A lot of Seijin Suzuki's better work focuses on the dregs of Japanese society. Whether it's the Yakuza of films like Tokyo Drifter or Branded To Kill or the comfort women of Story Of A Prostitute or the old fashioned street whores of Gate Of Flesh, it seems that his best films relate to the criminal element. An interesting trend, when you consider that he really is the original outlaw of the Japanese studio system, having been kicked out of Nikkatsu Studios for making what they deemed incomprehensible films.
Set in the destitution of Tokyo shortly after the finale of the Second World War, Gate Of Flesh tells the story of a group of 'ladies of the evening.' The three main girls in the group are a trio of tough cookies named Omino (Kayuo Matsuo who shows up in Lone Wolf And Cub – Babycart At The River Styx), Sen (Satoko Kasai) and Oroku (Tomiko Ishii). Neither of these women are without their flaws – they're tough, worldly, and as aggressive as you'd expect women trying to survive on the street would be in order to really make a go of it. There aren't many laws or rules on the streets where these girls ply their trade, save for one – no freebies. Never, ever give a man the goods without taking his money. If you don't break this law, you won't have any problems but if you do, baby, watch out because it's going to hit the fan and make a big, big mess. The cops don't bother with these girls – they act as their own enforcers and dole out their own brand of street justice as they see fit.
Two new girls show up one day and start to worm their way into the group named Machiko (Misako Tominaga) and Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), neither of whom are any more stable than the initial three girls are. Their arrival is signalled by the trio's begrudging acceptance until one day a former soldier turned to a life of crime named Shin (Joe Shishida) shows up. His surprising arrival takes the ladies by surprise and base and primal emotions begin to stir deep within them as he makes his presence known. One thing leads to another and jealousy soon escalates amoung the group of firey femme fatales until violence seems to be the only solution to the disputes that errupt between them all.
While Gate Of Flesh doesn't quite reach the heights of delirum that some of his later films would take us to, this movie is still pure pop art from start to finish and it serves as a fantastic exercise in style over substance. Color, always a key ingredient in Suzuki's films one he made the switch from black and white, plays a huge role in the look and feel of the film. Each of the prostitutes is respresented by a different hue that sort of coincides with their temperment and personaility to a certain extent (Sen, the most aggressive and more likley to errupt into a violent frenzy, always wears red) which is a nice touch. The film functions better as a series of trippy and marginally exploitative set pieces than a linear film but there is still a story to be told underneath all the naked ladies and grisly violence on display.
The post war Tokyo of the film is a ghetto, a place filled with angry citizens and pissed off people who don't quite know what to do with themselves – it's not a happy place and the film isn't full of happy events but it's an interesting and pretty captivating film anyway thanks in no small part to the unique visuals and brilliant use of color in the film. There's some anti-American senitment present in the film (common and even understandable in the Japanese cinema of the time) and while the film lacks a lot of the raw emotion that makes some of his better work, it's still very much worth watching.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is excellent. The colors in particular look amazing here, each hue and tone as vibrant and bold as the next and sometimes appearing to literally jump off of the screen at you. While there is some very moderate print damage noticeable in a few scenes, the picture has been cleaned up nicely as this is only really apparent if you're looking for it and it serves not to distract but to remind you that you're watching a film in the first place. There are no problems at all with mpeg comrpession artifacts and edge enhancement is never an issue either. Flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural, which is good because you'll see a lot of them in the film, and the black levels stay strong and consistent. The image has plenty of both foreground and background detail present throughout, and overall, the movie looks great.
As is to be expected, Criterion presents Gate Of Flesh in it's original Japanese language mono mix with optional subtitles available in English and 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, Gate Of Flesh sounds pretty good on this DVD. The levels are well balanced and the background music and sound effects never overshadow the dialogue at all.
Director Seijin Suzuki is joined by production designer Takeo Kimura for a twenty one minute on camera video interview relating to Gate Of Flesh that proves to be quite interesting. Suzuki is an oddly likeable man, and he comes across with a good sense of humor as he discusses some of the stranger aspects of the film, while Kimura details some of the work that they had to do to get the film to look the way that it does. A few clips and photographs spice things up a bit, making this one very much worthwhile if you're an aficionado of Suzuki's oddball brand of pop-art filmmaking.
A decent sized still gallery, the film's original theatrical trailer and an informative essay from film critic Chuck Stephens (in the form of an insert inside the case with a chapter listing provided as well) round out the extra features on this release.
While a little more effort in the extra features department would have been very welcome, Criterion's release of Gate Of Flesh is up to their usual standards of excellence in terms of the audio and video and the film itself is an excellent example of Seijin Suzuki's pop art esthetic with a few interesting exploitative touches. 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.