Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.