March 3, 2016
Street of Shame – Japan, 1956
Kenji Mizoguchi’s thought-provoking film Street of Shame begins like many of his other films – with an aerial view of a city, this one Tokyo, and yet unlike many of his other films, it is set to music that is chaotic. Instruments start and stop, voices chant at paces that don’t seem to be following any particular tempo, Japanese flutes shriek and climb in pitch. It is as if a traditional orchestra were improvising, trying unsuccessfully to find a rhythm that would provide it with a suitable chorus or refrain, one that could be returned to whenever chaos had to make way for order. I felt as if Mizoguchi were not so subtly saying that while all looks serene from the air, we are actually looking at a society utterly out of tune.
As the camera descends, viewers are taken to the red-light district of Yoshiwara. There we enter a brothel ironically called Dreamland and are introduced to the Madame, a woman with an almost romantic sense of nostalgia for her profession. In one scene, we hear her wax poetic about the courtesans of yesteryear, ones that knew poetry, could sing and dance, and knew how to stimulate their clients both physically and intellectually. Those young women within earshot of the remark scoff at the idea. Their concept of attracting a customer – in fact, it’s that of every worker in Yoshiwara – is to accost them as they approach, grab them by their arm or shirt, and rather roughly tow them into their establishment. It’s actually quite jarring to see.
The film follows five of the workers of this brothel, and Mizoguchi does an amazing job of making each one of them a fully developed character. First, there’s Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), one of the youngest of the group. In the beginning of the film, we learn that she has received a wedding proposal from a loyal customer, yet she seems more interested in gaining her freedom than becoming someone else’s wife. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is older, and her appeal is fading. She has a son entering adulthood and perhaps puts too many of her hopes on him. Another veteran of Dreamland is Yorie (Hiroko Machida). She too has a wedding proposal, yet she seems much more inclined to accept it. Mickey (Machiko Kyo) is a new arrival. She shows up with a chip on her shoulder and an apparent complete disdain for those around her. In practically no time at all, she’s flirting with another lady’s customer and borrowing money with such frequency that I wondered if she had any desire to leave her profession. The last character is Hanae (Michiyo Kogure), and it is this character that is the film’s moral center. Hanae is married and has a son, and prostitution is what keeps them alive. In one of the film’s most emotional moments, she proclaims her utter disbelief that her home country can be called cultured. In her eyes, a cultured nation lifts its citizens up; it does not consign them to a life of shame and despondency. It is plainly a call for action.
The film follows these characters as they go through the motions of what for them is a normal life. They are never allowed to forget how much they are indebted to their bosses, yet most of them still stubbornly cling to hope, even as it becomes increasingly fainter with each passing day. And yet the film does not present the outside world as any better than for them. In the film, it’s a place of lowered expectations, of men who want servants instead of wives, and relatives embarrassed by what the women do, yet simultaneously willing to live off the money they get by doing it. It’s almost as if Mizoguchi is arguing that they might be better off where they are. It’s a bold assertion, and the film provoked questions in me that I didn’t expect to be raised, especially given the way he dealt with the topic of fallen women in his earlier films.
The film was made at a time when Japanese society was debating what to do about prostitution, and the film comes back to that subject often. In scene after scene, we see either the Madame or her male counterpart sitting near the radio and listening to news broadcasts on government sessions devoted to debating a bill that would outlaw prostitution. They, like the women who work there, know what is at stake, and I listened to each broadcast with increasing interest.
The film was a huge success in Japan, yet one wonders what audiences saw in it. Did they only see the horror of the profession, that it turned supposedly innocent women cold and unresponsive to their families and recoil in shock? Or did they watch it and notice that the world around these women could be hard and uncaring, and that if not for their profession, their chances of survival would significantly reduce? I suspect they noticed the former, for the government banned prostitution a few months after the film’s release, making this one of the few cases I can think of in which a film has had an impact on the law.
Street of Shame is well acted, and Mizoguchi shows his usual eye for space, light, and shadows. One of the things that I found most striking was the change in the women’s behavior from scene to scene. Around customers they were completely different in manner, adopting a higher pitched voice and throwing out flirtatious remarks in what Westerners might describe as whining voices. The facade is dropped the second the men leave. The movie is also very moving. Each woman is facing challenges and must make hard decisions, and many of their situations elicited my empathy. All in all, the film is moving, infuriating, and provocative. It asks questions, yet leaves it to the audience to find the answers. It offers hope only to dash it, yet brings happiness to one of its most underhanded characters. And when the film reaches its conclusion, little was as I want it to be. I respected this. After all, life is not a fairy tale, not even for women employed by a place called Dreamland. (on DVD as part of Criterion’s Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women)
*Street of Shame is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*It was Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film. He died of leukemia on August 24, 1956.