“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime.
Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult.
Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own.
The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex.
Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot.
Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.