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Streets of Shame

 
 
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Akasen Chitai
cast: Machiko Kyo, Aiko Mimasu, Ayako Wakao, Michiyo Kogure

director: Kenji Mizoguchi

87 minutes (12) 1956
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka! DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Akasen Chitai (released in America under the rather lurid title Street Of Shame) was Kenji Mizoguchi's last film before his death from leukaemia in August 1956. It is included here alongside Yokihi as part of Eureka's masters of cinema re-releasing schedule. It is also the fourth film of Mizoguchi's that I have seen and reviewed in recent months, all of which contain short films featuring the noted critic Tony Rayns informing us that, unfortunately, the project was foisted on Mizoguchi by the studio system he worked under, and that clearly none of those three films had engaged the director sufficiently to allow us to see him at his best. With Akasen Chitai, we have Mizoguchi returning to the lives of prostitutes (undeniably the favoured subject of his filmmaking) fully engaged and at the height of his talents. The result is a film of rare emotional power and focus that undeniably proves that at his best, Kenji Mizoguchi deserves to be ranked among the greatest directors in the history of cinema.

The film is set in mid-1950s' Japan, approximately two years before prostitution was made illegal. The film is set in the Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo in a brothel ironically named Dreamlands. Inside the brothel four different prostitutes struggle to make ends meet. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is a good-hearted but dowdy woman who is working to support her infant son and unemployed tubercular husband. She deprives herself of everything to support her family but still, the couple are so close to the edge that they come close to suicide on more than one occasion. Mickey (Machiko Kyo) is the product of the American occupation of Japan. Curvaceous and dressed in modern American styles where the other girls are thin as rakes and clad in kimonos, Mickey is cynical and, at first glance, wildly hedonistic, working hard all day and still ending the month in debt to the madam that runs the brothel.

Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is an older woman who left the country and spent her life on the game so as to provide for her son who is growing up back home. Mindful of her son's age and the government's repeated attempts to outlaw prostitution, Yumeko is hoping to retire and live with her son. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is the brothel's most successful girl. She is not only beautiful but also incredibly controlled and motivated to get herself away from the life she is living. This motivation is visible in her compulsive tendency to hoard money, her loan-sharking to the other girls, and her willingness to lie and cheat in order to bleed a number of men completely dry in her relentless pursuit of money.

The lives of these four prostitutes are skilfully interwoven, Mizoguchi blends each life with moments of stark realism and scenes of such breath-taking bleakness and despair that the film moves out of realism and towards proper melodrama. But these moments of heightened emotion are never self-indulgent, Mizoguchi merely strums them like guitar strings, particularly in the film's final scenes when each of the plot arcs play themselves out with increasing violence and anguish against an almost apocalyptic background of political reform threatening to sweep away everything these girls have ever known.

The better-known Ozu's films about the similar period invariably portray the death of a culture and its replacement with another for better or for worse. Ozu's films are motivated by interpersonal tensions and problems that merely use the wider cultural issues of postwar Japan as a background against which to explore human relationships. By contrast, Mizoguchi's films are fiercely mimetic, with the social inequalities and injustices of the prostitution business and postwar Japan very much in the foreground. Indeed, both Yasumi and Hanae are given astonishingly rebellious speeches in which they rail against the misery of poverty and the injustice of the lives they are utterly trapped in.

Despite this clear social agenda, the film is never preachy or predictable. Yasumi and Mickey are both characters with unexpected secrets that play themselves out in powerful scenes, while Yumeko's descent into madness is both powerful and perfectly constructed. Aside from the individual plots, the film is also full of lovely moments of realist cinema as Mizoguchi allows the camera to keep running in long takes that capture prostitutes practically dragging men into their brothels as they compete for business, or clients out with their family suddenly confronted with the prostitutes they have been giving so much money to. The film's final scene contains a man's eye view of a teenaged girl going out looking for business for the first time, completely ignorant of not only the injustice of the system that will chew her up and spit her out, but also the time limit on the life she has chosen for herself as the government tries again and again to outlaw prostitution.

This is the kind of film that makes you believe in cinema as a medium. As well as engaging Mizoguchi's attention, Akasen Chitai appears to have captured that of Tony Rayns as, instead of a short film of him discussing the main feature, the DVD includes a full and utterly fascinating commentary track with Rayns talking you through the various scenes and a lot of the social background that informed the film. Truly world-class cinema, then, that very nearly justifies the price of this two-disc DVD set on its own.
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