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Gate of Flesh (Criterion Collection)
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In the shady black markets and bombed-out hovels of postWorld War II Tokyo, a tough band of prostitutes eke out a dog-eat-dog existence, maintaining tenuous friendships and a semblance of order in a world of chaos. But when a renegade ex-soldier stumbles into their midst, lusts and loyalties clash, with tragic results. With Gate of Flesh, visionary director Seijun Suzuki delivers a whirlwind of social critique and pulp drama shot through with brilliant colors and raw emotions.
Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no mon) is another wonderful example of why Seijun Suzuki will go down in history as one of Japan's craftiest and most ingenious B-movie directors. As exhibited in Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter Suzuki has the uncanny ability to take shoestring budgets, predictable boilerplate scripts, tight schedules, and studio-contracted actors and spin these elements to create extremely deep and layered films. Gate of Flesh is no exception. In post-World War II Japan, life on the Tokyo streets has become desperate. Amidst the ruins, a tough, well-worn group of prostitutes bands together for survival and companionship. When an ex-soldier enters into the circle, flames of jealousy, anger, and lust are fueled, ending with disastrous results. On the surface, the story is a simple pulp tale of decadence thrown together by Nikkatsu Studios to make a quick buck. But, in the hands of Suzuki-san, Gate of Fleshturns into a hallucinatory, surreal, critical post-modern essay on the decline of loyalty and morality in modern society. --Rob Bracco
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I love the raw, filthy extent of decadence that Seijun Sazuki has created for this film. Out of all the film's he's created, for some reason, he seems to be mildly ashamed of this one. He and production designer Takeo Kimura has created a cult classic of fabulous artistic visual achievement.
As you are aware, this film is about the life of prostitutes living within the war ravished ruins of the streets of Tokyo, just after the end of World War II. The main focus is on 5 Japanese girls. Prostitutes that work for themselves (no pimps), and share a burned out abandoned building, and live by certain set rules. They sell themselves on the streets and keep their money for themselves, however, if any of the girls give away sex for free, the other girls will tie her up and beat her senseless. All the girls are beautiful and yet their sweaty, filthy appearance actually contributes to what makes this film look so good.
What makes this film so beautiful to watch is how each of the girls wear a specific color of dress, which adds to the way the girls differ from each other, and although it was never initially intended, the Japanese audience actually created a personality perception based on colors, of the girls identified by the specific colors of how they were dressed. Here's the interpretations of how the girls are perceived:
Roko (Tamiko Ishaii) dressed in Yellow, is said to represent kindness and compromise.
Sen (Satoko Kasai) dressed in Red, is said to represent belonging or fear.
Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) dressed in Green, is said to represent peace and tranquility.
Mino, (Kayo Matsuo) dressed in Purple, is said to represent loneliness and anxiety.
Machiko (Misako Tominaga) dressed in White, isn't given a description of her persona, which is why they probably just had her dressed in white and used her as the fallen one who has broken their most enforced rule: giving it away for free. Machiko was married to a man who died in the war, so she, more or less, is just trying to find a new love. She sees a man on a regular basis and never takes any money. So eventually, she getsa caught by one of the other girls so they wait for her when she returns to them. She then gets stripped, tied-up, then beatened by the other girls just within inches of her life. To Japan, this must be acceptable behavior for prostitutes in Japan, and therefore, entertainment as well for the adult audience.
But, alas, a new obstacle enters the girl's domain. A runaway fugitive named Shin Ibuki (Jo Shishido), enters into the girls homestead and then begins to order the girls around. He's injured so he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon and his aggressively mean demeanor is actually somewhat appealing to the girls.
The girls suddenly begin to have yearnings to be with Shin although they all know they must not break their most brutally enforced rule. Shin will not stay much longer, so Maya takes a chance at giving herself to Shin and hopes that he will take her with him when he leaves. She seduces him when he is drunk, and Sen catches her. Now, it's Maya's turn to be punished.
In the making of this film, you will see that Americans have set up a base right outside the city and they are always hitting on the prostitutes of Tokyo. You can tell, and Seijun Sazuki even admits, that he still had some bitterness and some hostility against Americans back then and so trying to work with some American actors, he had to fight with some of his own prejudices.
And here's something else that you don't see very often on film. No special effects done here. A cow is brought into the girls domain, struck on the head with an axe, killed, and gutted right there on the floor, in front of the girls, captured on film. Some people might be sensitive to seeing something like that.
So, to end this review, I will say that this film looks really good. The girls are beautiful and you can tell that this is a fabulous High-Definition transfer. Satoko Kasai (Sen) dressed in Red really looks very sharp and appealing to the eye, as all the girls do in their colors. If RED looks good on film, you know the rest of the film will look beautiful, too.
