Welcome to post-World War II Tokyo. The Occupied City. It’s a crime-fest. Aside from yakuza-run markets, gang wars, gambling, and seemingly everybody on the grift, prostitution is so utterly widespread, there’s even a governmental department named The RAA (Recreation and Amusement Association) specifically established to relieve the occupying troops of pent-up libidinal urges that could possibly be exorcised in even less wholesome ways. The ensuing fuckfest is prodigious. So prodigious that the moat around the Imperial Palace becomes “so clogged with used condoms” it has to be “cleaned out once a week with a big wire scoop.”
This is the world of the classic Gate of Flesh.
MPs drag a gaggle of women away, while other, luckier, women scream obscenities at their foreign occupiers. Thieves, looting from US barracks, are shot in the back. Random dead are carried through the streets on tattered mats of tatami.
Based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Taijiro Tamura, Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no Mon) has been filmed five times to date. The most remembered, and acclaimed, version of this story of a gang of rebel whores and the returning solider they take in was made in 1964 by Seijun Suzuki, a director with a fevered imagination, and a penchant for pushing genre boundaries to such extremes that he was essentially blackballed from the industry after his 1967 noir, Branded To Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin), featured, amongst other glorious puzzlements, a hitman with a fetish for the smell of cooking rice. That particular film is now regarded as a true classic of Japanese cinema and we will spend much time with it here the future. But for now, obviously, it’s Suzuki’s version of Gate of Flesh we’re focussing on.
On the Criterion edition of Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh, the director explains that being a contracted employee of the Nikkatsu studio essentially meant doing whichever project was handed to him, but this never seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for any film, getting down to business with an almost laughably stereotypical Japanese work ethic and a flair for manoeuvring around what his employers demanded versus what he could show on screen without being censored, most obviously, by the limitations on nudity and sexual activity.
In Gate of Flesh, Nikkatsu wanted an “erotic” movie, which meant, in Suzuki’s words, “Women get stripped naked, tied and hung up by the wrists, and beaten.”
The studio got that, however “erotic” or not it may be, but they also got what has come to be regarded as an early example of the “roman porno” (“roman” equals “romance” here, top marks to any long-term readers who recall this from column 4: Songs of Hate, Part One).
Aside from its eroticism, Gate of Flesh was also designed as vehicle for leading man Joe “Ace” Shishido, whose surgically-altered, Brando-esque cheeks earned him the nickname “Mumps” in my house. Shishido himself is a legend of Japanese genre cinema, so get used to the name, as among many, many other crime films, he was Suzuki’s lead in the notorious Branded To Kill. Ace no Joe cuts a lean, charismatic figure in any movie he appears in and, despite his slightly ludicrous cheek alterations, he makes for a convincing if perpetually over the top tough guy. In Gate of Flesh, Shishido ramps it up, playing Shintaro Ibuki, a solider with a violent temper, a thorough hatred of American soldiers, and a stolen cache of yakuza-sought penicillin. On the run for killing a GI, Shishido is wounded and comes across a gang of five conveniently colour-coded prostitutes patrol their turf with a fierce, alpha male set of rules:
- Other whores who trespass on our turf will be dealt with harshly
- Never fuck for free…or you’ll also be dealt with harshly
- No man will ever pimp us out.
Prior to encountering Ibuki, the girls themselves strut around like a proto-girl gang from Nikkatsu’s own ‘70s-made (and set) Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock, or rival studio Toei’s Girl Boss series, fearlessly taking care of business, spitting apple chunks at the downtrodden and generally acting tough. Under the protection of a local yakuza outfit, the group is led by the red-clad Sen (played by Satoko Kasai), and despite their ruthless adherence to the rules and their nihilistic hatred of “everything,” their femininity is never in doubt. Through their individual, plain but brightly-coloured dresses (green, red, purple, yellow), they are virtually the only sparks of true colour amid Suzuki’s palette of the browns and greys of the ruins and the drab olive and khaki of the soldiers. Holed up in a bombed out building, the girls seem quite comfortable, strangely enough, eking out this existence. Their control over men, perhaps, is a reason for this. This “savage world” has freed them in a strange way. These girls are not government-endorsed RAA whores. They detest foreigners, they despise weakness, they have no time for love — they can barely manage camaraderie. They have each other when they need each other and that’s all they need. They are a pack of territorial she-wolves fucking and thieving their way into this new world of black market democracy and unbridled horniness — the world the war has left them with.
