What are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.
A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?
Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.
The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.
Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.
This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.
When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.
Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.