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Gate of Flesh: The Criterion Collection

Seijun Suzuki's lurid 1964 melodrama Gate of Flesh is about power, sex, and masochism — not necessarily in that order. But, more than anything, it's about Suzuki's own love of color, image, and filmmaking, taking a fairly standard story about a gang of prostitutes plying their trade in 1945 Japan and turning it into a unique, fascinating, and disturbing example of his no-holds-barred style. The film opens with homeless Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) begging for food on the streets of a bombed-out section of Tokyo. Rebuffed by American MPs, she hooks up with the scarlet-clad Sen (Satoko Kasai), a tattooed, cynical hooker who states "I just want power." Maya joins Sen and her three cohorts, headquartered in the basement of a decimated building, as they trade sex for money without a pimp to guide or dominate them. Filling the authoritarian void is Sen, who enforces her rule against freebies with an iron fist. When the most kind-hearted of the group, Machiko (Misako Tominaga), violates this creed, the women shear off her hair, bind her naked in a net, and beat her — the level of brutality rises to fetishized masochism. When Maya herself breaks the whore's law later in the film, her punishment is even more severe. Into this hotbed of vicious carnality stumbles a drunken ex-soldier, or "returnee," named Shintaro, played by Suzuki regular Jo Shishido. Wanted for the stabbing of a G.I., Shin becomes an object of fascination for the women. Soon the quartet (Machiko having been banished) is doting, giggling, and hoarding canned pineapple, Shin's favorite food, for this cruel symbol of Japan's imperialist macho ethic. Suzuki frequently equates militarism with misogyny, and this symbolism excuses, to at least some extent, the leering objectification and violence towards women which can be a troublesome aspect of his work. Still, there's no denying that the extended scene in which Maya is stripped, hung by her wrists, and mercilessly caned crosses the line into exploitation. In a fashion similar to other adult-oriented Japanese films of the era, especially Suzuki's, the limits of censorship are firmly tested, with frequent snatches of nudity, and only strategic shadows preventing this from being full-blown soft-core pornography. The cynicism of Gate of Flesh reaches its apex when Maya seduces (in fact, practically rapes) the African-American priest who has tried to coax her into redemption. The depiction of American soldiers is universally unfavorable — a realistic stance from the perspective of the vanquished Japanese. It also points up how the mindset of an occupied people toward their occupiers is almost always negative, despite the intentions of the latter. The movie is full of Suzuki's trademark surreal touches, from the meticulously recreated ruins of Tokyo built on the Nikkatsu studio back lot, to the use of superimposed images on the widescreen palette, to the bizarre sequence wherein Shin brings a stolen cow to the prostitutes and graphically butchers it for them. (This prompts one of the women to make the sign of the cross in horror and then immediately lick her lips in anticipation, an apt pair of gestures for Suzuki's entire oeuvre.) Always a master of color filmmaking, Suzuki garbs his anti-heroines in color-coded dresses, making it simple to tell them apart and providing some symbolic clues to their personalities. The bizarre flourishes and operatic performances make Gate of Flesh a riveting stepping stone towards the yakuza masterpieces Suzuki would create in the next couple of years with Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Gate of Flesh offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with a flawless image, while the original monaural audio is on a DD 1.0 track. Supplements include the featurette "From the Ruins" (21 min.) featuring new interviews with the now-venerable (but still working) Suzuki and production designer Takeo Kimura. The director discusses the compromises he had to make for the Motion Picture Ethics Committee, while Kimura relates how the massive set was built with plywood pilfered from another part of the studio. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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