Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no mon) [DVD]
Director : Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay : Goro Tanada (based on the novel by Taijiro Tamura)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1964
Stars : Yumiko Nogawa (Maya), Jo Shishido (Shintaro Ibuki), Kayo Matsuo (Omino), Satoko Kasai (Sen), Tamiko Ishii (Oroku), Misako Tominaga (Machiko), Isao Tamagawa (Horidome), Koji Wada (Abe), Keisuke Noro (Ishii), Chico Roland (Pastor)
Although it was made nearly 20 years after the end of World War II, Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh seethes with the bitterness, resentment, and feelings of loss that pervaded Japan following its defeat in 1945. Gate of Flesh is transfixed with the undercurrents of a country in ruins economically, physically, and spiritually. Taking place just days after the end of the war, it uses Tokyo's sex industry as a metaphoric stand-in for the state of the country.
The story, taken from a novel by Taijiro Tamura, centers around a group of prostitutes who have banded together amid the ruins in Tokyo to protect themselves and their livelihood. They work without pimps and adhere to a strict set of rules, the most important of which is that they never sleep with a man for free. In their world, love and sex are strictly separated; in fact, it's more than that: love is simply not a possibility, and if one of them breaks that rule, she is viciously beaten, humiliated, and cast out from the group forever.
These women's workaday world is disrupted by the arrival of two characters. First, there's 18-year-old Maya (newcomer Yumiko Nogawa), a desperate young woman reduced to stealing in order to live. She's not like the others because she hasn't been in the trade for a long time; she maintains an air of innocence, even as we sense that it masks something much darker. The second arrival is Shintaro Ibuki (Suzuki regular Jo Shishido), a possibly psychotic former Japanese soldier who hides out with the prostitutes because he is wanted for stabbing an American GI in the leg. He is also wanted in connection with a heist, the goods from which he may or may not be hiding with an old associate.
As the title suggests, there is plenty of lurid and exploitative elements to Gate of Flesh. In fact, for a Japanese film made in the mid-1960s, it is surprisingly explicit in its outright mixture of sex and violence, although Suzuki should get some kind of award for his ability to suggest copious amounts of nudity without showing much at all (always a carefully placed shadow, or elbow, or hand). Yet, despite its seemingly simplistic raunch, Gate of Flesh is actually an extremely acute look at both the hardships endured by Japan as a whole in the wake of World War II and the melodramatic essence of forbidden love. Suzuki's films are frequently pitched at a level just beneath the stratosphere (which is why his work is something of an acquired taste), and this film is no different, although the grim subject matter keeps it from being as kitschy-weird as some of his later films.
Gate of Flesh also benefits greatly from Suzuki's unique visual acumen, which throws the film just slightly off-kilter. Partially this is because it had to be shot on soundstages, so the sets of fire-scarred, bombed-out Tokyo streets and buildings have an inevitably theatrical quality to them, which is heightened by Suzuki's close camera distances and his use of deliberately artificial lighting (at one point, a character is literally followed by a spotlight that has no reason for existing within the world of the story). Suzuki has an amazing eye, and he generates great effects with simple visual decisions, such as having each of the prostitutes wear a single solid color for the entire film, which distinguishes them clearly from each other and also from the gray-brown of the backdrop. It certainly isn't realistic, but that was never Suzuki's forte. He always excelled in the realm of the slightly askew, and it would be hard to argue that anyone before or since has done it better.
|Gate of Flesh Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||July 26, 2005|
|The liner notes say that this new anamorphic widescreen transfer was taken from a fine-grain master positive struck from the original negative, but it seems like it came from at least two different prints because one scene with English dialogue has burned-in Japanese subtitles, while all the other scenes featuring English dialogue do not. Whatever the sources, the resulting image is excellent, with great clarity, sharpness, and detail. The splashes of primary colors -- red, yellow, green, etc. -- against the otherwise grayish background are beautifully rendered.|
|The digitally restored monaural soundtrack is clean and clear throughout.|
|The major supplement is "From the Ruins," a 22-minute featurette on the making of the film that includes new interviews with director Seijun Suzuki and production designer Takeo Kimura, who is at least as responsible for the film's look as Suzuki. In fact, Kimura offers more intriguing insight into the film's production, especially in his discussions of stealing old plywood from the studio to build the sets (although Suzuki has some interesting things to say about dealing with Japan's censor board). The other supplements are a stills gallery of rare production stills and art, a lurid original theatrical trailer, and a new essay by film critic Chuck Stephens.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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