Story of a Prostitute (Shunpu den, 1965)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

By Roderick Heath

Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.

A product of the time when he was still part of  Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.

Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.

Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.

The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.

Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.

The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.

The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.

This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.

Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.

Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.

Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.

Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.

But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.

Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and his superiors start out to pursue the partisans, with Narita’s superior musing worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    25th/11/2012 to 12:02 pm

    Yep, Suzuki’s fragmented visual style and ‘textural experimentation’ do immediately recall the work of Oshima, and of Wakematsu. This is quite an enthralling, magificent essay that again has me astonished and ready to declare that it one of your most spectacular yet. I do not fear redundancy, and am thrilled that this underrated work has been given such banner treatment. Yes Suzuki is mainly known for BRANDED TO KILL, and this film does chronicle with compelling impressionistic stylistics a self-destructive heroine and the evils of Japan’s past, considering the ‘militarist lunacy’ and ‘colonial brutality’ in this period. Agreed too what you say in reference to Kobayashi’s humanist angst and the female centric work of Mizoguchi, who himself took on this subject dead-on with his final film, STREET OF SHAME, released in 1958. But that is pretty much where the comparison ends, as Suzuki’s New Wave sensibilities as you note throughout your incredible piece provide for a far more visceral examination.

  • Roderick spoke:
    26th/11/2012 to 10:17 am

    You may not fear redundancy but I do, Sam. Still, it felt very good to write about this amazing piece of cinema and glad as ever to know I’m not alone. The contrast with Street of Shame, which I also adore with complete admiration, is fascinating, not least for the contrast between Mizoguchi’s kind of empathic fatalism and Suzuki’s revolutionary savagery, as well as the distinction of their styles, and yet linked not merely by theme but by anger and sympathy. I’d watched several of Suzuki’s ‘60s films in a row, including Tokyo Drifter and Tattooed Life, before coming to this singular gem, which equals them for visual dazzle and surpasses them in dramatic depth and risks, and the flow of energy from his works is revivifying. Recommended for recovering from watching too many Oscar season puff-pieces!

    Oh, and by the way, there is new life at TIR, should you be so interested.

  • Christianne Benedict spoke:
    26th/11/2012 to 1:05 pm

    Some day, you’re going to write about a movie and leave something for the rest of us to write about. Today is not that day.

    Story of a Prostitute is my favorite of Suzuki’s films, and you’re right: he was an outlaw well before Nikkatsu noticed it and fired him. This is a movie that makes a fabulous double feature with Masumura’s Red Angel.

  • Roderick spoke:
    26th/11/2012 to 7:33 pm

    “Some day, you’re going to write about a movie and leave something for the rest of us to write about.”

    Oh yeah?…Well…Make me!

    Seriously Christianne, thank you. It is interesting that some feel that Suzuki’s later, straight art films lack the power of his films from this time precisely because his work gained force and purpose from his rebelliousness against settled templates. And now thanks to you I’m going to have to see Red Angel.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/11/2012 to 9:04 am

    Rod, thrilled to see TIR is alive and well, and I just checked the postings. Great stuff, I will be adding my two cents today!

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