Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame restored and shown at Venice Film Festival, pits sex workers against unforgiving society

Baradwaj Rangan

Sep 27, 2018 11:24:43 IST

The Venezia Classici section of the Venice Film Festival features two kinds of films — documentaries about cinema (the prize, this year, went to Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary on Buster Keaton, titled The Great Buster) and the world premieres of classics restored by film libraries and cultural institutions. One of the restored classics, this year, was Akasen chitai (Street of Shame), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. The director is better known for The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), but this film — Mizoguchi’s final work (it was released in March 1956; he died that August) — may have had the most impact. The story revolves around five sex workers in a licensed brothel named Dreamland. Many people thought that the film was directly responsible for the anti-prostitution law that was passed in Japan a few months after its release.

That could be true. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the scene near the end where a young girl, Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami), is being prepared for her first time. (Her father suffered an accident in the coal mine he worked in, and now he is out of a job.) Applying foundation and powder on the girl, the mistress of the house flatters her. “Young girls look so attractive in makeup, don’t you agree? The prettier the clothes, the more money you’ll make. And then, the knife falls. “Listen, Shizuko... It’s not me that’s forcing you into this business. You know, don’t you? Your mother wants this. She needs you to start sending money to her as soon as you can.” The point is reiterated. “It’s against our wishes, mind you, but that’s what she wants. We’ll just have to see how you get on. To be honest, we don’t make a habit of hiring virgins.”

But look what happens, a little before the half-hour mark. We hear, on the radio, that the Anti-Prostitution Bill, which has been defeated in recent years, is expected to be presented to the parliament once more. “Mrs Takehisa, MP, in describing the proposal, commented: Prostitution is an unforgivable evil, forcing women to sell their bodies.” Minutes later, the man who owns the brothel summons the girls and says, “They say it’s a law that will protect you, but that’s rubbish. You’re the victims here. If they imprison your customers, how are you going to make money?” He does a terrific job of painting himself as a saviour. “The only people who really protect you are us, the brothel keepers. We run these establishments to provide you with work so you won’t starve. You don’t have to resort to suicide, any of you. We make up for this government’s insufficient welfare policies. We act more like social workers!”

One of the women wonders, “Why can’t we sell our bodies if we so choose?” This sentiment is found at the film’s beginning, too, when the mistress of the brothel tells a cop, “Listen, Officer Miyazaki, my family has been here for four generations. And the Yoshiwara District [where Dreamland is located] is over 300 years old. Do you think a business that’s not needed would last that long?” Back and forth, it goes: women’s right to choose versus an unforgiving and judgmental society making up their minds for them. But even if these dialogues appear to consider all angles, the melodramatic plight that befalls each one of the sex workers tells us, in no ambiguous terms, where the director’s sympathies lie.

Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) manipulates her customers into giving her large sums of money, but she isn’t evil. She entered this profession to make bail for her father who got mixed up in a corruption scandal. “My life was ruined for just 200,000 yen,” she weeps. “Just for money! I hate poverty!” As for Miki (Machiko Kyō), her father comes down to shame her, and get her back home. Her sister is getting married and he doesn’t want the groom’s family to know of Miki’s “disrepute”. But what about the disrepute he brought to the family, by neglecting his wife and going after numerous other women, including sex workers? Miki is appalled by the hypocrisy, as are we. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), a widow, raised her son with the money she made at Dreamland, but he runs off to the city, wanting nothing to do with her. He says, “Everyone in the country knew what you do for a living. It was so embarrassing. That’s why I came to Tokyo.”

Watch a glimpse here.

Most poignant of all — if there can indeed be a ranking system of miseries -- is the story of Yorie (Hiroko Machida), an older sex worker who finds her clients are drifting to younger colleagues. One of them tells her, spitefully, “It’s like when you buy fish, right? It’s only natural that you’d choose the freshest fish. And it’s the customer’s right to choose.” Yorie decides to run away and marry her long-time boyfriend, who makes clogs for a living. And we get a farewell gathering organised by Hanae (Michiyo Kogure), who works at Dreamland to support her ailing husband and infant son. Hanae’s husband seems sympathetic, at first. But his advice to Yorie reveals what he cannot tell his wife, and what he truly feels about her profession. “The women who work at Dreamland are the scum of the earth,” he says. “Just be a good wife and take good care of your husband.”

If Hanae is hurt, she doesn’t show it. The other women crack jokes. (“What’s so great about marriage? The difference is that you are selling yourself at a monthly rate instead of a daily rate.”) They give Yorie gifts. (“This is a travel coupon. If it all goes wrong, you can use that to come back.”) The night ends. Yorie leaves. A few days later, to no one’s surprise, she returns. (See Phillip Lopate’s video above, where he describes Mizoguchi as both a proto-feminist and an anti-feminist, someone who made stories about women and yet, kept throwing them into tragedies. He could be describing K Balachander.) “He didn’t want me,” Yorie says. “He just wanted someone to help him. He couldn’t afford to hire anyone, but I was free... That’s why this job is better. At least when I work, I get paid.” Yorie, subsequently, went to an employment agency, and what happened there would make you laugh if it wasn’t so sad. “They told me a woman can’t make 15,000 yen and they said to try prostitution.”

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Sep 27, 2018 18:56:29 IST