For as old as this film is, you would think they could always make films look better than they do. This film looks better than many newer films that come out on DVD today. Why is that? Do they save the better mastered copy so they can re-sell it again later? I think that's what's happening. I've bought many films on DVD, that I've re-purchased when they claim to have a "new digitally re-mastered" version. That's American commercialism for you. Give as little as you can, sell it, then beef it up, and resell it again.
Recently, I decided to give Seijun Suzuki another shot and check out his prostitute exploitation movie, Gate of Flesh. Man, what a completely different experience this movie was. While Branded to Kill is a frustrating avant-garde attention span torture device of a movie, Gate of Flesh is about cute Japanese prostitutes who wear colorful dresses... and torture the sweet crap out of each other.
Set just after World War II in Japan, when American soldiers were ever-present and the stench of desolation and defeat burned the collective nostrils of a once proud nation, Gate of Flesh is joyfully grim heap of fun. Seijun Suzuki himself acknowledges that this movie was intended to be an exploitation picture, but that didn't stop him from loading Gate of Flesh with lovely colors, stylish sets, and quirky visual flourishes. Gate of Flesh combines two of my favorite things, visual flair and tittilation, into a handsome package.
The main characters of the film are a group of prostitutes that don't see much good in slaving for a pimp, so they take care of each other under one condition: don't provide sex for free. This, of course, rules out having any meaningful relationship with men. When one of their group does attempt a non-business relationship, the penalty is harsh. Even though Gate of Flesh was made over forty years ago, I would have to say that it would probably get a light R-rating if it was made today. There are a few brief glimpses of female skin here and there, but the punishment scenes coupled with the frequent profanity would probably still get many viewers' panties in a bunch. There are way more graphic and sadistic movies out there, but considering the time that Gate of Flesh was made and the skill behind it, I was pretty impressed.
In an interview, Suzuki mentions how it would have been easier to make the movie right after the war ended because then he would have had real burnt out buildings to use. Though this would have probably made Gates of Flesh more realistic, I think that the sets add distinctiveness to the film. The art decoration in Gate of Flesh is borderline beautiful at times, and a more realistic approach would have greatly altered the look of the film, I believe. In Suzuki's hands, though, it may have been just as appealing.
Along with Nights of Cabiria, which I truly adore, Gates of Flesh stands as one of my favorite films about prostitutes. When I think about it, I realize that neither of these films portrays prostitution in a realistic manner. Both are somewhat fanciful in their approach, and while Gate of Flesh is considerably more gritty than Nights of Cabiria, it's really just a torture movie with pretty colors and prostitutes that are more attractive than they should be. Yes, I am a shallow escapist, thank you very much.
Suzuki opens with a shot of Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), a young homeless woman shocked by the sudden fall of the Japanese Empire, who aimlessly drifts with the constant flow of people. Her lost presence together with the raspy lyrics of a record symbolically presents the societal confusion of everything that has been lost to the devastating fire. The wandering eyes of Maya hunt for food, safety, and possibly belonging while dodging the dangers that lurk in the background. The law has no compassion for humanity, as it seeks the desperate survivors that have no other choice than to pursue illegal alternatives to survive. On the tiny mud-stomped streets cutting between endless rows of provisional huts, Maya witnesses the law enforcement forcefully apprehending some of the destitute women, but with little resolve, as arrest is to be preferred over starvation. Life has fallen, and the Japanese lifestyle has struck the very bottom, which Suzuki illustrates with the countless hordes of drifting homeless and starving inhabitants of Tokyo.
Eventually Maya's hunger catches up with her, as her morality can no longer control her fingers reaching for a meager meal. Inexperience in theft gets her caught, but a man extends his kindness by allowing her to eat her fill. However, it is a cruelly exploitive world, as she soon learns the true intentions of the man who plans to sell her body to lustful American soldiers. It is a rough and publicly humiliating initiation for Maya to the lower depths of the society where her redemption comes forward through the crimson red wearing Sen (Satoko Kasai). The first appearance of Sen provides a false description of her, as she looks like a blossoming flower among weeds. Her bright crimson dress is a strong contrast to the environment while her arrogance would fit a rich nobleman amidst filthy farmers. In essence, Sen attempts to put on a strong front, as she is also the self-proclaimed leader for a small gang of prostitutes to which Maya is introduced.
All the women, in Sen's posse of prostitutes, offer an analogous presentation of different emotional reactions of the Japanese society to the aftermath of the war. Sen, dressed in crimson, allows the mind to think of the fear and impulsiveness that many experienced. On the other side of the spectrum, the outsider Machiko (Misako Tominaga) steps forward in customary kimono and wooden sandals. Machiko's attire suggestively represents the disciplined and meditative past before the war, but she also permits the audience to think of the errors of the past. In between Sen and Machiko, the purple dressed Mino (Kayo Matsuo) represents self-loathing, maybe in regards to defeat, or perhaps of the current state of the nation, while the understanding and compromising Roku (Tamiko Ishii) is clad in yellow. The newcomer Maya easily adjusts to this devious group of la femme fatale, as she later symbolically emerges in the color green. Green evokes the notion of a corrupt soul and envy while May's desire for carnal passion intensifies.
