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Archive for January 23rd, 2013

street-of-shame

Five prostitutes work at Dreamland, in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district. As the Diet considers a ban on prostitution, the women’s daily dramas play out. Each has dreams and motivations. Hanae is married, her husband unemployed; they have a young child. Yumeko, a widow, uses her earnings to raise and support her son, who’s now old enough to work and care for her. The aging Yorie has a man who wants to marry her. Yasumi saves money diligently to pay her debt and get out; she also has a suitor who wants to marry her, but she has other plans for him. Mickey seems the most devil-may-care, until her father comes from Kobe to bring her news of her family and ask her to come home.

This would prove to be Kenji Mizoguchi’s last movie before his death from leukaemia in 1956 but what a great movie to bow out with about a small group of women having to work as prostitutes in order to survive and support their families post World-War II. It’s also a bit of a propoganda movie in that Mizoguchi is constantly seen as trying to go against the politicians in Japan who were debating about outlawing prostitution at the time when brothels were a legitimate business. The movie on numerous occasions has the cast listening to some radio announcements that the motion has failed. Whatever Mizoguchi was trying to do it didn’t work as shortly after the movie was released the Diet passed a bill to ban prostitution. Unlike Western countries, prostitution has a different stigma attached to it in Japan. Mizoguchi’s directing is as good as it ever was and the world he creates suggests he may have had some experience of visiting brothels.

street of shame promo

The 5 women who we meet in the movie have not been forced into selling their bodies but don’t feel they have no other way of making money. Most have some debts to settle and with one or two even having been sold to the brothel’s owner by their families as they were so poor. Some dream of one day escaping from their work with one women even hoping the prostitution bill will be passed so she can leave the brothel. Each of the characters we are introduced that work in the brothel has an interesting story to tell and are well written. Rather than focus on their profession, the viewer comes to see them as human beings with their flaws, weaknesses, warts and all. Their stories are convincingly told in such a short space of time. A particular favourite of mine is Yumeko’s story which is compelling as we see that her young son does not agree with what she’s doing. She’s wracked with guilt but at the same time what else can she do? The money that she has earned has gone back to her parents in the country who are raising her son. Her plight is made all that sadder when her son who is so ashamed of her job turns his back and rejects her. The movie is heartbreaking as we realise that the women are unhappy with what they’re doing and have dreams that will likely never come true. Mizoguchi manages to make the viewer sympathetic to their cause. Here we have 5 women who are waiting for a brighter and better future but until that happens they are stuck in a job peddling their bodies. The brothel’s owner likens himself as a social worker who is looking after these poor women and giving them a job. The final scene of the movie is powerful as the viewer sees a new girl on the job, a young virgin on her first night who looks on from behind a corner slightly frightened as she watches her co-workers trying to pull in the punters.

The ensemble cast especially the actresses playing the prostitutes are fantastic in their roles and pull in strong performances. Machiko Kyo is probably the standout actress as the tough, cocky loudmouth Mickey who wears westernised clothing and there’s a brilliant scene when her father turns up at the brothel where she works. The viewer is shocked when she even propositions him for money but her world is quickly turned upside down when he says that her mother has died the previous year and she knew nothing about it.

Street of Shame is an excellent movie from Kenji Mizoguchi. Who knows what other masterpieces he would have directed had he not died at the young age of 58? It’s a movie one should not miss and is definitely worth checking out if you like classic Japanese movies. It’s a gritty and honest study of prostitution in Japan in the mid 50’s. Highly recommended.

No trailer but here’s a clip when Yumeko meets her son and she is shattered by what he says to her.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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