Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Women of the Night, a panoramic drama of the shattered society of Japan after decades of repressive government and the grim final months of World War II, perhaps represents a turning point for the later career of Kenji Mizoguchi. The director, as well as attempting like all of his industry colleagues to rebuild Japanese cinema as a commercial and artistic brand, began seeking new spiritual and emotional paradigms and aesthetic qualities distinct in some regards from his pre-war films. The casual brilliance of those earlier films, with their cosmopolitan themes, question-mark resolutions, and succinct, epigrammatic stories, gives way here to something at once more declarative and expansive in vision: presented amongst the Eclipse series “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” it points towards Mizoguchi’s great last film Street of Shame (1956). Whilst perhaps the least aesthetically coherent of the four films in that collection, it’s also the most overtly powerful in its simultaneous compassion and hard-earned transcendence, at odds with a devastated and inhumane landscape in which all pretence to community and mutual responsibility has been nullified and the relations of the powerful to the weak have achieved a quotidian extremity.

An irony of Mizoguchi’s life was that he was a rootless man who often took refuge amongst geishas, throwing into fascinating relief his constant refrain of worrying about the lot of women who took that line of work, or the less privileged one of prostitution nominally beneath it, because he was implicit in the power disparity he portrayed with such acid intensity. But he had also been deeply affected by he fact that his own sister had been sold as a geisha when he was a boy. The world of Women of the Night, an adaptation of a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, has lost the shape it had in pre-war works like Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). Everyone’s fair game now in a world in which vital loved ones have vanished, some to return, some forever. Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) deals with both, having waited years to learn of her husband’s fate, living in the slums and resisting the suggestions of the woman who buys and sells clothing that she take up prostitution to provide for her consumptive baby son. She learns of her husband’s death from Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata), the owner of the trading firm he used to work for. Some months later, she encounters her sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who had gone to live in Korea as a colonist, where she was raped during the evacuation, and now works as a taxi dancer at a nightclub. Natsuko moves in with Fusako, who’s since landed a secretarial job at Kuriyama’s company, but whose son has died.

The sisters’ momentary prosperity and harmony are broken when it becomes apparent that Kuriyama is romancing both of them. Fusako, enraged, walks away from sister and lover and determines to become a streetwalker. Meanwhile Fusako’s sister-in-law, the still-adolescent Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), decides to leave home but stays in the slum and is dominated by her self-pitying brother, a black marketeer. But Kumiko, excruciatingly naïve, is take in by Kiyoshi, a petty thief who’s posing as a caring student. He fools her into coming back to the restaurant he and other young refuse use as an HQ, where he pours liquor into her, rapes her, and lets the young tarts from his gang strip her of her clothes: they offer her the choice of joining their number or going back home half-naked. Meanwhile, Natsuko, upon learning that Fusako’s been spotted amongst streetwalkers, goes to search her out and gets netted in a police raid. Natsuko encounters the embittered Fusako in a combination prison and VD clinic; Fusako soon breaks out on her own, whilst Natsuko is freed when Kuriyama comes to collect her. But he takes no responsibility for the baby and is soon imprisoned for smuggling morphine, stripping Natusko of support.

Copies of this film available in the West had some 20 minutes cut out, and this accounts for some abrupt continuity leaps and emphasises a somewhat episodic quality in the story. Women of the Night is also melodramatic by Mizoguchi’s standards, and in many ways it anticipates works like On The Waterfront (1954)—particularly in the finale—that used melodrama in service of social portraiture. Mizoguchi handles his exciting moments with hypnotic, yet rigorously simple flare: Fusako smuggling an illegal stock of morphine away from Kuriyama’s warehouse under the nose of investigating police; her later escape from the VD centre, hastily utilising an old bed and her belt to scale the barbed wire; Kumiko’s increasingly dreadful encounter with Kiyoshi and his gang; the final Calvary-like struggle between camps of prostitutes. But it’s also a tough, expressive, and deeply paradoxical film, like his later Sanshô the Bailiff (1954), an odyssey through degradation and a drama of family ties that are strained and warped, but finally not broken. The sisters fight to hold onto what little self-direction they possess. After learning of her betrayal by Kuriyama, Fusako tries to give her prostitution the veneer of revenge against men, knowing full well she’ll soon be a carrier of disease. Kumiko’s decision to join the waifs who just assaulted her possesses the same illusion of empowerment. When Natusko finishes up in jail with Fusako, she’s confident she’ll be released as soon as she undergoes a medical test, but the doctors find that Kuriyama has made her pregnant and also infected her with syphilis.

Mizoguchi claimed William Wyler as an influence on his cinema, and the deep-focus framing in his film does evoke that, although Mizoguchi’s own particular aesthetic developed more or less concurrently with Wyler’s. Either way, the deep-focus work is particularly revealing in scenes that invert the dramatic focus, like that in which Kuriyama eyes Fusako with appraising interest from the background whilst she stands in fumbling grief in the foreground, and later when Fusako’s son has convulsions, Mizoguchi keeps his camera outside the house, Fusako’s desperate reaction within distant and hopeless as the men in the foreground go racing off to fetch aid. This technique gave him a way of easing up on his usual exhausting long takes whilst retaining a fluidic, integrated mise-en-scène, as well as giving his dramatic style an ironic distance. The overall structure also bears similarity to John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for Mizoguchi was also a Ford fan. The progress of the sisters towards finding temporary refuge and safety with a home for women run by conscientious men that offers shelter and food in exchange for labour echoes the way the Joads finally find the government farm in Ford’s film. Simultaneously, in its rigorous honesty, blasted imagery and vital humanism, Mizoguchi’s film certainly seems part of the post-War neorealist movement; indeed, his effortless fusion of the artistic and urgent sentiment is easily the equal of, and possibly superior to, what even the best of the neorealists were accomplishing at the time.

