Judge Adam Arseneau will now tell you the story of his ex-girlfriend. Just kidding.
"The Japanese are in such a hurry to die. No matter how hard it is, we must go on living. To live is the difficult task…it's dying that's cowardly."
The companion piece to esoteric cult director Seijun Suzuki's Gate Of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute ranks as one of Suzuki's finest films in both story and cinematography, surprising in its depth and scope, especially if you're only familiar with his B-grade yakuza films. A heartbreaking critique of postwar Japanese disillusionment, sexual anxiety, and nihilism, its absence from DVD in North America has been a glaring omission for far too long.
Gotta love Criterion.
Facts of the Case
After having her heart broken, Harumi volunteers to become a "comfort woman" for the Japanese army, a sexual slave (of sorts) sent to the front line of Manchuria to service the thousands of eager Japanese soldiers stationed in the desolate wastelands fighting the Chinese in World War II. She desires nothing more than to throw herself into the sea of eager male bodies, hoping to ease the pains of her broken heart by the sheer number of sexual encounters alone. But when she arrives and sees the squalid and abusive conditions she is expected to "work" in, she finds despair setting in far faster than she ever expected. This is made worse by the brutish Lieutenant Narita, a high-ranking officer who brutalizes and humiliates Harumi to the exclusion of all other soldiers. Her own delight from such encounters only further aggravates the rage swelling up within her, and she begins to plot his demise eagerly.
Hoping to strike back at her tormentor, she locks her gaze upon Mikami, a young soldier and personal assistant to Narita, sizing him up as a man she can seduce and turn against her tormentor. Mikami, however, is so dedicated to the Japanese Imperial mindset that he refuses her advances for no reason other than he dare not disgrace a senior officer. But Harumi is merciless in her advances and soon has her way with Mikami, and to her horror, she finds herself genuinely falling in love with the young soldier. Suddenly, she finds herself on the other end of the sword, a victim of her own guile and deception trapped in a three-way power struggle of sexual dominance and idealistic imperialism, all within the midst of a war rapidly declining in favor for the Japanese.
She tries desperately to convince Mikami to run away with her, but the conflict of interest she has created in his heart is too much for him to bear and threatens to tear him apart. He is too set in his ways to ever think of abandoning his country…even if it means his own destruction…and hers as well.
Story Of A Prostitute is a cold and sardonic film wrapped delicately in a disguise of softness, honor, and love; like a brick with a silk kimono slipped overtop it hurled through a window. Though nowhere near as brutal and vicious as Gate Of Flesh, at least on the surface, Story of a Prostitute has an icy cold demeanor that is at times even more despondent, weaving a multi-layered tale of honor, dedication, and militaristic Japanese ideology that bitterly gives way to a sarcastic desperation and despair, like a plum gone rotten from within.
The catch with such a heavy-handed film dressed so beguilingly is, of course, the difficulty determining when the film is being genuine, coy, or downright brutal in its sarcasm, a fact aggravated by the enigmatic isolation of its main characters. Narita is such a seething cauldron of Japanese male chauvinism, Imperial arrogance, and loathing so over-the-top that he is hard to take serious as anything but sheer satirical hyperbole. Likewise, Harumi has an icy demeanor that would feel more at place in a Chan-wook Park film, a viciousness that belies her beautiful exterior, as if she represents the rage and frustration of an entire nation of oppressed women. She freely admits to manipulating and seducing Mikami in order to punish Narita, a man she claims to hate but still sexually desires. We e are to believe that she falls in love freely with Mikami, and yet, can we ever be sure that her motives are entirely pure? Is this a testament to the purity of her love, or yet another outburst of frustration from the sexual tryst between her and Narita? The sexual dynamics in the film are as convoluted as the Japanese wartime identity, a blend of brutal repression, honor confused with misogyny, and visa-versa. But this is, I feel, the point the film set out to make.
Suffice it to say, it is not difficult when watching Story of a Prostitute to pick up on the sarcastic nature of the film, the not-so subtle criticism of the wartime Japanese mentality that fueled its own destruction; but even beneath this obvious surface layer lays a more brutal thematic outburst of cynicism and self-loathing. The sarcastic dedication to Japanese military arrogance and honor are so thematically powerful they border on propaganda, but one gets the impression the film actually believes in its own deception now and again, as if daring to trust its own lies. To view Story of a Prostitute in such a cynical light turns the experience on its head, and transforms a film about honor and sacrifice into a deeply jaded and sardonic expression of Japanese frustration that blows Gate Of Flesh right out of the water. If the former were a film of rage and anger, the latter is a marvelously constructed tale of frustration and suppression, the yin and yang of postwar Japanese frustration epitomized into film.
