Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Gates of Flesh

At the end of WW2 the USA occupied Tokyo, it was a jungle, a place where you had to be prepared to kill or be killed, a hot humid city were life was worth almost nothing. Poverty was rife and starvation was the norm. It was populated not only by thieves and various other low life but American GIs who made full use of the service that the Japanese pimps and the working girls offered. Seijun Suzuki’s Gates of Flesh (1964) is the story of Maya an outcast amongst outcasts who has really no choice but to join up with a group of prostitutes who we discover live in one of the many bombed out buildings that now form the skyline of this once great city. The five girls form a close-knit community to support and protect each other from exploitation by pimps and competition from rival whores. This group has one rule: that none of the girls must give themselves for nothing. A rule that is rigidly enforced, which Maya witnesses when one of the girls is striped, has her hair shaved off and is left strapped naked to an abandoned boat in the full glair of the burning sun.  

Into this restricted group setting staggers Shintaro, wounded after stabbing an American soldier and on the run from the MP’s, he begs the girls to shelter him, which they agree to do for one night only. But they soon develop an attachment for this rather lovable rogue and allow him to stay. A decision that eventually leads to tension developing between the girls, some of whom, including Maya, realise that their feeling are beginning to transcend just friendship. 

The Streets of Tokyo.
Based on Taijiro Tamura’s best selling novel this strong female oriented drama has now been adapted for the big screen four times. Once in 1948 by Masahiro Makino followed by Shogoro Nishimura’s version in 1977 and the latest in 1988, a big budget version directed by Hideo Gosha and produced by Toei. None of which is said to rate as highly as Suzuki’s movie, having never seen the others I am not in a position to compare the films but what I can say is that this version is a very well crafted film, gritty and realistic although actually filmed on the Nikkatsu sound stage. ‘The shooting schedule was so tight giving precious little time to construct the sets they were slapped together on the back lot using materials purloined from studio warehouses’[1] The acting is first rate especially Jo Shishido as Shintaro and Yumiko Nogawa as Maya although it is reputed that most female actresses at Nikkatsu refused to work on the film due to the nudity and subject matter, so the cast's female roles were filled by actresses from outside the studio[2]. The rather drab hand tinted colouring is contrary to the vibrant colours of the four main prostitutes dresses, the naive Maya dressed in dark green, the volatile leader of the group Sen in red, the comedienne of the group Roku in yellow and the compliant Miyo in purple.
There's humour in all situations as Shintaro proves to the girls.
This deep and meaningful, and in fact historical portrayal of the hardships of post war Japan comes with a warning about some scenes that may offend certain viewers. For example the sadistic flagellation scene where the girls flog another young woman for breaking the ‘no sex without pay’ rule in a lengthy torture segment, the graphic and bloody detail involved in the slaughter of a stolen bull and the rather unpleasant ‘condom in the stew’ incident.  But hopefully you will not be put off and watch what is a highlight of Japan’s varied and enjoyable cinematic tradition. 

[1] Gate of Flesh Interview The Criterion Collection DVD
[2] Gate of Flesh Interview The Criterion Collection DVD

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