Mizoguchi charts the steady downfall of the sisters with remorseless logic, whilst also confirming how (comparatively) easy options consistently give way to bottomless pits. The extended scene of Kumiko’s degradation is rare in its concise nastiness: the way Kiyoshi forces drink down her throat and then eyes her like a cat does a chicken when it comes time to deflower her, and her own utterly clueless state afterwards, unsure whether she’s been loved or murdered after a fashion. The relationship between the sisters is the linchpin of the film, blending love and resentment, fear, and anger. Particularly fascinating in the way they alternate attitudes, Fusako and Natsuko take turns as the bitter, vengeful, self-destructive party, rebelling by assaulting their own bodies, their only remaining vessels for expressing hate. They evoke the sibling protagonists in Sisters of the Gion, but that film’s clean divide between the cynic and the idealist has been rendered much more blurred, inevitably, by a calamity that’s absorbed everyone. Fusako’s initial retreat into prostitution as her repudiation of dominance gives way to her attempts to drag a drunken and suicidal Natusko to the women’s refuge from the apartment Kuriyama left her with, but which she can’t afford. I love the moment when Fusako, trying to get Natsuko to cease her drunken lolling, strips the cigarette from her sister’s mouth, jams it in her own, and then manhandles her off the floor. Mizoguchi’s actresses smoke like those in modern films use guns. Equally amusing and acerbic is the scene in the VD centre when a representative of a “purity society” lectures a doctor on the virtues the women are missing out on and the collected whores lend their choral disdain of a ludicrous voice of morality and responsibility that echoes more concertedly and urgently from the doctors at the women’s refuge, with true moral weight but still without understanding that some things are unavoidable.

That’s partly because the alternatives can be degrading: staying at the women’s refuge is harder work and because there’s a rigorous dog-eat-dog truth to the world of the prostitutes themselves. Whilst there may be honour amongst thieves, there’s precious little amongst these hookers, who are regimented by the toughest and most psychopathic into turf-controlling gangs. When she’s first brought to the VD centre, Natusko is immediately set upon by the toughest ladies, who demand respect. Mizoguchi’s contempt for men who use women as a playground and then spurn them, and, worse, judge them, is condensed into the figure of Kuruyama, who’s as crooked as a corkscrew and yet maintains the most upright of affectations. But he’s implicated with the failure of an entire social philosophy and form of government that’s led to ruination. And Mizoguchi also offers ironies. The devastating scene in which Natusko gives birth to a still-born baby on the floor at the refuge presages the statement of one of the managers in trying to make the hardened floozies understand what’s at stake, “Life in all its beauty struggles to be born.” The men here have been rendered more maternal than the women.

In the delirious final scene, Fusako is horrified to be reunited with Kumiko when she’s caught and roughed up by the gang Fusako works with. Fusako is so shocked and outraged to find the ludicrously young girl is also a prostitute that she unleashes a flurry of anger and pain on Kumiko, slapping her in rage whilst screaming implorements and threats, love and rage in a remarkable confluence. “Give birth to a monster!” Fusako screams, meaning babies malformed by syphilis, but also invoking the perversion of common humanity: “Feel yourself rot inside and out!” Fusako’s subsequent determination to take Kumiko home and to stay there with her sees her bundled up and furiously beaten by a queen bee who wields a whip with hysterical rage: life on the edge is driving everyone mad, and a kind of nadir is reached in this scene that purposefully evokes a crucifixion image—the scene takes place in a bombed-out lot next to a Christian church, a stained-glass Madonna above it all.

It’s here that Women of the Night turns almost surreal in its cruel intensity, and anticipates the deeply fetishised, amoral turn that a lot of Japanese filmmakers would push at the end of the ’60s in portraying humanity’s capacity for baseness. But the spirituality offered by the religious imagery, couched in Christian terms possibly designed to please Occupation authorities also seems linked to both Mizoguchi’s love for such transcendental Christian writing as that of Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works he had adapted at the start of his career, and to his later Zen and Confucian themes in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô the Bailiff, strive to synthesise a new sense of the ideals that sustain people through loss and horror. The spectacle of Fusako’s beating has, like Christ’s suffering, a positive effect: the watching whores who tackle and suppress the tyrants rediscover a shared sense of humanity, and the exhausted women lie sprawled afterwards like the wounded survivors of the war their mostly dead menfolk just fought, giving Fusako and Kumiko the chance to get away. It’s a bizarrely breathtaking end to a deeply compelling film, and one that asks as many questions as it answers. Fusako and Kumiko will go back home, but the future that awaits them there is still one that’s deadly to the foolish and the weak. l

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