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Mizoguchi’s street of shame

by Donald Richie

RED-LIGHT DISTRICT, the film by Kenji Mizoguchi, translated and annotated by D.J. Rajakaruna. Colombo: S. Godage & Brothers, 2001. 182 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film, the 1956 “Akasen Chitai” (“Red-Light District,” aka “Street of Shame”) may not be one of his best pictures but it is one of his most interesting. As D.J. Rajakaruna, who here translates the entire script, writes: “It is not a great film like ‘The Life of Oharu’ or ‘Ugetsu’ but (it is) a document of historical and sociological importance.”

One reason for this importance is the role the film is said to have played in the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law, which was then being debated in the National Diet for the fourth time. Mizoguchi’s film was released in March 1956, and two months later the bill was passed, coming into effect a year later, in April 1957.

Though sober, factual and not at all melodramatic, the film did show the great economic pressures under which postwar prostitutes lived. Mizoguchi’s typical brothel (called Dreamland) contains a floating population of a dozen or so women, and he and his scenarist focus on six of them. Their interweaving stories constitute the subject of the film.

The women’s problems are financial rather than moral. Burdened with debts, they simply cannot make enough, no matter how many customers they take. The youngest of them all, Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), devotes herself to getting rich. She even gets money by promising more than she can sell.

In her final encounter with a crooked client she defends herself: “You’re a businessman. You should know better. You live by selling things and I live by selling my body. It’s the same transaction. Now you say you’ve suffered a loss. But how can you say I have deceived you?”

The other women regard Yasumi with mixed emotions. She lends them money at very high interest rates, but they understand her rationale. As one of them, Miki (Machiko Kyo), says: “Even if we don’t cheat other people, other people will cheat us. Unless you act like she does you’ll never get out of here. She’s the smart one.”

One of the others actually manages to get married but Miki’s reaction is: “Marriage doesn’t make any difference. We are selling our bodies, whether it is by long- or short-term contract. That’s the only difference.”

Actually, some of the women look forward to the coming legal reform for reasons quite different from those which animate the reformers. “If they close the brothels,” says one, “we can select our own customers, our own pimps, even where we work.”

Their employers however, are not so encouraging. The brothel-master notes that the bill purports to protect women. “What a thing to say! Let me tell you, if this bill is passed, you will be the ones worst affected. You’ll get sent to jail for entertaining — and how will you feed your families?”

Though the film may have played a part in the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law, it is not itself propagandistic. All sides of the “problem” are shown, as well as the fact that prostitution does not invariably lead to undiluted misery.

In this, the film was somewhat different from Yoshiko Shibaki’s “Suzaki Paradaisu,” the novel upon which it was based. Masashige Narusawa’s script concerned itself more with character than morality and sacrificed both plot and politics to analytical inquiry.

Though Narusawa had written for Mizoguchi before (both “The Princess Yang Kwei-fei” and “New Tales of the Taira Clan”) he was not the director’s preferred scenarist. This was Yoshikata Yoda, with whom Mizoguchi had made some of his finest films. But Yoda felt that his prior effort at depicting the lives of postwar prostitutes, “Women of the Night,” was a failure (which it was) and so declined “Red-Light District.”

It is interesting to speculate on what he would have made from it. When he adapted a picaresque text by Edo Period author Saikaku for Mizoguchi’s 1952 “The Life of Oharu,” he made something much darker. The original heroine happily descended from court lady to common whore and the fall is described as something of a lark. Yoda made it into a tragedy with, at the end, Buddha being invoked to aid the sinner.

Narusawa is more on the side of Saikaku, as it were. He does not describe the women’s work as all fun, but neither is he on the lookout for tragedy. The value of his excellent scenario is that it is so even-handed, which gave Mizoguchi a way to create something documentarylike. The director’s last film was thus also his most intensely realistic.

Not that the critics agreed. Rajakaruna has thoughtfully included in his introduction a number of quotations from contemporary reviews, both Japanese and foreign. Masao Yamauchi complained that the film was not “an inquiry into the inhumanity of the system based on women practicing this profession,” and one anonymous review found fault with the film for “not sufficiently deploring legalized prostitution.”

Osamu Takizawa also deplored what little vindication was added. “It is like diluting excellent sake with water,” he said, and Akira Iwasaki noticed a certain ambivalence in Mizoguchi himself. In referring to the final scene (a young prostitute on the street trying to attract customers) the critic says that the viewer “might get the impression that the director himself would not hesitate to visit the brothel in order to acquire her services.”

This final scene came in for a lot of comment, perhaps because it found all male reviewers ambivalent. It is, however, a very Mizoguchi-like scene in that it is shot from a slight distance and goes on for a time, and it is morally ambivalent. It is this, and not any supposed availability of any virgin, which makes the scene so disturbing.

In this edition of the script (and it is the script that is translated, not the finished film — hence several differences, including this final scene), Rajakaruna is scrupulous. Not only is the full script included, but sections of it (and all of the critical quotes mentioned before) are also “translated” into romaji so that one may check the translation.

Though the considerations are literary rather than filmic (there is no discussion as to how Mizoguchi filmed his script), this publication is a work that all libraries will need and all film lovers will want. Rajakaruna has already translated screenplays by Yasujiro Ozu, Teinosuke Kinugasa and Akira Kurosawa, as well as Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu.” This new publication is quite up to the high standards he set with his previous works.