Seijun Suzuki puts the candy colored art direction of an American Technicolor musical in the service of an erotically charged tale of desperation and doom with Gate of Flesh (Japan, 1964).
The lurid melodrama of prostitutes, gangsters, and black marketeers is set on the ruins of the Tokyo waterfront in Japan’s post-World War II depression. Starving maiden Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) joins a group of hookers who live and work in a burned-out dockyard basement. Their solidarity is predicated on a strict set of rules. The most important one is: “You can’t sleep with a man for free. We’ll torture you if you do until you’re half dead.” When brooding waterfront baddie Shin (Jo Shishido) adopts their hovel as a hideout, lust splinters the group into jealously possessive competitors.
Suzuki packs the film with teasing nudity (hidden by shadows and strategic angles), bondage, and floggings, but ultimately uses the soft-core genre of “roman porno” to paint a mercenary world (“Meat sells at 40 yen a pound – so do we!” exclaims one of the girls) with all the overheated passion and stylistic ingenuity of his gangster films.
He punctuates scenes with superimposed close-ups, which act as everything from symbolic thought-balloons to ironic commentaries, and color codes the women in brightly hued dresses like dancers in a classic MGM Technicolor musical. As the film becomes more hysterically melodramatic, the bustling realistic settings of the opening are replaced with blatantly artificial sets which melt into near abstraction by the end.
Based on the novel by Tajiro Tamura.
In Japanese with English subtitles
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Gate of Flesh (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Criterion Collection DVD features video interviews with director Seijun Suzuk and production designer Takeo Kimura, galleries of production stills and art, the trailer, and an insert with an essay by critic Chuck Stephens.