Towards the end of the 60s and faced with the same problems as any other studio of the day – namely declining receipts as cinema audiences embraced television, Nikkatsu decided to spice up their already racy youth orientated output with a steady stream of sex and violence. The Roman Porno line took a loftier approach to the “pink film” – mainstream softcore pornography played in dedicated cinemas and created to a specific formula, by putting the resources of a bigger studio behind it with greater production values and acting talent. 40 years on Roman Porno is back. Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesunekotachi) takes inspiration from Night of the Felines by the Roman Porno master Noboru Tanaka but where Tanaka’s film is a raucous comedy following the humorous adventures of its three working girl protagonists, Shiraishi’s is a much less joyous affair as he casts his three lonely heroines adrift in Tokyo’s red light district.
Masako (Juri Ihata), Rie (Michie), and Yui (Satsuki Maue) are best friends, though they don’t even know each other’s real names. They each work for a shady escort agency in Tokyo’s red light district where they’re ordered and dispatched by their two-bit hustler of a manager Nonaka (Takuma Otoo) and driven around by the assistant who it turns out has been secretly filming them and posting the videos on YouTube as a kind of exposé on the sex trade.
Each of the women “has their tale to tell” as one puts it but none of them are particularly unhappy in their work, prostitution is simply their way of life and to that extent completely normalised. It does, however, interfere with their ability to form relationships, not just practically but emotionally. For unclear reasons possibly connected to debt collection Masako is technically homeless despite the large amounts of money she can earn, sleeping in cheap motels or all night manga cafes and carting all of her worldly possessions around with her in a tiny carry on size suitcase on wheels. One of her regulars, a millionaire shut in (Tomohiro Kaku), offers to let her stay with him but their relationship is strange and strained – somewhere between business and pleasure with the lines permanently unclear.
Rei, by contrast, is saddled with an elderly client who usually just wants to talk but eventually takes things in an extreme direction. Her path into prostitution is in a sense more positive even if it stems from a kind of vengeance in that the feeling of being needed and providing a valuable service gives her life meaning.
Yui looks for meaning through romance but rarely finds it thanks to the various potential mates she meets through her work. Yui’s young son Kenta has worrying bruises on his face, arms and torso, rarely speaks, and is frequently abandoned by his mother who pays a shady guy to look after him while she spends her time looking for love.
Working for a lenient agency the girls are more or less free agents rather than abused street walkers trapped by debt-bondage and could quit any time they wanted. Yui and Masako may be looking for an escape from this dead-end world – Yui at least is conscious of her age and the declining bookings, but neither names that as something that they are actively pursuing. Rei, by contrast, has made her escape already but has travelled in the opposite direction – from stifling bourgeois life to Belle du Jour liberation, but her eventual destination may be a much darker one than she’d anticipated.
This darkness hovers round the edges as the threat of violence is only ever indirectly expressed or fetishised as in a sequence led by Yui’s possible new partner and the bondage club he works at as one half of a warmup manzai act. Only towards the end does its reality finally surface, making plain how vulnerable and unprotected the women remain whilst on the job. Far from the liberated laughter of Night of the Felines, Shiraishi’s film traps its women with their own despairs as they wallow in an inescapable well of loneliness, satisfying the needs of others but unable to satisfy their own. Bleak but subtly ironic, Dawn of the Felines finds no joy in the sun rising, only the relief of the end of a working day as its three stray cats wander the streets looking for their place to belong.
Dawn of the Felines was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)