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GATE OF FLESH

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yumiko Nogawa, Satoko Kasai, Joe Shishido, Misako Tominaga, Tomiko Ishii, Kayo Matsuo
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: From the Ruins: Making of Gate of Flesh featurette, stills gallery, trailer, essay
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2005

"Hit bottom, suffer the hard times, and rebuild from scratch.  That's the only route to a new life."

Film *** ½

Sleaze, flesh, thieves, and whores - such are the images conjured up by ill-advised late night strolls through the darker, less reputable thruways of the modern metropolis.  Beneath the sheen and glimmer of our towering skyscrapers and glaring neon strobe lights, there lingers in the shadows a festering, chronic contagion of despair and exploitation.

Such is the message imparted to viewers by Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (1964).  An adaptation of Taijiro Tamura's sheering 1947 novel, "Nikutai no mon," Gate of Flesh is about the venal underworld of Japanese prostitutes among the ruins of an immediate post-war Tokyo.  Within this post-apocalyptic setting, the people persevere as street vagabonds or savages caught in a kill-or-be-killed mentality.

Gate of Flesh is fairly typical fare from the catalog of Seijun Suzuki's Nikkatsu Studio films.  Suzuki is primarily known today for his crime caper B-flicks Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), both surreal yazuka thrillers, but under his contract years at the Nikkatsu Studio, he developed a reputation as an irreverent filmmaker bent on superceding cinematic conventions in search of different ways of making films.  If his idiosyncrasies increasingly frustrated his studio heads, Suzuki nonetheless became the Japanese controversial and subversive equivalent to France's Jean-Luc Godard.  One can detect in Gate of Flesh some of the New Wave influences, such as with Hiroshima Mon Amour, which had propelled 1960's Japanese cinema towards more experimental, pop-art sensibilities.  The best Suzuki films from the 1960's displayed the director's vibrant, energetic style as well as an incredible sense of lighting and color, of which Gate of Flesh is a prime example.

This film revolves around a small band of prostitutes eking out a meager living along the war-ravaged streets of an anonymous Japanese city (though certainly Tokyo).  Among the women, Komasa Sen (Satoko Kasai), is the self-appointed leader, a crimson-red attired, hot-blooded           mama among this sorority of streetwalking sisters.  With her voraciously red dress and her hair tied up with a red scarf, the ends of which poke up like two little horns, she could easily pass for a devilish succubus.  New to this sisterhood is Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), an embittered, starving teen at the end of her ropes, clinging to an existence in which any desperate young woman becomes mere fodder for exploitation or rape.  Her hunger soon gives way to an inauguration into this lurid profession, her chosen color green perhaps a reflection of her novice status.  There is also Mino with her garishly purple outfits and Roku in vomit-yellow garb.  Symbolizing a way of life perhaps lost forever in the postwar environment is the traditionally-clothed Machiko (Misako Tominaga), with her kimono and obi and shy mannerisms.  She represents the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, but in this base and unsympathetic world, there is little room for her, and Machiko's future will present a nasty surprise for her.

Surely, happiness does not await any of these women, but they must endure the consequences of their actions and transgressions nonetheless.  Wandering the myriad flophouses and congested conglomeration of aggressive street vendors and black marketers, the prostitutes seek their simple pleasures and some meaning to their lives, all the while operating by a sworn mantra: "Never give it to a guy for free.  This is a business, and our bodies are our merchandise."

Among the potential customer base are the local American GIs, portrayed as little more than hormonally-overcharged schoolboys.  However, these girls shun the GIs and viciously slander those hookers who might canter to the whimsy of the American soldiers.  Indeed, portions of the film are a thinly-veiled diatribe against America (not too surprising, considering the original novel's publication date and Seijun Suzuki's own bitter experiences in the Japanese military).  The people of this world still bear a lot of resentment for losing the war, and hints of this sadness or shame is evident in their daily talk and behavior, from their crestfallen looks at dishonored returnees from the war to their scorn of the American GIs based around the city.

The emasculated Japanese pride cowers like the occasional image of raped hookers.  The rare war returnee who stands with shoulders erect and confidence intact is truly a source of admiration amongst these people, desperate for any sign of inspiration for the future.  One such returnee is Shin (Joe Shishido), an aggressive and dominant Alpha Male, wanted for assault, who bullies his way into the prostitutes' lives and breaks their spirits with sudden and reckless ease.  While the first half of Gate of Flesh follows Maya's initiation into her new profession, the second half of the film then follows Sen and Maya's increasing struggle of wills as each strives to win Shin's affections.

