One prostitute to another:
“Disease and babies are our enemies.”
It’s the post World War II years in Tokyo and the city is gripped with poverty and famine. In the market slums around the occupying US Air force base, bodies are regularly stretchered out either dead from starvation or murder.
In this cruel wretched environment a group of prostitutes team up together, sleeping at night in a derelict abandoned building. Their code of honor is that they won’t have a pimp and if one of them should give her body for free, the others can severely physically punish her.
A black American priest accompanying them feels differently and stays to help her.
One day the atmosphere is shattered by the scream of a man. It’s the voice of a US serviceman who’s just been stabbed. With no time to lose, the US military police go into the slums to search for the perpetrator, Shintaro Ibuki (Jo Shishido), a tough animalistic ex-soldier.
Shintaro receives a bullet wound from the military police, but he's able to find a place to hide and recuperate with the prostitutes in their abandoned building.
With his strength and power, he becomes the group’s leader and Maya and another girl fall for his macho charms (if you could call them charms).
Once Shintaro has fully recovered, he returns to his life of petty crime and in the evenings returns to the prostitutes where he drinks and has sex with them.
Things finally come to a head when Maya gives her body to him for free as the love between the two begins to blossom. The other girl, who also liked Shintaro, becomes jealous and exacts revenge with the help of the rest of the group on Maya and Shintaro.
This film is really good. Directed by Seijun Suzuki, who during this time was working at the Nikkatsu Studios, which was Japan’s oldest studio, with some of the best film technicians under their wings. With such great technical recources at his disposal, Seijun Suzuki has created a film of pure movie craftsmanship.
The camera work is lovely, with a backdrop of ruined Tokyo cluttered with shanty towns sprawling amongst the bombed out ruins. The colour of the film is brought out vividly with lots of lurid reds and greens and he uses a great technique of superimposing one image over another - all of this done on a B-movie budget.
But this is not safe viewing – this is Japanese exploitation and even for its age it can be quite strong at times. There’s plenty of nudity, sex and the punishment for the girls who give their bodies for free is to be hoisted up naked and whipped viciously by the other members of the group. Also included was the real slaughter and dismemberment of a cow. All of this caused controversy on the film’s initial release.
Jo Shishido as Shintaro Ibuki is excellent as he huffs and gruffs, shouting orders to the girls. He dominates them all by his sheer physical presence.
As a side note, Jo Shishido’s career had begun in 1954, but it didn’t really take off until he had plastic surgery on his cheeks to make them bigger in 1956. He was described by some people as looking like a chipmunk.
The girls are easily identified by the colour of their dresses which stay the same throughout the movie. Each girl is also introduced in a camera shot saturated by their denoted colour.
Director Seijun Suzuki was an ex-Japanese soldier himself during WW2 and his dislike for the US military is shown in this film, either by Shintaro stabbing the serviceman because “he had it coming” or the general behaviour of the US servicemen as they use and abuse the girls, to the final shot of the US flag flying over the ramshackled shanty town.
This is a great film and as been released as part of the Criterion Collection. I urge you to see it – this is what cinema is all about.