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Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh
Criterion 298
1964 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Nikutai no mon / Street Date July 26, 2005 / 29.95
Starring Yumiko Nogawa, Jo Shishido, Kayo Matsuo, Satoko Kasai, Tamiko Ishii
Cinematography Shigeyoshi Mine
Production Designer Takeo Kimura
Film Editor Akira Suzuki
Original Music Naozumi Yamamoto
Written by Goro Tanada from a novel by Taijiro Tamura
Produced by Kaneo Iwai
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The alarmingly provocative director Seijun Suzuki pulls off a grand slam with this bold and confrontational sordid melodrama. It is a gauntlet thrown in the face of official occupation history, with its image of an optimistic Japan pulling itself up by its bootstraps. It's also a stylistic triumph that makes the color-coded extremes of Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk pale by comparison.


A group of prostitutes in immediate post-war Tokyo eke out a living of sensual savagery that shows no mercy to its own members. They're not allowed to hook the hated American soldiers, and 'giving it away for free' under any circumstances is a ticket to cruelly sadistic whippings. Young rape victim Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) finds her only home with the girls, quickly adjusting to their harsh and hateful rules. The enclave of female rage is penetrated by Shintaro Ibuki (Jo Shishido), a spiteful Army 'returnee' who specializes in crimes against the American occupiers. The girls nurse Shintaro's wounds; it isn't long before they break their code with him, with disastrous results.

Snapping at the camera, Maya lists all the things she detests and spits on, and Seijun Suzuki cuts to a full frame shot of the American flag waving proudly. In the occupation slum hell of Japan's burned-out capital, American GI's roam and rape at will while Yakuza thieves are everywhere. Our girl-gang of hookers have made a deal with the Yakuza for a certain territory and defend it fiercely. Their only badge of honor is their refusal to service the Yankee conquerors. Star Jo Shishido's unregenerate crook wants to avenge beloved husbands, boyfriends and brothers lost in the war, and his presence evokes sentiments that the savage band of prostitutes cannot bear. Betrayals and bloodshed follow.

Above and beyond the raw subject matter of defiant vice and semi-pornographic violence, Suzuki and his inspired production designer Takeo Kimura create a highly artificial and garishly colored environment that looks like a beautiful comic book set in hell. Every set evokes real bombing destruction and slum conditions. Trash clogs the canals. People live in filthy concrete structures torn in half and left standing like opened honeycombs. Background buildings are often forced-perspective sets, and sometimes even painted backdrops that resemble expressionist abstractions. All are photographed in blazing candy color (Fujicolor?) with a refreshingly clear visual sense. Gate of Flesh is garish, but it's never disorganized or random. In terms of color impact, it's to sordid sex drama what Singin' in the Rain is to the musical - a visual feast. One sequence breaks down into abstract tableaux in contrasting colors that remind us of the fashion show in the Donen-Kelly musical, at least in terms of visual impact.

The script isn't entirely nihilistic, as the girls reveal despairing emotions beneath their cruel exteriors. Some yearn for marriage and Maya mourns her lost brother. Yet Maya's rage leads her to destroy the film's only positive element. American actor Chico Roland plays a black preacher who is the only gaijin to come to Maya's aid when she is raped, but she later shows him no mercy, as if she can no longer bear the possible moral hope he represents. It's a very bleak development.

Shintaro is also a rough customer, but a key scene has him using a veteran's battle flag to cover his head while he cries for his lost comrades and ideals. Falling in love in this environment is a one-way ticket to doom, but we feel for the characters every step of the way. The movie is lurid but not simply sensationalistic, a quality that sets pictures by Suzuki, Masumura and some Fukasaku apart from others. Suzuki creates a richly artificial world that reveals his version of historical truth.

Gate of Flesh has ample nudity and sexuality, held under close restraint for censorship purposes. It's all there, but clever lighting and blocking make such shots beautiful instead of trashy. Much more disturbing is a scene where Shintaro and the girls butcher a cow in graphic detail.

Cultural ignorance note # 3247: The pictogram script for Nikutai no mon has a pair of symbols that look like a literal gate. I wonder if this is a coincidence, or a carryover from the Chinese.

Criterion's DVD of Gate of Flesh has an eye-popping enhanced transfer and excellent sound; the film is a visual feast for the eyes, guaranteed to cure color blindness. Shigeyoshi Mine's rich photography almost has a 3-D quality, it is so textured.

As with its twin release Story of a Prostitute, producer Curtis Tsui's disc has an incisive interview docu with the director and his production designer. They talk of their enthusiasm for the project and their clever ruses to steal studio resources to build their highly imaginative sets. Suzuki also talks about his assignment to make a 'sensational erotic' film that could pass the Japanese censor. Gate of Flesh must break some kind of record for salacious content that minimizes actual incidents of 'quantifiable' nudity.

A stills gallery and original trailer are included. Chuck Stephens' liner note essay is one of the best I've read about a Japanese film, communicating its unique qualities in almost poetic terms.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gate of Flesh rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Video interview with director Seijun Suzuki and art director Takeo Kimura; theatrical trailer; Stills gallery; essay by Asian cinema critic Chuck Stephens
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 6, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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