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Story of a Prostitute: The Criterion Collection

The story for Seijun Suzuki's 1965 film Story of a Prostitute was written by Taijiro Timura, who also penned the novel on which Suzuki's Gate of Flesh, from the previous year, was based. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that both films present an amoral, almost Hobbesian view of the world through which their female protagonists must struggle. Like Gate of Flesh, this film straddles the line between a proto-feminist critique of the treatment of women in wartime Japan and an exploitive presentation of that treatment. Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), spurned by a lover who marries another, decides to volunteer as a "comfort woman" during the Sino-Japanese War, traveling to desolate northern China in order to join a group of a dozen prostitutes charged with servicing an entire Japanese battalion. In sight of the Great Wall, the Sunrise Palace where she ends up becomes a home away from home, at least until the sadistic adjutant, Lt. Narita (Isao Tamagawa), decides that she appeals to him. Narita's unpleasant attentions have one pleasant side effect: Harumi meets his sycophantic orderly, Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), a gentle soul who reads Diderot and performs his duties with slavish devotion. Harumi initially intends to seduce Mikami and turn him against Narita in order to "tear his power to shreds," a fantasy depicted by Suzuki with stunning literalism. She ends up falling in love with him, running out in the midst of battle to cradle his wounded body in a foxhole, which results in the both of them being captured by the Chinese Hachiro Army. They're eventually rescued, but that only leads to Mikami's court-martial, since Japanese soldiers are not supposed to allow themselves to be captured alive (never mind that Mikami was unconscious when seized and tried to commit suicide in captivity). This climactic crisis is yet another sharp criticism from Suzuki of the authoritarian ethos of the era, in which death is considered preferable to dishonor. The point is stated succinctly by one of Harumi's fellow prostitutes in the last line of the film: "To live is the difficult task; it's dying that's cowardly." Story of a Prostitute is filmed in black-and-white, as befits a tale set in such a barren locale, so it lacks the visual pyrotechnics of some of Suzuki's other films (including Gate of Flesh). Still, the iconoclastic filmmaker introduces elements like slow-motion shots, freeze-frames, and other touches that mark it as one of his own. Even from a relatively straightforward tale like this, Suzuki crafts a piece that marks, as many Japanese films from the 1960s do, the country's transition from its serene, meditative past to its vibrant, jagged, thoroughly modern future. The Criterion Collection's DVD edition of Story of a Prostitute includes a strong anamorphic transfer presented in the film's original 2.40:1 Nikkatsu-scope aspect ratio, while the monaural audio is on a DD 1.0 track. Supplements include 27 minutes of interviews with Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura, and film critic Tadao Sato, who was one of the first to recognize Suzuki's uniqueness and who provides a worthwhile overview of his place in Japanese film history. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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