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Story of a Prostitute

Story of a Prostitute
Criterion 299
1965 / B&W / 2:40 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Shunpu den / Street Date July 26, 2005 / 29.95
Starring Yumiko Nogawa, Tamio Kawaji, Isao Tamagawa
Cinematography Kazue Nagatsuka
Production Designer Takeo Kimura
Film Editor Akira Suzuki
Original Music Naozumi Yamamoto
Written by Hajime Takaiwa from a story by Taijiro Tamura
Produced by Kaneo Iwai
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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