Maya, orphaned, raped (her only prior sexual experience), and rescued by a kindly African-American priest (an important role unfortunately played by a man who cannot act), takes up the colour green and joins the group, just in time to see the white-wearing Ofuko humiliated and expelled for breaking rule no.2. The group has another non-conformist already on its hands, the motherly Machiko who’s like something from a recently-departed Japan, clad in a traditional kimono, looking only to fall in love and marry again. Despite this seeming demureness and traditional romanticism (for which she is mocked by the “liberated” others) the experienced Machiko is well aware of the power of sex, telling Maya, “You don’t yet know the true joys of the flesh…”.
Ibuki first enters the girls’ lives when he robs one of Maya’s clients. Maya, in turn and clearly the quick learner, puts Ibuki on the spot, propositioning him. Ibuki spurs her, spouting off about how he’s not yet that desperate that he needs to sleep with prostitutes. He next encounters Sen, but his interest is more in finding a hideout from Military Police than it is in taking Sen between the sheets, telling her that she’s “as bad as the whores on the front!” in her pathetic advances. Sen, not one to take shit from anybody, goes a little far, telling Ibuki that “It’s you men who are pathetic” because they lost the war. Ouch. This is a particularly scorching scene, and masterfully handled by Suzuki who focusses on an intense, outraged Ibuki all the while showing, through superimposition, Sen, equally intense, unrepentant, driving the nail home in essentially asking Ibuki to pay up and get it over with or fuck off. With MP’s circling, Ibuki regains some tough-guy cred by leaping through a window, quipping “So long, babe.” The MPs give chase; Sen, dressing, hears the shots. Ibuki’s face re-appears, pained, super-imposed again, as Sen pauses at the sound. Their worlds are linked.
Wounded in his escape attempt, Ibuki co-incidentally arrives at the girls’ ruined home simply searching for a place to recuperate. The girls allow him this while also giving him a crash course in the codes of petty post-war rackets:
S.T: Sneak Thief
B.T: Bicycle Thief
Ibuki scoffs at the stupidity of their obvious codes, but Maya lays into him, saying that unless he’s a hold-up man, he’s beneath their contempt.
The initial power-struggle between Ibuki and group leader Sen is dealt with quickly and violently, with Sen smashing a chair over Ibuki’s head. Sen, unwilling to give up any sense of authority, is tattooed by this point, “like people way back who tattooed themselves to fight wild beasts.” An appropriate image. Sen and Maya are particularly keen to transform themselves into something powerful and possibly, in Maya’s case, even demonic. Their metamorphoses are initially halted upon Ibuki’s arrival, however as the soldier quickly goes from outsider to almost-mascot, called “Shin-chan” (“chan” being an affectionate honorific, akin to “cute.”), mocked when he talks about his years “of carnage” on the battlefield, to being a provider for the girls (including stealing and butchering a cow in front of them – squeamish beware – which they not only eat, but earn by the pound exactly what the girls sell themselves for).
Ibuki declares he’s now living only for “sex and food” and inevitably becomes a dreamy object of all the girls’ sexual and romantic desires. He’s possessed of an already bygone Japanese masculinity and self-reliance the girls are drawn to and it’s not long before the laughter at his battle stories switches to rapt attention. It’s as much a mask as the girls’ own “tough chick” routine, however, as traumatised by war, shamed by the loss, the surrender, Ibuki’s alcohol-fuelled breakdown looms.
Ibuki, once healed, begins a campaign of brutal assaults and robberies on Americans and Japanese alike, his “wild animal” status none-too-subtly clarified thanks to some “jungle” music scoring the montage of his money-grabbing efforts. Planning to skip town, Ibuki’s risky hold-ups can’t compare to the offer he gets from the yakuza to buy his stolen penicillin stash.
As relationships become entangled and weird family dynamics surface, Suzuki skilfully and slowly builds a sense of unease. Double-crosses, betrayals, cruel bondage punishments and the tightening of the MP noose – this obviously will not end well. But even though the American flag flies proudly at the end of the film, a final twist awaits those who think they’ve outsmarted Shin Ibuki and, perhaps, Japan itself.
The sex trade in Japan has a long and complicated history with numerous categories and terminology created to avoid outright criminality. Following on from this group of feisty filmic post-war prostitutes, next time, we’ll begin to look at the sex trade in greater depth, with specific reference to Richard Lloyd Parry’s true account of the murder of English-born hostess Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darkness.
A Very Noticeable Young Lady: Lucie Blackman, Murder & High Touch Town History
1. Whiting, Robert, Tokyo Underworld, Vintage Books, 2000. pg.14
Great piece. I have always been meaning to check out this film. You’ve inspired to get off my arse and do it.