Judge Adam Arseneau nominates this film for this year's "Best David Cronenberg Film Title" award.
"Never give it to a guy for free. This is a business, and our bodies are our merchandise."
Criterion keeps up its dedication to cinematic preservation with another film by the master Seijun Suzuki, Gate of Flesh, from way back in 1964. If you are only familiar with Suzuki's string of esoteric yakuza films, Gate Of Flesh will come as something of a gear shift. Melodramatic, socially relevant, and bordering on pornographic, it bears little in common with the majority of his canon.
But sometimes, change is good.
Facts of the Case
Stumbling through the alleys, a young castaway named Maya has been wandering the streets hungry and confused, and soon takes in with a group of well-organized prostitutes operating out of an abandoned building. They have carved out a territory along the river and are fiercely protective of their corners, attacking any freelancing females who may wander in. The group operates under strict rules: they viciously attack any intruders into their territory, they protect one another at all times, they never sleep with American GIs, and, most importantly, they never give away their bodies for free. Not ever. The consequences can be ugly.
The all-female collaboration has been working out well so far for the girls, who have allied with a local yakuza gang for help dealing with the constant police raids. Things get complicated when the girls discover Shin Ibuki (played by the cheeky Joe Shishido), a renegade ex-soldier who wanders into their hideout, on the run after stabbing a GI. Sen, the group's unofficial power-hungry leader, is impressed by Ibuki's cocky attitude, and allows him to stay and recover from his wounds. Suddenly, the all-girl group has their very own man of the house.
Ibuki's presence, which the girls first barely tolerate, then grow to enjoy, then grow oddly dependent on, unfortunately cannot last, especially when the girls start making advances on him. It is only a matter of time before confrontation erupts between the closely-knit circle of females, and in these chaotic and violent times, the outcome of any altercation can be a deadly one!
As is often the case with Nikkatsu films of this era, Gate Of Flesh is one of hundreds of mass-produced B-films spit out by the Japanese studios during the 1960s, shot over a period of weeks and usually devoid of substance. Though on the surface a World War II period piece, Gate Of Flesh was nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to show girls in various states of undress, and similar films were churned out by the hundreds by the big Japanese studios. Suzuki grew to infamy by working within this assembly-line film production schedule, shooting dozens of yakuza films a year. He shot the films the studio commanded him to shoot, but always managed to put his own personal spin on his productions, experimenting gradually with light and color, complex editing, and rearranged plots, much to the ire of his employers. Towards the end of his career, films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill had strayed so radically from the uniform B-movie output the studios hired him to create that he was blacklisted from making films in Japan for decades. And nothing gets you more famous in the cult filmmaking world than getting blacklisted.
In Gate Of Flesh, we can see early examples of the esoteric Suzuki emerging, including a fantastic sequence of superimposed faces shot over a spotlight bedroom sequence reminiscent of a kabuki play. The landscape of post-war Tokyo is a nightmarish holocaust of burnt buildings, rubble, and corpses, yet the prostitutes are dressed garishly in bright vivid reds and greens, a splash of color against the depression. The prostitutes, fashions straight out of Grease to attract American GIs, flaunt themselves on the streets amidst the chaotic confusion of post-war Tokyo, each girl assigned a specific color tone to represent their disposition, from placid yellow to confrontational red and colors in between.
Unlike the string of yakuza pictures previously associated with Suzuki, Gate Of Flesh and his follow-up Story Of A Prostitute were something of a departure for the cult director, lodged between the new wave social realism of Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour and the titillating thrills of Japanese pink cinema. Indeed, in striking departure from his previous work, Gate Of Flesh is a film that speaks strongly to the period and reflects the social discontents of the Japanese people, a divergence from his endless stream of yakuza flicks. In Gate Of Flesh, the external chaos of war-torn Tokyo reflects the resentment at having been defeated both physically and mentally, and this mirrors the internal struggle of the women striving to make order out of the chaos of an entire nation, if only on a small scale. The sheer sense of disillusionment in Gate Of Flesh, like Ibuki's bitterness towards the military or Maya's abandonment of Christianity, fill the screen with every frame. The Japan depicted here is a country broken in both heart and mind, thoroughly defeated and mentally unstable, suffering hallucinations of violence and democracy raging through its streets.
The story, set deep in the back alleys and slums rapidly threatening to overflow onto the landscape, full of violence, prostitution and gangs, is far more poignant and socially relevant as a cinematic environment than the standard yakuza genre, and Suzuki's esoteric experimentation is made all the more striking against such a despondent backdrop. The explorations into sexuality bear some examination as well. The group is ready to chastise any member who dares give herself to a man without payment, which is a reality of the harsh economic climate, but also speaks to a lingering resentment of the body itself. When the girls catch one of their own giving away sex, they rage against her "disgusting cries of ecstasy," as if it was something inhuman and unnatural. And what does it say about a film when every character that finds some semblance of love, be it physical or emotional, is beaten, whipped, and left for dead? There is some fascinating stuff going on in Gate Of Flesh behind the scenes, if you can dig around the skin-flick elements to find it.
As with all recent Suzuki Criterion releases, the transfer has been expertly restored, turning an aged film into a thing of beauty with no visible defects or deficiencies noticeable. The transfer still looks its age, as films shot in Nikkatsuscope (a variation of CinemaScope) always do, possessing that peculiar earthy tone and graininess, but Suzuki's manipulation of lighting and color tone are captured with vivid authenticity, reds and greens being the most predominantly vibrant. Criterion has done a bang-up job on this one, even by its standards; the film simply looks fantastic in every way possible.
The audio, kept in its original mono state, does not fair quite as well, but Japanese films of this era always look much better than they sound; it is simply the nature of the recording at the time. The mono mix is high in the treble range and occasionally erratic at times in terms of balance, but knowing Criterion, the source material sounded a lot worse before it got its loving hands all over it. As stated in the liner notes, switching out of a surround mode to a two-channel presentation may help distribute the soundtrack more effectively to the viewer.
Extras are a bit light, but include a brand new 20-minute video interview with director Seijun Suzuki and production designer Takeo Kimura shot specifically for this DVD, which will no doubt appeal to Suzuki fans. Suzuki, as always, is a great interview subject, with Kimura offering some insights into the film, and both commenting on how the studio pressured Suzuki to churn out an erotic film. Rounding out the extras are a still gallery of production photos and artwork, a sassy set of liner notes and essays, and the original theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though it is an excellent Seijun Suzuki film, it is tough to recommend Gate Of Flesh to anyone but Suzuki completionists, if only simply because at its core, it is an aged Japanese B-grade skin flick, nothing more. For Suzuki, it is certainly one of his most fully realized projects, standing on the merits of acting, directing, and storyline, and if you go digging, there are some fascinating puzzles to unlock about human nature, social structure, and sexuality.
But compared to the wide world of cinema available, this affirmation does not hold as much water as you might think. Suzuki had a talent for making bad cheesy films artistically daring and innovative, but at their core, they were still bad cheesy films.
Dark and forlorn, but one of his more accessible titles, Gate Of Flesh represents Suzuki at one of his strongest points in terms of sheer filmmaking; a strong balance between story, character development, social realism, and exploitation, with some early examples of the experimental cinematic techniques that gained him such notoriety in the cinematic underground tossed in for good measure.
The film may not be to the tastes of Suzuki aficionados gorged on endless avant-garde yakuza flicks, but as always, Criterion has treated the films with loving care and respect, making this DVD an excellent buy for all serious fans of the Master's work.
This one's a keeper for me.
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Scales of Justice
• New Video Interview with Director Seijun Suzuki and Production Designer Takeo Kimura
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