Street of Shame (赤線地帯)

赤線地帯 (Street of Shame)

9/16/13 (Thurs), Tokyo

Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1956 film about five prostitutes working at a brothel (the ironically named “Dreamland”) in Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s old red-light district, and struggling to survive amid the changing mores of the post-war era. The government is moving to outlaw prostitution with the laudable aim of protecting women (and to answer public opinion), but the move would in fact destroy not only the livelihood of these women but, in Mizoguchi’s world, the only way that women can make it on their own in society. The brothel owner naturally opposes the ban as well, claiming dubiously that he’s concerned for his charges. One woman is a widow working hard to raise her son in hopes that he can take care of her in return; one is working to support her weak, sickly husband and their small child; one is a scheming worker who carefully saves money by lending at high interest to her needy colleagues and stringing along clients with promises of marriage; one manages to find a husband; and another, a new recruit, is a young and pretty girl with an attitude and a penchant for spending more than she can afford. The money is barely enough to scrape by, and most are ultimately doomed to continue with no hope of a future.

The story becomes a bit soap opera-ish at times. The wife with the helpless husband is threatened with eviction and other problems, and her troubles begin to affect her physically, making her less attractive to potential customers. The married one returns to the brothel in humiliation, having discovered that her husband wants a slave rather than a partner. The spunky young girl has an ugly confrontation with her father, who has come to take her back not for her sake but to protect the family’s reputation. Most disturbingly, the widow’s son, now old enough to take care of her, cruelly rejects her because of the very profession that made it possible for him to go to school and become respectable – thus forcing her to go on selling her body in order to survive. The only happy ending is the woman who has accumulated money, albeit by ripping off her co-workers and cruelly jilting a would-be suitor (thus condemning him to prison for having stolen money for her). She happily takes over a futon shop that supplies the brothel.

All of the actresses are in fine form, especially Mimasu Aiko as the widow. Kyo Machiko was a bit too aggressive at first but was great in her big scene with the father. It’s hard to call Mizoguchi’s films enjoyable, but it was well worth watching.

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