Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Eccentric director Seijun Suzuki scores big with this endlessly inventive tale of war and personal
destinies. Before being fired for making a purposely chaotic yakuza picture called
Branded to Kill, Suzuki did a series of films bitterly criticizing Japan's militaristic
traditions. Story of a Prostitute is a perverse take on a woman's picture. Already a
prostitute, the heroine undergoes such a soul-defeating ordeal at the hands of military zealots
that the film's violent ending comes as a welcome release.
Jilted by her lover, prostitute Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) volunteers to be a
'comfort worker' servicing Japanese soldiers on the Chinese front. She finds the job brutalizing,
and especially hates the offensively cruel commander Narita (Isao Tamagawa). Harumi at first
seduces Narita's adjutant Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawachi) for revenge, but falls in deeply
in love with the troubled soldier and they become a fated couple. Harumi is already living on
the edge of existence, and the disaffected Mikami takes terrible punishments from his superiors
as a kind of perverse atonement.
Story of a Prostitute presents sensational subject matter with taste and sensitivity
far outpacing anything found in American films of 1965. Hollywood's production code view of
prostitution produced toothless sniggering comedies or dramas warped into vague abstractions,
like the trashy
Walk on the Wild Side.
Suzuki's film deals frankly with traditions that have followed every army since war was invented.
Few societies publicize camp-following prostitutes or the houses that are allowed to exist near
most military bases; besides hiring voluntary 'comfort girls,' the Japanese have been accused
of forcing captured women into similar service.
Suzuki's approach is partly realistic, with frequent forays into expressive stylization. We
see split-screen images of her rage at being jilted by her lover, who has married another. For
some sequences the screen breaks into staggered still frames or changes to slow motion. Erratic
jump cuts express frenzied horror as she feels herself being degraded by the men she sleeps
with. Her thoughts become 'real' in subjective wish-fulfillment scenarios, often slightly
overexposed or in slow motion. Idealized lovemaking with Mikami surrounds the pair in a softening
aura of happiness. When Harumi expresses her desire to kill a tormenting officer, pixillated
animation makes his image literally tear apart before our eyes. None of these effects come
across as a gimmick or faddish experimentation; each communicates Suzuki's specifically ironic
point of view.
Most importantly, there is nothing truly exploitative or cheap about Story of a Prostitute.
The film's nudity is neither mere decoration nor emphasized as a subject unto itself. We're far
too immersed in the characters to pay it much mind.
Seeing the Army brutalities from the point of view of a woman makes militarism of any stripe
seem doubly obscene. The soldiers have no rights and are helpless under the will of their
immediate superiors, many of whom are sadistic fanatics. The officer corps murders civilians
just to save face, let off steam and to maintain a level of terror among their own troops.
Their inhuman notion of feudal honor makes desertion or aiding the enemy a more desirable
alternative than being captured and escaping. Mikami fights nobly but is taken prisoner
while unconscious. The Chinese don't even bother to kill him but instead leave their captive
behind as they retreat, knowing his own Army will do the job for them.
Harumi and Mikami are helpless victims stranded in a barren Chinese landscape. The cruel Narita
torments Mikami for having a will of his own and uses Harumi as an emotional punching bag. The
comfort women are desirable but disposable objects, even when their soldier clients are
respectful. One manages a hopeful marriage but soon returns, rejected by her new husband's family.
Under the mounting pressure Mikami becomes resigned to a dark fate, while Harumi is given
to erratic fits of hysteria. It's no surprise when their final choice comes down to the empty
desert and a double suicide.
Criterion's beautiful DVD of Story of a Prostitute gives us an impressive enhanced B&W
image transferred at an extra-wide Nikkatsu-Scope 2:40. We can almost feel the cold mystery of
the Chinese deserts, and the sweaty intimacy of Harumi's workplace.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten has assembled an interesting and well-organized interview docu
moderated by film critic Tadao Sato. It's fleshed out with pointed and playful interviews
from production designer Takeo Kimura and director Suzuki, who in his 80s is still actively
making pictures. David Chute provides a cogent insert essay. The amusing original trailer
sells Story of a Prostitute as a 'scandalous' film offering, Japanese-style.
Seijun Suzuki's wild crime tales have their exotic and bizarre qualities but his Story
of a Prostitute is a more deeply felt drama, perhaps because its military setting is
universally understood. The director may have been the Wild Man of his day, but this is a
world-class piece of cinema.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Story of a Prostitute rates:
Supplements: Interview featurette with director Seijun Suzuki, production
designer Takeo Kimura, and film critic Tadao Sato; Essay by film critic David Chute, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson