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.

     Mickey (Machiko Kyō), the youngest and most outrageous of the five women, has run away from her home in Kobe to Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district in order, in part, to punish her own father who has apparently had mistresses and often himself visited such brothels where she now works. Desperate for love and attention more than money, Mickey is the consummate consumer; Mizoguchi presents her constantly eating and borrowing against her future wages to buy perfumes, jewelry, and other items. When her father comes to bring her home—not for her own sake but because her profession may harm his own business, her sister’s marriage, and her brother’s future educational opportunities—she lets loose her hatred of him, revealing how painful it was for her and her mother (who has recently died) to deal with her father’s extended absences. Mickey alone appears to be content to be where she is, but we can only imagine that within a few years, as an overweight penniless woman, she have no future left to her.

     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.

     Only Yasumi, the most successful of the geishas, seems to know how to work the system. Having had to enter into prostitution because of debt for her husband’s jail bond, she perceives her encounters with men like business deals, leading on a small businessman who desires to marry her by suggesting that if she can pay off her debt she may join him. When he finally is able to bring her the money, she informs him that she has no intention to marry him. Having stolen the money from his company, her customer grows violent, throwing her to the floor and, at first, seeming to kill her. Yet, apparently, she survives, now having saved the money in order to buy a nearby futon shop which now services the brothel in which she worked.
     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

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