect produced by Ian Bannen who tries to hook up with Lise as soon as he sees her in the next seat on the plane.  He even attacks her neck with smooches after just meeting.  After all, he’s on a macro-biotic diet, and he needs to have one orgasm a day.  He repeats this imperative later as they are walking in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, but she will have none of it.  “But what will I do?” he wails.

The film intercuts the police investigation of her murder – she eventually finds an obliging man who is her type – with the earlier events.  Why does she want to die?  Too many stains on her dress?  Blood, semen?  Her lover-murderer turns out to be a fellow she met on the plane – he tried to get away, but she drew him in irresistably – who is the sickly nephew of the dotty English Jehovah’s Witness she goes shopping with in Rome after sharing a taxi with her…another fortunitous plot twist.

Lise throws a fit and fixes her eyes


A nice old lady at the airport asks for help choosing a book:  Which one has more S&M?  Then Lise get’s searched.


Almost sci-fi – they board the plane to Rome.

“You look like Little Red Riding Hood, with that grin!”  Still, a guy’s gotta try.


The billing was, I think, “With the cooperation of Andy Warhol.”


Two dotty ladies, one a Jehovah’s Witness with a psycho nephew, the other a psycho looking for a psycho lover. Eventually, they get together, and she gives him strict instructions on how to please her.


The police mumble, look chic, and beat up witnesses in modernist interrogation rooms.  Later, the cops and the killer gather where the body was found to share a Blowup – Antonioni moment.  There’s nothing there!


If you noticed that the images are of poor quality, it’s because the DVD was a mediocre digital transfer of the godawful original.