Monday, November 2, 2015
Kenji Mizoguchi | 地帯 Akasen Chitai (Street of Shame)
a world from which they might never return
by Douglas Messerli
Masahige Narusawa (screenplay, based on a novel Yohiko Shibaki), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) 赤線地帯 Akasen Chitai (Street of Shame) / 1956
Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film demonstrated him, once again, tackling important issues about women, and, in particular, geishas or, in this case, open prostitutes. His own sister had been forced into prostitution after her family abandoned her, and, even though she later married a wealthy businessman, it is clear Mizoguchi never recovered from his feelings of anger of his father’s business and familial failures.
But whereas an earlier film such as Women of the Night (1948) tells a dark story of postwar geishas, including territorial stand-offs of various denizens of the street, the women do come together with such great resilience that one might almost imagine that these women will survive and, perhaps, even find happiness.
By 1956, the year in which the Japanese Diet was debating whether or not to delimit and ban prostitution, Mizoguchi seems no longer to be able to imagine any future for his five desperate women, trapped in a run-down brothel named Dreamland, with no longer any geisha allure.
If each of his characters represent a slightly different type, they all share sad tales of having to work to support their sons and sick husbands, to pay off debts, or in reaction to abuse at home.
Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), whose husband has died, works to support her son, whom she has placed in the country with a relative; after he shows up at Dreamland, she discovers that he has left the farm to work at a nearby factory, and hopes that she may now be able to move with him; disgusted by her profession, however, he rejects her and demands that she no longer communicate with him.
Perhaps the saddest of the group, is the plain-faced Hanae (, whose husband is ill and dying, and waits nearby each evening with their young son upon his back. The couple has previously attempted suicide, and Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) comes home one evening to discover her husband trying to hang himself once again. It is clear that no matter how much she works, she will never have enough money to buy him the proper medicines or hospital care he needs in order to survive.
The eldest of the women, Yorie (Hiroko Machida) finds a man who wishes to marry her, and finally decides to leave the world of prostitution behind. The women celebrate her freedom, with Mickey alone insinuating that she will be back before long. Yorie does, sadly, return; her husband has used her like a slave, forcing her to work long hours with no release and no appreciation. At least in Dreamland, she is paid a few Yen for her work.
In the film, the Diet, as in the past, defers its decision on prostitution, but in reality Mizoguchi’s film is said to have been one of the forces that led the Diet to finally ban such previously licensed institutions.
Yet there may be some truth in what the brothel’s owners keep telling their employees. Will the government truly support the women who have forced to sell their bodies in order to survive and pay off debts? Although these women cannot ever hope to truly escape their lives of shame, can they be truly reassimilated into the larger society?
Mizoguchi’s realist conventions may make everything seem evident, but the strange, half-experimental, half science fiction-like musical score by Toshiro Mayuzumi (with a theremin as one of the central instruments) takes this film into other territories. The women of Dreamland, it seems, are trapped between two worlds, one just on the dark side of ordinary culture, the other half existing in some outer space from which these dreamers can never hope to return.
Los Angeles, November 2, 2015