These self-made women live under a strict dogma, which offers them protection and a steady income that provides the basic needs and group belonging. They have broken the chains of the patriarchal society and gotten rid of the middleman - the pimp. Sen educates Maya in their business while enlightening her in the principal rule, which they all must obey. It states, "Never give it to a guy for free. This is a business, and our bodies are our merchandise.", and later the audience will learn about the severe punishment for breaking their governing rule. Everything seems to run smoothly within the little carnal empire run by the women until the injured Ibuki (Jo Shishido) stumbles into their lives. Ibuki possesses a similar power over the women that the devil possesses over witches, as he commands the feminine creatures in their homely ruins. His presence stirs up the atmosphere with grave sexual tension, as most of the time Obuki seems to wander the screen clad in sweat and briefs while the desiring women observe his every move.
Historically, a tendency of territorial behavior has emerged through human existence, as it also provides an opportunity to secure the basic needs. This craving to extend the borders of the territory often leads to war, as Japan tried to expand its control of Asia. The expansionism often finds its foundation within greed, as gains trigger a desire for additional gains while also being able to control these gains. Suzuki brings this notion into Gate of Flesh where the women and Ibuki struggle for control while trying to extend their own influence over one another with dogmatic rules and sexual manipulation. Ibuki's presence creates a symbolic notion of the American presence in post-war Japan, as he exercises his domination over the women who metaphorically symbolize Japan. Thus, in this micro society Suzuki delivers a cerebral perspective of the carnal sins that govern these women's existence, which extends far beyond the realm of what is tangible.
Through the existence of Ibuki and the women, the cyclical concept of destruction and rebirth surfaces, as they are reaching the lowest point in their lives where the only logical direction for advancement is up. Applying this concept in a retrospective perspective to the release year of Gate of Flesh, the viewer will recognize that it coincides with the year of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. It offered the world a new glance of a once beaten, but now remerging nation, which learned from its consequences of defeat and ultimate destruction. Now some 50 years after the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man, the Japanese society has risen out of its ashes to become an economical power nation. Nonetheless, Suzuki touches humanity as it reaches its nadir where compassion vanishes into an oblivious vortex of greed and selfishness in a time of anarchy. This artistically cerebral tale will undoubtedly generate contemplation, even though it takes the form of an exploitative B-film that seems to nourish from its heavy use of nudity.
Briefly told, the film tells the story of a group of prostitutes making their Darwinian way in the charred rubble of postwar Japan. The girls have one, simple code: If you make love, you make money. To make love without charging is a disgrace, resulting in a naked beating and banishment from the group's mutual protection. The women strut the streets in a crowded, nightmare world of thugs and thieves, where love is rejected for the more primal needs of survival. A "returnee" from the war enters the prostitute's strangely insulated world and things become - unbalanced.
Seijun Suzuki's direction is astounding in this film. Working with the brilliant set designs of Takeo Kimura, Suzuki creates a world that is surreal yet somehow satisfies the eye's need for reality all at once - a kind of "symbolization" of reality. As with a lot of Suzuki's work, he displays a painter's sense of color, and the film is beautiful to look at. Despite the fact that the film was shot entirely on the back lot of Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki is able to portray the feel of a large burned out city through pure, brilliant shot choice and placement of action.
It was impossible, of course, for Suzuki to simply deliver the skin flick the studio expected. Instead, he created a brilliant film in which women are hung naked and whipped for daring to make love for free -- a complex film that is a study of the effects that defeat, humiliation and ruin visit on the soul, and the soul's indestructible quest for safety and love.
There are many strong performances here. Joe Shishido is superb as Ibuki, the swaggering, nihilistic ex-soldier, slowly but painfully submitting to his intrinsic sense of honor. Also great was Satoko Kasai as Sen, the leader of the whores. Dressed in red, she is a tall flame always at the center of the group, laying down the law and administering the beatings. Actress Kasai, who grins throughout only to display sharp teeth, offers one genuine smile in the film, and it is a moment of transcendent hope and heartbreak.
The Criterion Collection edition of this film is a nice package. I owned the film in VHS, and it is simply a different experience watching this digitally re-mastered edition. It is truly stunning. The special features are a bit slim, but they do offer one whopper: an interview with both Seijun Suzuki and Takeo Kimura, who was the production designer. Listening to these men speak was certainly fascinating from a "film-school" kind of perspective, but they also offered a different cultural perspective as well. Hearing Takeo Kimua say simply and calmly, "My own house was burned down because of the bombing, so having such memories probably helped me creating the sets," really slams that home in spades. -Mykal Banta
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