Genre: Extreme Post War Survival Tale
review in one breath
Set immediately after WWII, this film explores the desperate lengths to which a squalid, burned out community must go to in order to survive. Originally intended as a gritty erotic tale starring Shishido Jo, director Suzuki Seijun turned this into an exceptional and immediate cinematic success. Suzuki's own experiences in the War come through clearly as he retells the depths to which post-war urban centers fell.
I'm currently reading A History of Japanese Religion by Kazuo Kasahara. In a chapter discussing the Japanese propensity (or ability) to redefine itself religiously and societally following cataclysmic social change, you'll find the following passage:
On August 16, 1945, postwar democracy took its first steps, both in theory and practice. Yet one may question how many politicians really acted out of [democratic] concern for people's welfare, despite the political system under which they were elected by direct popular ballet. The Japanese people in fact had to rely on their own inner strength to survive amid the poverty and emptiness of politics.
An age of transition forces people to experience the emptiness and poverty of the economic order, as well. The Japanese living through the transition from prewar to the postwar period lacked even the necessities of life. Inevitably, a new age -- born from a period of internal strife or foreign war -- emerges only after the people's resources have been all but exhausted. Whichever side wins, the new age is born in economic ruin. The people, thrust into an age of change, must deal with both the poverty of politics and the ruin of the economic order.
The title of this film is Nikutai no Mon or "Gate of Flesh".
The term here for "flesh" (Nikutai) refers primarily to the physical blood and flesh body living souls possess. By extension, the term incorporates our physical hungers and dependencies, whether upon food, water, sex or breath. To say that one's life consists solely of the "flesh" implies an utter absence of anything other than humanity's basic animal instincts.
But then there is also the term "mon" [gate]. And here the core question is GATE TO WHERE? The grammar of the Japanese title requires, as the English title suggests, that this "gate" is one "of flesh" and not one "to flesh". And so the question remains: from where and perhaps more importantly to where does this gate of flesh lead?
This, of course, is the raw nerve of Japanese collective memory which Suzuki mightily struck with this visually stark and abjectly amoral film. Very few of Suzuki's films were appreciated by the audiences of his day (and only much later became "classics"), but this particular film became an instant success. No doubt the film's complete immersion into sexuality played a great part in its overnight popularity. But hindsight has fully realized that there was so much more to it than simply naked thighs.
I lived in Japan for while and there met many Japanese my senior who would recount to me the poverty of their post-war experience. Regardless of whether they joked, smiled or reflected, I always knew that those stories were a mixture of sadness and pride. Sadness at the humiliation of loss to a foreign military power (and the deconstruction of the Emperor myth/tradition) but core pride at the ability to survive on "dirt soup" and sheer persistence and then forge ahead to wonderfully prosperous lives.
This film, Gate of Flesh drops audiences within the phase of "dirt soup" and does so in such an aggressive and visual manner that you literally feel the sweat of the characters and the thick air of their crumbling shelters. This film, set in the mid 1940's does not tell you or its immediate 1964 audiences how the trajectory of this harsh reality resolves itself, but that 1964 audience surely knew where this tale leads, and with a bit of respectful curiosity into Japanese history, you too may gain a similar flush of pride and determination.
A band of self-sufficient prostitutes violently fight off both competitors and ruffians within their small riverside territory in a war-torn Tokyo neighborhood. These girls are rough, not only to intruders and outsiders, but also to anyone within their ranks who violates their communal code.
When a similarly self-sufficient male (Shishido Jo) stumbles into their lair after a bloody fight with an American MP, the women extend a modicum of sympathy. Their modicum of sympathy soon blossoms into an infatuation fueled by long-forgotten notions of "love" and "true womanhood". But the desolate world they all share seems to allow no possibility for anything other than a brute survival.
This story is all about these desolate souls attempting to climb above this base whoring and criminal existence to levels they were once familiar with. Levels containing love, happiness, peace, stability, and safety. Pride, they clearly already possess.
There is a reason director Suzuki Seijun maintains his reputation after decades of scrutiny. Under the Nikkatsu Films banner, he apparently had little to say regarding which films he could direct and what "stars" he could cast as the lead characters. (And this film is a prime example: he was forced to use both this script and Shishido Jo as his lead). Despite this constriction of creativity, Suzuki's own unique directorial skill and personal anti-war/violence philosophy has abundantly seeped through each of his films until we, decades later, gratefully recognize his core and perhaps unparalleled pioneer skill amongst his peers.
Its clear from the history that Suzuki would not have chosen Shishido for the lead role, and the fact that "nudity" was required of the lead actresses resulted in most/all the studio's contracted actresses to decline a role herein. Thus despite his great success here, one can only imagine what could have been had Suzuki been in charge of casting.
This is available in Region 1, subtitled DVD. Through mainstream outlets, you should be able to get the Criterion Collection version which contains some excellent subtitled interviews with Suzuki and his producer on this film.
|Visceral exploration into the economic collapse following WW2.||One cow slaughtered and dissected onscreen.||Some frontal nudity and some harsh, traditional Japanese BSDM.||Director Suzuki here's pulls off both an extreme tale of eroticism and deep social commentary.|