Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Kejni Mizoguchi | Yoru no onnatchi (Women of the Night)
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
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
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.
Angeles, June 5, 2013 Reprinted from International Cinema Review (June 2013).