Monday, 22 September 2008

Street of Shame (Mizoguchi, 1956)

Street of Shame is about prostitutes. Working with perhaps the most complex narrative of his career, Kenji Mizoguchi observes the interconnected lives of five such women from a sympathetically detached viewpoint. The differing ideals, motives and social backgrounds that colour their respective experiences are woven into a multifaceted tapestry of totality, providing an expansive image of their profession that's as broad as it is deep. In an early scene, a cleaner (presumably a former prostitute herself) recalls an era when their livelihood was looked upon more favourably: "...we were seen as courtesans, trained in the arts... and we were treated just like noble women." Past glories have little effect upon the present reality however, and in the film's opening minutes Mizoguchi is quick to place the ideal of the courtesan in her 1950s context. An Anti-Prostitution Bill going through the national Diet is discussed almost immediately, and its developments are mentioned with a regularity that lends a quiet urgency to the ensuing drama. Meanwhile, the desperate straits of the era become painfully discernible when the female leads resort to harrassing their potential clients for business - which, unsurprisingly, is a method that repels more than it attracts. It soon becomes clear that the position occupied by these women is a precarious one, miles removed from any outdated allusions towards "nobility".

Street of Shame is about sex. A risqué shot of Machiko Kyô's derrière threatens to endow the film with amatory undercurrents that live up to its sordid Anglicized title. However, the director refrains from eroticizing his subjects, with the female body being viewed less as a figure of desire and more as a social commodity. Thus, although the characters discuss copulation with a bluntness that may surprise the audience (particularly when touching upon taboo topics such as incest), their conversations are overwhelmed by more frequent references to their finances (or lack of) - which, of course, are inherently bound to their sex lives. Mizoguchi's discussion of transactional intercourse is founded upon a visible delineation between the respective worlds of the customers and their "purchases", revealed most acutely by the plight of the middle-aged Yumeko. Her forays from the artificial sets of the akasen district into the location shots of the outside world result in only alienation and condemnation. The director is unyielding in his assertions: sex and pleasure are far from interrelated - and in selling the former, Yumeko and her colleagues seemingly relinquish all rights to the latter.

Street of Shame is about men. The lack of significant male characters may temper the vigour of his arguments, but Mizoguchi nonetheless remains implacably critical of his own gender's influence in this cycle of exploitation. His recriminations are discreetly enmeshed within the narrative, minimizing the disruption to its female-centric dramatic flow, but it quickly becomes obvious that each woman's predicament is at least to some extent motivated by the male(s) in her life. Cruel fathers, inconsiderate partners and ungrateful sons inhabit the background of the film, engendering a feminine need to abnegate. Moreover, the brothel's Madame is superseded in power by her husband, who twice rounds up his workers to give resoundingly hollow pep talks designed to extol the benefits of their vocation. Even men who are extraneous to the womens' everyday lives manage to exert their influence: note the aforementioned Anti-Prostitution Bill, whose merits are debated by a male-dominated parliament. Mizoguchi is astute enough to shine his empathetic light upon all of his flawed individuals, but the impression of female subjugation at the hands of a still-patriarchal society is one that's hard to dispel - this, despite the irony of the male characters' dependence upon the oppressed parties.

Street of Shame is about modernity. As the shrill, frenzied sounds of Toshirô Mayuzumi's avant-garde score accompany an establishing vista of 1950s Tokyo during the opening credits, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a very different beast in its director's oeuvre. It is demarcated as a film attuned to contemporary concerns in a manner heretofore unseen within Mizoguchi's work: gone is the classicism and lyricism that both opens and defines his renowned jidai-geki pieces. In its place, there exists a meticulously-crafted melodramatic realism that allows him to discard the sentimental disposition of his most popular films and go straight for the jugular. The socio-political perspective that's present in so much of Mizoguchi's work now assumes the foremost prominence as he turns his attention to the breakdown of traditional family structures. There is little serenity in his examination, which is willing to plumb harrowing depths to illustrate the despondent underbelly of Japan's post-war economic miracle: the image of the über-maternal Hanae confessing to her husband ("I'm glad we decided not to commit suicide.") whilst cradling her malnourished baby in her arms is the sort of tangible human atrocity that only Mizoguchi could construct. And in his eyes, it is indeed a human atrocity for he points the finger of blame directly at a government that's failed its female citizens, and consequently its families. Newsbites from the Diet blare out from numerous radios, creating a politicized soundtrack against which the audience witnesses the limited employment opportunities available to the Japanese woman of the '50s. Almost all of the film's female leads dream of escaping their neon bordello (another irony: it's named Dreamland) but their limited earning potential as women is further hindered by the permanent stigma of a profession that none of them entered entirely through free will.

