Friday, 1 July 2011

Gate of Flesh (1964)

Seijun Suzuki is one of my all-time favourite Japanese movie directors but although Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no mon) is one of his more admired films I was slightly disappointed by it.

Seijun Suzuki’s reputation rests mainly on his 1960s crime films for Nikkatsu Studio, such as Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill. They’re influenced by film noir but with a bravura visual style and and an over-the-top almost psychedelic feel with more than a touch of the surreal.

Gate of Flesh is often described as a pink film although most pink films of that era were made by small independent production companies rather than major studios like Nikkatsu. It follows the lives of a group of Tokyo prostitutes during the postwar period of the American Occupation. These prostitutes band together and decide they don’t need pimps. They will control their own destinies and make their own decisions. They live in a huge bombed-out basement.

It sounds like a good arrangement but in fact the girls are far more brutal towards each other than any pimp would have been. They have a rule that sex must always be charged for. Giving a man free sex is the worst offence imaginable and is punished by ferocious floggings. The girls seem to take great pleasure in inflicting these punishments on one of their own. Now their little collective faces a major threat in the persons of two outsiders. One is Maya, a new girl. The other is a small-time hood named Shintaro Ibuki (played by Jô Shishido who seems to pop up in most of Seijun Suzuki’s movies).

All the girls want to sleep with Ibuki and it’s only a matter of time before one of them is caught giving him unauthorised free sex. Ibuki is heading for troubles of his own with a criminal deal involving stolen penicillin (a valuable property on the postwar black market).

My big problem with this film is that I just didn’t care about any of the characters. The fact that they’re all thoroughly unpleasant isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, but unfortunately they’re also uninteresting.

The movie’s biggest strength, in fact it’s only strength, is its visual brilliance. You expect that in a Seijun Suzuki film, and this one certainly delivers in that area. It’s like the plot of a dreary Italian neo-realist movie but the visual world of the movie has nothing whatever to do with realism. It’s like a nightmare dream landscape. The basement that the prostitutes live in is very claustrophobic, a bit like a gigantic womb. One thing I found interesting is that visually the movie seems to get less and less realistic as the movie progresses.

The mood is unfailingly bleak, which is perhaps something I’m growing a little tired of. I’m also getting a little weary of the kind of cheap anti-Americanism that permeates this movie (and so many other Japanese movies of that era). And I’m not even American.

As far as its credentials as a pink film go it’s very tame although by the standards of Japanese cinema in 1964 it was pretty hot stuff.

Pagan’s all-region PAL DVD release is hardly outstanding but the picture quality is reasonably acceptable if rather washed out.

All in all a brilliantly made movie about some not very interesting and exceptionally vicious people.


bruce holecheck said...

There's an excellent US disc available from Criterion, of all people:

venoms5 said...

I've not seen this, but from these screen shots, it looks quite good.

dfordoom said...

v, it is worth seeing for the visuals even if it's not as brilliant as movies like Tokyo Drifter.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

The scene in which the whores band together and punish one of their number makes this worth watching. My DVD copy is rather murky, and I can't recall offhand who distributed it. It's a kinky classic, but it lacks Suzuki's usual frenetic energy.