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TCM Imports - November 2013
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Remind Me

Story of a Prostitute

Seijun Suzuki was a maverick of 1960s cinema in Japan, but he didn't begin that way. He started as a company man, apprenticing as an assistant director at Shochiku in the late 1940s and then moving over to Nikkatsu Studio where he graduated to directing his own films in 1956. He was prolific, cranking out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu -- war movies, youth dramas, yakuza thrillers -- on tight shooting schedules, and he managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit. But as his confidence grew, so did his creative drive, and soon he was transforming his pulp fictions into audacious melodramas of stylistic audacity. His experiments often got him into trouble from the front office ("I was getting warned every time I made a picture," he told Chris D. in an interview) but they also got him noticed.

Suzuki had a critical and commercial success with Gate of Flesh (1964), a lusty adaptation of Taijiro Tamura's novel about desperate survivors scrambling for a living through prostitution, black market trading, and murder on the waterfront of post-World War II Tokyo, so Nikkatsu handed him another Tamura novel to adapt. Set on the Manchurian front of World War II, Story of a Prostitute (1965) is a melodramatic tale of sexual possession, revenge, and all-consuming passion under fire. The novel was previously filmed in 1950 as Escape at Dawn, albeit in a highly-sanitized form. Suzuki embraced the subject matter, bringing perhaps some of his own experience to the film. The director fought in the South Pacific during World War II and was shipwrecked twice during his service. "There were things he saw that darkened his vision," writes Chris D. in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, "things absurd in their stupidity and irony that colored what would strike him as funny." Story of a Prostitute is not a comedy, mind you, but it is audacious and unusual.

Yumiko Nogawa, who starred in Gate of Flesh, plays the wistful heroine Harumi, a woman who flees romantic heartbreak by volunteering to serve her country as a "comfort woman" for the troops. Suzuki brings an elegant, at times traditionally classic beauty to her introduction, opening on grand, gorgeous vistas with Harumi framed perfectly in the foreground, equating her with the magnificence of the natural landscape, establishing her pride, moral strength, and profound sadness. Her romantic ideals of service are quickly shattered when she's whisked away to the grubby military camp and finds herself one of seven prostitutes expected to serve a garrison of 1,000 men. Her experience becomes more servitude than existential freedom as she endures the sexual sadism of the brutal base Adjutant, who claims her as his personal property and delights in her degradation.

Nogawa's performance becomes increasingly hysterical as Harumi's serenity gives way to desperation and she seduces the Adjutant's loyal, straight-arrow attendant (Tamio Kawaji) to help her plot his demise. Suzuki matches the emotional storm with the violence of war. During one tryst, a brief escape from the nightmare of servitude, Suzuki sends fiery rockets shooting overhead followed by swarms of Chinese soldiers leaping over the trenches like rushing water, images both dramatically potent and strikingly beautiful.

For the tragic climax, Suzuki calls upon the wind to storm through the scene, a favorite device of his. "God is wind. It transcends human beings, making them as insignificant as insects," he explained in an interview. "Nagatsuka Kazue, the cameraman of Story of a Prostitute, was familiar with my habit of suddenly getting the wind to blow. He reminded me, 'The wind must blow at the correct moment, right?' There was nothing about wind in the script. But Nagatsuka was way ahead of me: 'Either the people are sad, poor, miserable, nasty or ridiculous, or they show themselves to be stronger than the wind, as if they're rebelling against God.'"

It becomes a powerful, potent condemnation of militarism, a theme that Suzuki would further develop in his 1966 social satire Fighting Elegy. There's no satire here, merely a grim portrait of idealism brought low to the most primal human drives: desire, revenge, survival.

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, Chris D. I.B. Taurus, 2005.
Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun, edited by Simon Fields and Tony Rayns. Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1994.
Interview with Seijun Suzuki conducted by Brian Puterman and Robert Graves, Asian Cult Cinema No. 61, 1998.
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