The simply titled Story Of A Prostitute is just that – the film follows a group of 'comfort women' (hookers employed by the Japanese military to service the soldiers) who are sent to Northern China during the height of operations during the Second World War where they will be responsible for taking care of the carnal needs of an entire battalion of men.
After the women arrive at the Japanese base of operations, the focus shifts over to a prostitute named Harumi (Yumiko Nagawa). It doesn't take long before the adjucant, Lt. Narita (Isao Tamagawa) takes a liking to her and claims her as his own personal whore. He doesn't give her much choice in the matter despite the fact that she instantly despises him, and when he wants her services, anyone else who may be involved with her at the time is asked to leave. Unfortunately for Harumi, she starts to fall in love with Narita's right hand man, Mikami (Tamio Kawachi). While it may, on the surface, seem amazing that these two could find love in the most unusual of circumstances, when it comes down to it, things are going to be very difficult for them. Mikami is a solider, through and through, and as such he refuses to disobey his superior even if it means allowing the woman he loves to be degraded for nothing more than his physical pleasure.
The film becomes interesting once the focus shifts to the relationship that grows between Mikami and Harumi. Initially she seduces him not because she finds him attractive but because she wants to use him to get back at Narita, who she hates. She doesn't expect to fall for the quiet and introverted subordinate soldier but can't help herself despite his initial resistance (made all the more obvious when he slaps her). Once their love is genuine though, it's here that Suzuki points out the hypocrisy of the war and the rules that are setup for it. These same rules make Harumi and Mikami relationship quite forbidden, and there's some irony there that Suzuki has no problem pointing out to the viewers.
Those familiar with the swirling colors and pop art gone wrong sensibilities of some of his better known films like Branded To Kill or Tokyo Drifter will maybe be a little bit surprised to find that his less linear qualities are kept firmly in check for this film. That's not to say that there aren't those 'Suzuki touches' that make his films so interesting as there are quite a few, but they're not as over the top and not quite as obvious as in the films that Nikkatsu Studios would later fire him over. The narrative in this film is simple indeed, and the challenge comes not in trying to figure out the story but in trying to figure out the all too real logic behind some of the decisions that the characters make in the movie – which makes the tragedy all the more real. Story Of A Prostitute is no Japanese Pretty Woman. There aren't any 'hookers with a heart of gold' in this movie nor are there any well to do johns waiting to whisk them away to a better life. These woman are used for sex so often that at one point one of the girls wonders how one of her co-workers can sleep in so long as the very site of a bed makes her sick.
The performances in the film are solid all around, with Isao Tamagawa stealing the show as the despicable Lt. Narita. He's a sleazy man who abuses his power for selfish reasons and Isao does a commendable job of bringing the character to life. While initially we have trouble warming up to Tamio Kawachi as Mikami it's only because we're not supposed to like him right off the bad. Yumiko Nagawa plays Harumi as a conflicted woman which fits the script, which was based on a novel, very nicely and makes perfect sense in the context of the story and the setting in which it takes place.
The cinematography by Kazue Nagatsuka (who also did Branded To Kill with Suzuki) is stark and beautiful at the same time, making excellent use of shadow and light to paint emotion across the widescreen. Landscapes and sets are captured very nicely and there are some moments in the film that are powerful and emotional even without dialogue thanks to the framing and composition used in the film.
The black and white 2.40.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great. There is some mild edge enhancement and line shimmering (look towards the railings attached to some of the buildings for an example of this) but the instances where these occur are few and far between. There are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts and the contrast levels look to be set pretty much perfectly. There is some mild print damage present on the picture as well as some moderate grain but it's never a problem and it just reminds you that you're watching an older black and white film and not a brand spanking new Hollywood production and there's nothing wrong with that. The image is consistent and strong and presents a great deal of both foreground and background detail to the viewer. All in all, it's a typically nice transfer from Criterion, the kind we've come to expect from them.
The film is presented in its original Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono mix with optional subtitles provided for the film in English only. There's a faint bit of distortion in the high end of the mix but it's minor and not really distracting at all. For a forty year old film, Story Of A Prostitute sounds pretty good on this DVD. The levels are well balanced and the background music and sound effects never overshadow the dialogue at all.
One note about the subtitles, however – the songs used in the film are not subbed into English which makes one or two elements of the film a little difficult to understand for those of us who do not speak or understand Japanese. Other than that, the subs are easy to read and I only noticed one minor typo (an apostrophe in the wrong spot… I know… how anal is that?). There are no alternate language dubs, subtitles, or closed captioning options available on this DVD aside from the English subtitle track.
The main extra feature on this release comes in the form of a twenty-seven minute interview with director Seijun Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura and film critic Tadao Sato. Suzuki spends a lot of time talking about the realism that he was working towards in the comfort women scenes and how he feels that the results are pretty accurate (though he doesn't explain how he knows this however considering his military history, it's not hard to do the math). He's a quirky man and interesting to listen to as he talks about the genesis of the film and how he feels about it in retrospective. Takeo Kimura discusses how they strived for accuracy in making the Nikkastu Studio sets look like actual parts of Northern China during the Second World War – he feels that they did a solid job of recreating the destitution that the area suffers from, and I'd agree as you never once feel like you're watching something that wasn't shot on location. Tadao Sato discusses how even though Suzuki was a second tier director during his time at Nikkatsu he realized that there was more to his work than a lot of the first tier directors were able to bring to the table and how it's interesting that his work is finally being appreciated for the art that it really is. All in all, this is an interesting discussion though I'd have loved to have heard a commentary track over the feature film itself as it's so different than many of Suzuki's other films.
The film's original theatrical trailer (which makes the film look much more exploitative than it is) is also included, as is an essay on the film in the form of an insert by author and film critic David Chute that does a nice job of putting the film in perspective.
An unusually morose but no less poignant film from Seijin Suzuki, Story Of A Prostitute is a bleak war drama that incredibly well made with plenty of gorgeous visuals that lay way for a tragic but interesting character drama to unfold. Criterion's disc isn't perfect, but it's still of excellent quality and this one comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.