If you have seen Suzuki's other more recognized works, like Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill, Story of a Prostitute is as polar opposite a transition as possible, veering as far away from the films that made him infamous as could be. Ironic then that Story of a Prostitute could very well be Suzuki's finest cinematic achievement to date. The master is still making cheesy Yakuza movies to this very day; but the isolating cinematography in Story of a Prostitute, the fantastic play of light and shadow, innovative sound bridges, and slow-motion put Suzuki in a class of Japanese auteurs reserved for superstars like Ozu, Kobayashi, and Kurosawa, if only for this single film. When compared to his body of work, Story of a Prostitute has a maturity and sophistication that transcends the rest of Suzuki's material, elevating the Nikkatsu contract B-film studio director into the realm of the serious cinematic masters.
I would even go so far as to recommend this film above all his others; or at the very least list it in the top three. It is simply heads and shoulders above the rest of his cinematic canon in terms of filmmaking, and perhaps second only in impact and social realism to Fighting Elegy. Though it possesses few of the outbursts of light, sound, and color trademark to Suzuki's later style, the elements of self-expression are instead expressed in subtle and more directed fashions. Imagine comparing a finely honed sword to the blunt power of a hammer. Instead of explosions, we find delicately crafted compositions of shadow and darkness. Rather than bursts of color and sound, we find aesthetic compositions of frame, negative space, and clever sound bridges that elevate the discourse to new levels. It really is quite the fantastic piece of filmmaking, incredibly shot, well-written, and full of genuine social discontents and tensions that still resonate half a century later. Even the liner notes agree with this hearty praise, observing that while esoteric yakuza films made him infamous in the extreme Asia underground cult cinematic circles, it was Story of a Prostitute that convinced many of Suzuki's cinematic relevance and credibility. And if you can't trust Criterion liner notes, who can you trust?
Shot in sumptuous black and white, Story of a Prostitute has received the top-notch restoration that Criterions are known for, and for a film 50 years old, it is in remarkable shape. The film is quite ethereal in its softness, and dreamlike at times, with the stark gray background desert shots capturing the isolation and loneliness of remote China perfectly (despite probably being shot on a Nikkatsu backlot somewhere.) Black levels are solid, detail is consistent throughout, and the film has clearly been touched up a great deal, almost on par with Criterion's treatment of Gate Of Flesh. That being said, there are many visible defects still present in this film, especially noticeable during scenes of black shadow, where print damage and horizontal lines pop in now and again. It could be this very high contract that makes the remaining defects are far easier to spot. This is a small point, really, since the transfer is quite opulent has clearly had much restoration work performed on it. To nitpick on a few scratches seems foolish, as the presentation really is quite excellent and definitely up to Criterion standards.
Audio is a simple mono presentation, and it captures the eerie and melodic soundtrack perfectly, keeping dialogue balanced while touching up the crackles of audio. It is a fantastic presentation in terms of clarity and detail when considering the film's age.
Extras are also on par with Criterion's recent handling of Suzuki films, including liner note essays, the original theatrical trailer, and the 27-minute featurette featuring interviews with Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura, and noted Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, a man influential in the cinematic community "discovering" Suzuki's work as films to appreciate rather than dismiss. It is a well-done segment; it spends a little too much time lauding Suzuki and his genius rather than discussing the film itself, but soon settles into its rhythm and offers some fascinating insight into the Japanese appreciation of such a film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I only have one complaint about Criterion's technical presentation. There are a few sequences of song in Story of a Prostitute, and one in particular where Harumi is singing a song that gets Mikami visibly upset. This entire sequence is minutes in length, and transcribes Mikami's dialogue but leaves the song lyrics totally unsubtitled. It is a sequence of clear importance for reasons I cannot spoil for you directly, but influences the course of events in the film. Under the assumption that the majority of the audience does not speak Japanese and will not recognize the song, this is problematic. Not understanding the cultural significance of the scene passing between Harumi and Mikami creates a gap in the film large enough to drive a Daihatsu into.
It is not like Criterion to omit such things accidentally, so one can only assume this sequence was intentionally omitted. I'd sure love to know why.
Absolutely indispensable for anyone even remotely interested in the works of Seijun Suzuki, Criterion has (once again) set the bar for the preservation of world cinema on DVD. Story of a Prostitute is a film as complex and multi-faceted as the Japanese invasion of China itself, a deeply tragic foray of violence, pride, national identity, and sexual conquest woven into a heartbreakingly sardonic cinematic experience.
This is one film that Suzuki fans cannot be without. It is absolutely essential viewing. No excuses.
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Scales of Justice
• New Video Interviews with Director Seijun Suzuki, Production Designer Takeo Kimura, and Film Critic Tadao Sato
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