Teruo Ishii may be most closely associated with his exploitation work for Toei in the late ‘60s and ‘70s but in actuality he began his career at Toho, later joining Shintoho where he served as an AD to among others Mikio Naruse whom he regarded as a lifelong mentor. After making his debut with boxing movie King of the Ring: The World of Glory in 1957, he worked mainly in children’s sci-fi tokusatsu serials before sliding into B-movie noir of which 1958’s Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Nyotai sanbashi) is an early example.
Set firmly in the contemporary era, Ishii opens with a documentary-style voiceover exoticising the seedy underbelly of the city’s entertainment district hidden away in otherwise sparkling Ginza. Shooting in a bold reportage style, he captures a sense of natural spontaneity reminiscent of early American independent cinema transitioning directly into nightclub Arizona where a woman is furiously dancing. Arizona is as we’ll see the nexus of the recent proliferation of “call girl” businesses which have arisen since sex work was criminalised and in this case at least dependent on an international sex trafficking network backed by an American gangster, Thompson (Harold Conway). Salaryman Keizo (Ken Utsui) is a new customer, double checking that the business is “safe” before being reassured that they don’t deal with anyone they don’t know and have already vetted his identity, but when he reaches the hotel room he’s been handed the key for, he discovers the body of a woman lying in the bathtub and is forced on the run. The twist is that Keizo isn’t a bored executive after all but an undercover policeman working on breaking the trafficking ring.
Co-scripted by Akira Sagawa, Flesh Pier seems to draw frequent inspiration from Casablanca only with the roles slightly reversed as replacement hostess Rumi (Yoko Mihara) finds herself wondering why of all the gin joints in Ginza Keizo had to walk into hers while the bar’s musician, Teruo (Teruo Hata), quite clearly in love with her himself, completes the triangular relationship. The couple even enter a Moroccan-style room while echoing Rick and Ilsa’s painful rehash of their Paris break up as Rumi tries and fails to explain why she left him on some previous occasion, Keizo remembering that she wore a white sweater and a blue coat to mimic Rick’s “the Germans wore grey, you wore blue” while the film’s ending is also hugely reminiscent of Casablanca’s “beginning of a wonderful friendship” only with additional romance.
Nevertheless, the crime here is bigger and darker than most contemporary noir with awkward echoes of Japan’s prewar sex trafficking industry embodied by the karayuki as it becomes clear the gang’s business model relies on finding young women and luring them abroad with promises of good jobs only to force them into them sex work. Meanwhile one of the regular policemen, Hayami (Hiroshi Asami), gets a shock when he sets up a meeting with one of the call girls and is met by his own fiancée who, unbeknownst to him, has resorted to sex work in order to fund her brother’s tuition. “What else could I do?” she tearfully asks him making plain that in the difficult if improving economic environment of late 50s Japan sex work is still the only viable option for many women needing to support their families in the absence of men given persistent societal sexism which often locks them out of other kinds of well-paying jobs. Hayami perhaps understands this, drowning his sorrows with his veteran partner insisting that he’s sick of being a policeman and plans to quit only for the older man to sympathetically tell him not to give up so easily.
Then again, Keizo’s secondary love interest Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi) is an intrepid undercover reporter posing as a model in order to bait the trafficking ring. Even so the primary drama revolves around Keizo and Rumi’s unfinished business along with her musician’s jealousy, the implication being more that her feelings for Keizo have clouded her judgement rather than reawakened a sense of moral goodness. Like many femme-fatales in post-war B-movie noir she is made to pay the ultimate price for her transgressive femininity in having firstly climbed the in-gang ladder and then damned herself in her conflicted love for the earnest Keizo even while suspecting he may be an undercover cop despite his acting like an underworld thug. These are indeed a new breed gangster much more like those seen in European and American noir rather than traditional yakuza while the environment of the Arizona is also something of a liminal space as the opening voiceover puts it in but not of Japan.
While nowhere near as lurid as some of Ishii’s later work, Flesh Pier is certainly daring for the time period in the griminess with which it depicts the successor to the red light districts along with its air of forbidden allure even while its club scenes are in keeping with those found in other contemporary gangster tales if lent a little more realism in the immediacy with which Ishii shoots them making full use of documentary-style handheld. Expressing a degree of anxiety as regards Japan’s increasingly global outlook along with that of increasing social change, Flesh Pier is formally daring from the young Ishii artfully playing with classic noir while fully embracing the transgressive thrills of B-movie crime.