Street of Shame is about resilience. This is a film that confronts the issue of a prostitute's ignominy head-on and dares to question society's right to authorize that humiliation. Only one member of the original quintet, Yasumi, manages to leave Dreamland for good - but she does so through a deception that effectively exterminates her conscience and morality. Mizoguchi notes the heavy emphasis placed upon performance in this environment, and when Yasumi continues the charade in her next line of work, the blurred distinction between her role and her reality implies that her physical prostitution has been supplanted by spiritual prostitution. Her apparent "escape" accordingly raises further questions about the viability of women in the commercial marketplace, and in doing so alludes to an entire history of female suffering that continues to weigh down most visibly upon her former co-workers. Like Yasumi, none of these women intrinsically require the audience's sympathies, but Mizoguchi's humanistic treatment of femininity-in-crisis elicits more than distanced admiration. His women are more likely to be seen fighting against one another than the powers-that-be, but with each of their personal conflicts they contribute to a cumulative vision of outdated-yet-neverending self-sacrifice that demands the viewer's active engagement with matters of gender equality. The film is a paean to their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths, but most of all it's a tribute to the women themselves.

Street of Shame is about style. His ninety-first film of a métier spanning three decades finds Mizoguchi doing everything except resting on his laurels. Indeed, one could argue that his filmic prose has never been so concise in its articulation. The director rises to the challenge of a dangerously convoluted narrative by refining the renowned aesthetic flourishes of Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu down to their threadbare essentials. What the later film lacks in pictorial beauty, it makes up for with stylistic complexity. The director uses depth of field and fluid long-takes to toy with the audience's spatial awareness: a simple track or zoom can expand or contract the planes of action within the frame, and in any one shot he can be using middleground and/or background to bring nuance to the foreground. Take, for example, the scene in which Yasumi visits a café to borrow more money from her benefactor: during their discussion they both dominate the frame, but Mizoguchi uses its depth to interweave a casual commentary on the subject of career openings with the image of a subservient waitress slaving away in the distance. His subdued visuals have rarely been so gloriously unassertive in their intricacies. Additionally, his editing grammar reaches a new level of sophistication, cutting effortlessly across five plotlines that converge and diverge with alarming inconsistency. Somehow, the stories find a way to feed into one another - often via the overarching theme of familial breakdown - and the friction generated by each cut infuses the text with all the potency of a seismic polemic against the social order. It's to Mizoguchi's credit that this impeccably synchronized crescendo of emotional violence retains an organic intensity that grounds it within a wholly identifiable reality.

Finally, Street of Shame is about Kenji Mizoguchi himself. Throughout his adult life, he had been a frequent consumer of prostitutes - a fact that boggles the mind when one considers the pro-feminist/anti-prostitution readings applied to so many of his films, this one included. Street of Shame's final coda however, may well expose the true nature of his personal convictions. [Spoiler]The director brings down the curtain by going full circle and turning his attention to the next generation: the latest addition to Dreamland's roster, a teenage virgin named Shizuko, makes her public "debut" in an uncharacteristic Mizoguchi close-up. As he scrutinizes her innocent but terrified face, she uncomfortably whispers to the passers-by - "come inside... please..." - and so the cycle begins once again. With his choice of shot, the director's camera eradicates its gender-neutral viewpoint and reverts to a perspective that boldly recalls the male gaze. But the last shot of his incomparable career is surely also Mizoguchi's gaze - and with it, he acknowledges the destructive potential of the profession once and for all. In a courageous move, the closing moments of Street of Shame reveal their true colours as a filmmaker's desire for redemption.[/Spoiler] Thus, the director's final gift to the world of cinema is also his most intimate and personal - and it somehow seems fitting that this poignant diatribe should have been cited as one of the factors behind the eventual ratification of the Anti-Prostitution Bill in 1958. There could be no greater tribute to the everlasting eloquence - and relevance - of Mizoguchi's cinematic expression.

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