Sunday, March 29, 2009

GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no mon, 1964)

Seijun Suzuki is a rare international example of the sort of director you usually associate with Hollywood: a victim of the studio system. He spent a decade in the Japanese cinematic wilderness after his home studio Nikkatsu fired him following the release of his surreal yakuza saga, Branded to Kill. That was in 1967. Suzuki's offense was that his films had become too gratuitously artistic and were alienating and confusing the genre audience. Branded definitely is a weird film, and it has the same effect in our time. I found it in a used book store a few years ago. You don't usually find a Criterion DVD in such a place, and since I found Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter there at the same time I can only assume that someone had decided that the director wasn't his or her cup of sake. So you can see where Nikkatsu was coming from -- but on the evidence of Gate of Flesh, the studio had more tolerance than they're given credit for.

Nikutai no mon follows the struggles of Maya, a young homeless woman in early postwar Japan who joins a little autonomous guild of prostitutes. With yakuza protection they can do without pimps, and they depend on themselves to enforce their territory between Yurakucho and Kachidoki Bridge. They cater to the American occupation troops and those Japanese with money to spare. The arrival of more troops inspires a spirited display of wares from the women of the shantytown near the U.S. base.

Each of the ladies dresses in a particular color -- one in red, another in purple, a relatively zaftig one in yellow -- and Maya's color is green. Her new pals are cynical and irreverent, determined to "spit on everything," but they keep one rule very strictly: no freebies!

No such rule is enacted in the movies unless it's going to be broken, and in this sort of movie no such rule is broken unless someone's going to get punished for it. Machiko is the guilty party initially, giving the gals cause to discuss proper disciplinary technique. "You gotta beat her on the ass for it to sound good," one advises. Maya finds herself strangely aroused by the ritualistic caning, and seeks release by joining in on the punishment.

This shot is a good example of Suzuki's technique. Instead of cutting from Machiko's ordeal to Maya's reaction shots, he figures: I've got a pretty wide screen, so let's play with some superimposition. It's actually quite effective and expressionistic at the same time. You'll note that since it's still only 1964, Suzuki must arrange his lighting carefully to keep the naughty bits mostly in the dark. He doesn't succeed all the time at this, but it really enhances the stylized eroticism of the story. Here's another example from the same scene.

Think of Gate of Flesh as poised stylistically somewhere nearly halfway between Michael Powell (intense cinematography and art direction) and Russ Meyer (frenetically edited sleaze). The film could be seen as a kind of antithesis and ideal second-feature to Powell's Black Narcissus. In that film, a self-governing community of women (nuns) are disrupted by the presence of a man. In Gate of Flesh, the solidarity of prostitutes is threatened by the bull-in-a-china-shop presence of Shintaro ("Shin") Ibuki a veteran turned thief and smuggler who takes refuge in their headquarters after stabbing a GI. Disillusioned by Japan's defeat, Shin vows, "I'm gonna live for sex and food."

Joe Shishido also starred in Suzuki's Branded to Kill. He's noted for his chunky chipmunk cheeks, on display here.

Even wounded, he proves his mastery by shaking off a chair attack and beating up Sen, the red-clad de facto leader of the women. From that point, the women start competing for his favor, including the now-exiled Machiko. Maya has the hots for him, too. Thinking Machiko a demon for trying to seduce him, she says, "I'll become a demon, too." She practices by seducing the black Catholic priest who tends to the fallen women, ultimately driving him to kill himself.

Chico Roland, who plays the priest, will probably be best known to American audiences for his quite different role in The Street Fighter

Shin aspires to be the Harry Lime of the shantytown. He's allegedly hoarding some stolen penicillin, and he's capable of stealing a cow virtually from under the nose of its owner in order to prepare (gruesomely) a feast of beef for the ladies. Everybody gets drunk, Shin sings some old army songs, and the girls note with amusement that "Something's crazy when our bodies cost the same as beef [40 yen per pound, we learn]." Speaking of crazy, perhaps you can see where our story's headed. Maya is turned on by Shin. She's turned on by punishment. Everyone is drunk, hot and sweaty. But we're going to do this the Seijun Suzuki way. That is: Maya invites him to take her. He checks her out. Cut to black and white stock footage of batteries of rockets firing. Cut to him taking her in passionate soft focus.

Maya is willing to pay the consequences because she intends to rendezvous with Shin after he makes his big score. Meanwhile, the Americans and the yakuza are closing the net on the man who's made quite a nuisance of himself through a rapid-fire montage of muggings earlier in the picture. Maya does indeed pay the consequences, since Suzuki would hardly have a movie otherwise, but as for the rest...

Gate of Flesh definitely belongs to the "style over substance" category, but for a director like Suzuki the style is the substance of the movie. The story counts for less than the way it's told. Historically, producers tend to worry that style gets in the way of story and alienates the audience. But when you get to genre films (and I'd classify this one as such), genre itself is a style superimposed on events that might be portrayed differently by a documentarian or even a director of a different genre. A director like Suzuki takes style to the next lurid level -- one that isn't necessarily inappropriate for his material, which may be why Nikkatsu didn't fire him this time.

I think that students of style and students of sleaze alike would enjoy Gate of Flesh. Suzuki tried to make a work of art and a work of exploitation in one stroke, and it's a pretty good try. If you want to see some of the images above in motion, here's the trailer. I chose an untranslated one so the subtitles wouldn't get in the way, and I hope I've given you an idea of what you're looking at. If not, have fun and fill in the blanks yourselves.


Lolita said...

Great post! Seems like a fascinating film, I think I need to get ahold of it soon! Keep up the good work, I really like your blog. Great to put a film clip from the movie in the post, too.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Lo. It is a fascinating film in a sordid, feverish way. I try to use clips or trailers whenever I can find them, but while I do the screencaps myself, for moving images I must depend on the kindness of strangers on YouTube and elsewhere.