Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.
Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.
The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.
Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.
Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.
Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.
Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.
Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.
In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.