After seeing “Koroshi no rakuin” (Branded to Kill, 1967), Hori Kyusaku, the head of the Nikkatsu studio, fired long-time (and contracted) Nikkatsu director Suzuki Seijun, saying that his movies did not make sense and did not make money. One that had make money in Japan (I’d guess because of its sadomasochism and partial nudity) though not making a lot of sense, a few years earlier, was “Nikutai no mon” (Gate of Flesh, 1964).
In bombed-out, burned-out, US-occupied Tokyo just after the defeat in the Second World War, five prostitutes live in a cavernous studio space. The prime house rule is: “Never give it away,” that is, never have sex without payment. A violator of the rule is stripped, hung up like slaughterhouse meat, and caned early in the movie. She is replaced by a good girl, Maya (Nogawa Yumika in her screen debut; she would also play the lead in Suzuki’s “Story of a Prostitite” the next year). Maya is seemingly a virgin, devastated by the loss of her brother in Borneo) who is clad in green (the others wear red, yellow, and magenta with one in a black kimono; some have tried to read meaning into the colors, but in the DVD bonus interview, Suzuki and his designer/art director Kimura Takeo independently say that they were just seeking to make the different characters look different).
Along with the tough and tender prostitutes, there is a criminal tough guy. Nikkatsu often assigned the chipmunk-cheeked* Joe Shishido to Suzuki. Shishido plays Ibuki Shintaro (“Shin” for short), who was a corporal in the army and now is a thief. The rest of his gang is killed in robbing penicillin from the invaders. I white-suited, black-shirted yakuza (gangster) who works closely with the Americans seeks to buy the stuff. Shintaro seems more a lone wolf than a cog in the organized crime wheel.
The Americans want Shin for fatally stabbing a GI. The prostitute in red, Sen (Kasai Satoko) brings him “home” with her to recuperate. All the “girls” buy canned pineapple for him and he plays the part of a rooster in a henhouse (or a fox…). He also brings home the bacon, well a whole cow rather than a pig, leads it down the open stairs and slaughters it in a considerable pool of blood.
As surrealistic as the goings on are in Suzuki/Kimura movies, most veteran filmgoers can predict how things will end for the characters from the setup I’ve described. Not that the continuity one expects from most movies is provided along the way. The stories Suzuki was given to tell are not very interesting and/or he had little interest in telling stories except as a pretext for juxtaposing oddly framed images. Suzuki says that the studio just wanted a film with half-naked girls getting tied up and beaten. I doubt they were disappointed, especially since the movie made money.
One surprise is that after merciless canings or whippings, the “girls” recuperate amazingly rapidly and have no scars. Shin’s rehabilitation is slower… Another is that this gang of prostitutes will not take on American customers, though we see that there are crowds of others seeking them out.
The movie is luridly shot, not just in the strong colors that the prostitutes wear. (Take the Christian church in the background of one sex scene for another example.) There are jarring jump cuts seemingly for the sake of jarring, including some cuts to a US flag. (At the time when leasing military bases to the US was a very controversial subject in Japan, Suzuki was avowedly anti-American; paradoxically, he spoke enough English then to direct American actors in the movie; now that his anti-Americanism has faded, his English has fallen away.) But like Imamura’s films about prostitutes and American occupation of Japan, Suzuki was very critical of Japanese conduct. The girls blame the men (Shin being the one in residence) for having lost the war.
In the bonus material interview, Suzuki does not say he was trying to remind Japanese of their abasement in the years just after the war. He also disclaims aesthetic intent, contending he was just trying to make an effective movie out of the screenplay he was ordered to make with Shishido.
A theatrical trailer is also included.
* Joe Shishido had plastic surgery to increase his pronouncedly swollen cheeks, so I am not making rude fun of someone’s natural defects.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray