The end of legal prostitution in Japan; the last Mizoguchi film

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Akasen chitai” ” (Street of Shame, 1956) was the last film directed by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), director of Ugetsu and Sanchô, the Bailiff, two masterpieces set in distant times that were among the first dozen Japanese films I ever saw. They convinced me that Mizoguchi was a master, though I now realize that his other films are nowhere near as great as those two, and have come to appreciate work of some other Japanese directors more (Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Shinoda ; Kurosawa has retained his position at the top of my pantheon).

I find Mizoguchi’s wartime two-part adaptation of “The 47 Ronin” unbearably slow and visually static. I found his 1936 “Sisters Of The Gion” (included in the four-disc Criterion Eclipse “Mizoguchi Fallen Women release) slow, grim, and bordering on hysteria. (OK, I find the conduct in a lot of Japanese films extreme, including a Kurosawa movie I recently saw for the first time, “I Live in Fear.”)

“The Life of Oharu” (1952) is hard for me to take. The title character is the daughter of a (17th-century) samurai who had been a lady-in-waiting in court, but fell and fell and fell some more. Or was ground down by being forced into prostitution and eventually attracting no customers.

In “Street of Shame” two of the prostitutes in the then-contemporary (1956) house of prostitution called “Dreamland” in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara (red-light) district also strike me as well past their sell date. Especially, given the brutal competition, with prostitutes grabbing men walking down the street and dragging them in, it surprises me that these women — two of whom look to me to be pushing 50, and a couple of whom are far from beautiful — are making a living.

With Parliament debating outlawing prostitution (which in the real world it did shortly after “Street of Shame” was released), their situation is increasingly perilous. There are definitely tearjerker elements to the movie, but most of the Dreamland “girls” need to keep working. Hanae (Michiko Kogure) is supporting her sick, unemployed husband and an infant. The aging Yorie (Hiroko Machida) goes off to marry a man who wants a servant who he does not have to pay. She comes crawling back.

An even more unhappy story is that of Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), a war widow who turned to prostitution to provide her parents funds to raise her son, who rejects her with contempt at a time she is hoping to retire and live with him.

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Not all the Dreamland “girls” are ground down in the manner of Oharu. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) wheedles a besotted suitor into embezzling money to marry her, and just keeps the money and opens a futon shop (with Dreamland being one of her customers).

Mickey (Machiko Kyô, star of Rashômon, Ugetsu, Face of Another) dresses in western style, unlike the other “girls,” and is notably brash. When her father arrives to take her home, a tsunami of bitterness about his treatment of his wife explodes. Mickey does not have the shame of Yumeko or the skills at building up a store of working capital of Yasumi, and refuses to consider herself a victim. Her work provides her money to buy what she wants and to spite her father.

I don’t see that the movie would have encouraged outlawing prostitution, but am well aware that I am not Japanese and that I do not see and understand Japanese movies in the same way as Japanese do. (And Japanese are only too happy to maintain that non-Japanese cannot understand Japanese (the language) or the Japanese (worldview).)

I did not come out from having watched “Street of Shame” feeling battered, as I did from watching “Life of Oharu,” or exhilarated, as I did from Watching “Sanchô, the Bailiff” (either in my youth or more recently), nor was I bored as I was by Mizoguchi’s version of “The 47 Ronin.” I thought the camera placement very static: as in Ozu movies, it seems always at the eye-level of someone kneeling, but there was a lot of cutting back and forth between interlocutors so that the film did not seem visually static. But the fluid camerawork of the great Mizoguchi films of the 1950s was foresworn. And the screenplay is the first in decades not authored by Yoda Yoshikita.

There were entertaining moments, not all of them ironic ones, and a range of characters. Mizoguchi’s last journey into showing women employed to please men neither romanticizes nor demonizes “the oldest profession” or even the owner of Dreamland, who has a mortgage to pay.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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