Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

Suzaki paradise posterBy 1956, things were beginning to look up. Post-war privation was receding into the distance with the consumerist future already on the horizon, but as much as there were possibilities for some others found themselves floundering, unable to find direction in a world of constant change. Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Susaki Paradise: Akashingo)* was released in the same year that the anti-prostitution law came into force forever changing the face of the red light district and like its heroes finds itself hovering on a precipice caught between an old world the new.

Lovers Tsutae (Michiyo Aratama) and Yoshiji (Tatsuya Mihashi) have found themselves at a crossroads, or more accurately on a bridge, unsure whether to go forward, or back, or some other place entirely. Tsutae is disappointed in Yoshiji, expecting him as the man to have some kind of plan, while he is a little resentful of her fortitude and tendency to take the lead. Yoshiji grows maudlin and moody, berating himself for his failure of manhood, a failing for which Tsutae has little sympathy. Fed up with him, she runs off and catches a bus. He chases her, and they both get off at Susaki, home to a famous red light district. Yoshiji isn’t happy with this development, worried that Tsutae will cross the bridge and fall back into her “old self”, perhaps hinting at the kind of life she lived before. Luckily for them, Tsutae spots a help wanted sign at a tiny bar firmly on this side of the river. The landlady, Otoku (Yukiko Todoroki), is a kind woman raising her two sons alone, but is wary of handing the job to a woman the like of Tsutae. As she tells her, no one stays here long, most just see it as a stepping stone, a place where they can acclimatise themselves to the idea of crossing the bridge into the ironically named “Susaki Paradise”.   

Once you cross the bridge, most seem to say, you never really cross back. Later we learn that Tsutae is from the other side of the water and seemingly forever trying to escape her past though mostly through trying to attach herself to a man she thinks can carry her out it. Yoshiji seems to be aware that Tsutae is a former sex worker and is desperate to prevent her returning to her previous occupation, worried that he’ll lose her if she does or perhaps just unfairly judgemental. Likewise, we learn that he lost his job through some kind of impropriety, perhaps committed trying to keep Tsutae with him. Each of them is in one way or another trapped by patriarchal social codes, Tsutae believing that the only way she can save herself is by finding the right man to save her, and Yoshiji increasingly resentful for not living up to the male ideal. He can’t keep his woman, can’t provide for or protect her, most pressingly he cannot find a job but is also proud, shamed by the idea of accepting low paid manual work. He feels belittled and humiliated and is embittered by it.

Tsutae meanwhile takes to Otoku’s bar like a duck to water, quickly bringing in a host of male custom while bonding with the cheerful owner of a radio shop in nearby electronics centre Kanda, Ochiai (Seizaburo Kawazu). Otoku manages to find a job for Yoshiji delivering soba noodles in a local restaurant which he decides to take despite his intense resentment and wounded male pride. Ironically enough, the name of the soba restaurant is “Damasare-ya” which sounds like “tricked”, explaining why he might be reluctant to take the job, but the biggest problem is that he can’t trust Tsutae and is always paranoid about her meeting men in the bar or deciding to cross the bridge in his absence. Eventually, Ochiai offers to make Tsutae his mistress and provide a flat for her in Kanda, leaving her with a choice – “love”, if that’s what it is, with the feckless and jealous Yoshiji, or perfectly pleasant yet transactional comfort with Ochiai. Yoshiji, meanwhile, attracts the attentions of an earnest waitress in the soba noodle restaurant (Izumi Ashikawa) who seems to support his attachment to Tsutae but is also rooting for him to get over himself and live an honest life of hard work by knuckling down at his new job.

Yet that post-war restlessness won’t seem to let either of them go. Once you fall, you fall and it may not be possible to climb back up, or at least not without the right person to help keep you from slipping back down. Otoku has managed to keep a steady hand on the tiller, apparently waiting, we’re told, for the return of her husband who ran off with a woman from the red light district four years previously. The red light district, like toxic masculinity, cuts both ways and you’ll pay a heavy price for crossing the bridge. “People had better live honestly” a middle-aged man avows after having apparently seen the error of his ways, but it’s easier said than done.

When their worlds come crashing down, Tsutae and Yoshiji find themselves right back where they started, hovering on the bridge. “We have to live until we die” Tsutae once said, dismissing any fears we might have had that the pair might jump, but their course is both set and not. Now chastened, Tsutae’s decision to take a step back is both a reflection on the failure of her Susaki experiment, and also perhaps a mild concession to patriarchal social norms as she actively assumes the submissive role, affirming that she will follow Yoshiji’s lead while he reassumes his masculinity by finally taking charge. No longer quite so liminal they move on, another pair of floating clouds, perhaps more at home with who they are and can never be, but with no clear destination in sight.


*The reading of this place name is “Susaki” but the film has become more commonly known under the title “Suzaki Paradise”

Currently streaming on Mubi as part of an ongoing Yuzo Kawashima retrospective.

Title sequence (no subtitles)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)