Thursday, June 6, 2013

Kejni Mizoguchi | Yoru no onnatchi (Women of the Night)

bad girls
by Douglas Messerli

Yoshikata Yoda (story, based on the novel by Eijirō Misaita), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Yoru no onnatachi (Women of the Night) / 1948, USA 1979

Kenji Mizoguchi’s powerful post-war film is also somewhat problematic. A woman, Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose husband has not yet returned from the war, is living, rather uncomfortably, with her tubercular son with her husband’s brother. The brother has little income, and Fusako and her ailing child must often fend for themselves. Attempting to sell one of her summer dresses, Fusako is told by the seemingly friendly clothes-merchant that she should try prostitution, which shocks the struggling woman.

      Back at home, her teenage sister-in-law, Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) arrives to report that there is news of Fusako’s husband. Together they rush to his former place of employment, only to discover that, after surviving throughout the war, he has died of malnutrition, leaving behind only a few personal belongings; even his worn uniform has been destroyed. The head of the company, Mr. Kuriyama (Sanae Takasugi) offers his condolences and his help if needed.

      Soon after, Fusako’s child falls into a seizure and dies. Cutting into the future, we see Fusako, now better dressed, on the street, where she accidently encounters her long-missing sister, Natsuko, and the two take tea to celebrate their reunion.

     Natsuko, we discover, is working as “dance hall hostess,” and Fusako is now working as an executive secretary to Mr. Kuriyama. Natusuko asks if she might move in with her sister, and Fusako agrees. After an utterly depressing beginning, accordingly, it now appears that the world has improved for the two sisters. However, as soon discover, Fusako’s price for her position is the sexual attentions of her boss, who we also discover is smuggling cocaine. While Kuriyama’s is away on business appointment, his assistant rushes into his office report to Fusako that the police are on their way, entrusting a large cache of the drug to the secretary, who is told to hide it in her home.

      When she arrives home, she discovers her door is locked from inside. When Natsuko finally opens it up, we discover Mr. Kuriyama within; the two have obviously been also having an affair. Furious with the betrayal, Fusako leaves home, disappearing from her sister’s and Kuriyama’s life. Secretly, she has taken the clothes-merchant’s advice and tutelage (the elderly woman also apparently serves as pimp for several women), joining the numerous street-walkers of Osaka.

       If some critics have complained of Mizoguchi’s cuts across space and time in the story I have recounted so far, I would argue that instead of creating confusion, it allows the inevitable surprises of life itself, and we quickly assimilate these alterations in the condition of his character’s lives. Yet the sudden transformation of Fusako, while perhaps inevitable given the difficulties of her life, seems almost inexplicable. How could a woman horrified of the concept when she was in greater need, suddenly turn to such a way of life? We must wait until later in the film, perhaps, to comprehend a rationale: her utter hate of men, and her desire, after being lied to by Kuriyama, to seek revenge.

       When Natsuko discovers that her sister has been spotted on the streets, she goes in search of her, but is mistakenly arrested with numerous other prostitutes in a police round-up. Once the women are booked, they are taken to a prison hospital and tested for syphilis. At the hospital, the two sisters again meet up, Natsuko explaining her mistaken arrest. Although Fusako is now angry with her sister, she remains protective, assuring her that she will be freed and everything will be fine once she proves she has contacted no disease. Shockingly, however, Natsuko discovers that only is she infected, but that she is pregnant. Yet she quickly becomes determined to have the child and take the cure to rid her of syphilis. When she later explains the situation to Kuriyama, with whom she has been living, he demands she have an abortion and is unsympathetic to her situation. Now also jilted, Natsuko begins to bring home men from her job and to drink heavily.

      In one of the most exciting moments of the film, Fusako, still locked away in the hospital, escapes over the wall, returning to the streets before, finally, returning home to find Natsuko drunk, about to give birth. Fusako demands she join her, lifting up the near-lifeless body, as she takes her to a woman’s refuge. At the refuge, Natsuko goes into labor; the child is stillborn, but she survives. Authorities try to convince both women to change their lives, but Fusako still resists, angrier than ever and now a hard-boiled street creature.

      A similar situation has previously occurred with her young sister-in-law, Kumiko, who, having run away from home and been refused refuge in the Owada apartment, has met a young street boy, who rapes and robs her, abandoning the innocent girl in an inn where the local prostitutes beat her and steal her clothing. Kumiko is forced to join them to survive.

       In the final and most moving scene of this film, Fusako accidently meets up with Kumiko when she is called to observe a beating of the young intruder into the older prostitute’s territory. Recognizing her, Fusako demands that the women cease beating her, but the girl, now as hard-boiled as her sister-in-law is unrepentant and determined to remain on the street, in response to which Fusako herself beats the young girl, taunting her for her degeneracy and the condition of her life before breaking down into tears, the young girl seeking solace at her knee. Determined to take the girl to safety and, finally, to abandon the profession herself, Fusako lashes out against the other violent women, who, in turn, fall upon her, beating her relentlessly. Finally a group of on looking prostitutes intercede, realizing the truth of Fusako’s insistence that “there should be no women like us.”

       So Mizoguchi’s film ends, strangely, with a moral indictment, damning these “women of the night.” But given the harsh conditions of these postwar women and the continual unfeeling righteousness of several of the religious and social figures he has revealed throughout, it seems, in the end, that the director is somehow ignoring the implications of his own tale. Despite the frankness of Mizoguchi’s film, offering up open discussions of prostitution, rape, syphilis and women committing violence, the denouement would seem to return these women once again into home-bound roles that often means complete self-sacrifice. Although Woman of the Night quite clearly shows us that it is the men in these women’s lives who have helped to destroy them, the film ultimately seems to suggest that the women alone must redeem themselves, must reject the demeaning and destructive roles they have embraced. In a strange way, however, it is only as prostitutes that these women seem to have any power in the post-war Japanese society. Mizoguchi does not show one woman, other than the child-like acolytes of the women’s refuge—given daily quite meaningless “pep” talks by the center’s director—who is permitted any dignity. It is clear that the sometimes “rightist” film director was of two minds about the predicament of his “women of the night,” quite brilliantly revealing their plights while blaming them for their decision to choose this method of survival. The paradox he has created is nonetheless a fascinating one, worth pondering through viewing this mesmerizing film.

Los Angeles, June 5, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (June 2013).       

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