That such a cat fight over a dishonorable thief and cruel man would even occur merely illustrates the tragic insanity and desperate, if unspoken, plight of not only these prostitutes but everyone in their community.  If the scraps and scums of the earth are all that remains worth fighting over, then where is there true hope for a better tomorrow?

Certainly, the world of Gate of Flesh is not a pleasant one.  The pustules and lecherous mores of humanity abound here.  There are abrupt and sudden outbursts of violence in the streets.  One particularly cruel scene has a naked prostitute being flogged before Shin's leering and approving eyes.  Even men of the Cloth are not immune, as seen in the forceful seduction, corruption, and ultimate destruction of one good-hearted priest.  Perhaps the most disturbing scene may be the actual on-screen slaughter of a cow, symbolic in itself of the misery endured by these streetwalkers.  This is Basic Anatomy 101; vegetarians might want to fast-forward through this quick but rather gory butchery scene.

Gate of Flesh portrays Tokyo not as a modern utopia but as a "dystopia."  With its rainy nights, shadowy alleys, and grime-covered walls, this truly visceral world harkens to one shadow-world vision of a potential "future," much like that seen in Blade Runner, Carol Reed's The Third Man, or even Sin City.  While the set design is most impressive in Gate of Flesh, the world itself may be too pessimistic for some.

By 1960's standards, Gate of Flesh must have seemed rather shocking.  There are occasional flashes of flesh (but always strategically obscured by articles of clothing or shadows), and the risqué sewage that pours from the mouths of the prostitutes would singe the ears of any puritanical viewer, assuming he understood Japanese.  This film is certainly a far cry away from the more composed, traditional styles of revered Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi.  Nevertheless, Seijun Suzuki's film opens an aggressively atmospheric window into the war-torn landscape of postwar Japan.  Let  it stand as a precautionary tale against any potential, future apocalyptic tendencies.

Video ****

Gate of Flesh is presented in its original Nikkatsuscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The transfer was created from a 35mm low-contrast print made from the original camera negative.  The print appears fairly pristine, and detail levels are well preserved.  The film looks quite excellent with vibrant bursts of colors that accentuate the red and green hues.  In fact, the flamboyant colors frequently give this film the dreamlike, saturated appearance of a Technicolor MGM musical extravaganza.

Audio ***

Gate of Flesh is presented in Japanese 1.0 with optional English subtitles.  Though a little thin in the lower dynamic ranges, the film sounds decent for a monaural film.  Tics and background noise have been reduced greatly, so the soundtrack is fairly clean, too.

Features **

The main bonus feature on the DVD is From the Ruins: Making of Gate of Flesh (22 min.).  This featurette includes an interview with director Seijun Suzuki and production designer Takeo Kimura.  Suzuki describes the genesis of the film from the studio's desire for an erotic film that would be acceptable to Japan's Motion Picture Ethics Committee.  On an aside, he also briefly relates the bitterness of his war experiences, which can be readily sensed in the film.  Kimura's contributions center obviously around the film's impressive set designs, a miracle in themselves considering the film's B-movie budget.  Artwork for the sets is included as a supplement to Kimura's comments.

Next, there is a stills gallery (25 entries) containing rare production photographs and artwork, either for the original novel or for the film's promotion.  Further on the promotional end is a no-holds-barred original theatrical trailer that virtually screams, "Exploitation!"  Judging from this trailer, it is easy to envision Gate of Flesh as a precursor to the 1970's cultural phenomenon of blaxploitation and women-in-prison films.

Lastly, there is a visceral punch of an essay by Asian film critic Chuck Stephens, printed on the DVD insert.  Stephens has an almost cyberpunk methodology of using descriptive words and adjectives; the essay literally teems with energy and vibe, although the lurid subject matter does compel one to take a breather by the end of the essay for a gut check.

Summary:

Don't let the kiddies watch this one.  Gate of Flesh is nihilistic, passive-aggressive, and deconstructive to its lurid core.  It's also pure pulp fiction, Asian-style.  This is vibrant filmmaking, but its harsh outlook may be too much for viewers with weak constitutions.

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