Sunday, May 27, 2018

Various Battlefields

What's loyalty to a nation for someone who sells her body? Seijun Suzuki's 1965 film Story of a Prostitute (春婦伝) follows a young woman in a small group of sex workers sent to service a battalion of Japanese soldiers in China during World War II. Starring Yumiko Nogawa, who also starred in Gate of Flesh, Suzuki's previous film about prostitutes, Story of a Prostitute is a bit less psychological and a bit more epic. The first half of the film, with its effective experimental techniques, is a lot more interesting than the latter half but the whole film is a good portrait of a woman whose profession and lifestyle have given her a particular conception of loyalty.

Harumi is a lot worldlier than the distressed and confused character Nogawa played in Gate of Flesh. Riding in the back of a truck en route to the Japanese base with twelve other prostitutes, she doesn't appear to share any of her companions' anxieties over the fact that just thirteen women are supposed to meet the sexual needs of a whole battalion. She says she can't wait to have the bodies of all these men rubbing against her.

And we see her taking to it with a cool, businesslike proficiency until Lieutenant Narita (Isao Tamagawa) pulls rank and has a man tossed out of her bed so he can have a go. She demands he leave, furious he'd assert authority in her domain, but he's a sadistic brute. He hits her and rapes her and she feels worse for having an orgasm.

Wikipedia has this quote from Suzuki:

When you watch a western, you see that its foundation is the spirit of sacrifice. The drama in a western develops from that foundation. In Japanese films we don't share that element. A code is the foundation for us. As an army has its own code, prostitutes have their own code. Characters bound by such a code either resist it or submit to it.

Narita says Harumi reminds him of a particular soldier who constantly asserts his disgust with his superior officer but obeys orders better than any of his other subordinates.

Meanwhile, Harumi starts to fall in love with Mikami (Tamio Kawachi), Narita's shy adjutant who's never been with a woman. When Harumi tries to force herself on him, he shoves her away and rebukes her for mocking him. Suzuki films her in slow motion while Nogawa delivers an impressively agonised scream. A lot of Suzuki's technique in the first part of the film is very effective in putting the viewer in Harumi's head. She has this recurring fantasy about Mikami saving her from Narita--in one very effective sequence that begins with Harumi really meeting with Mikami we watch her run outside where Suzuki keeps the camera at an indoor exposure like he did in a similar sequence in Fighting Elegy. In the blinding outside white, she quickly tears off her clothes, goes to where Narita waits in a room for her, and we see Mikami following in a rage, drawing his sword.

Mikami disappears behind a wall for a moment, the exposure goes to an appropriate level, and then we see Mikami at the open door saluting Narita. In a quick sequence of shots Suzuki takes us in and out of Harumi's fantasy. An even more effective moment comes when she imagines Narita walking in while she and Mikami are in bed and Narita's image suddenly turns to paper that's torn apart and we hear Harumi laughing in voice over.

The second half of the film is good though it doesn't have as many interesting moments. Mikami is captured by the Chinese and Harumi goes with him. As a prostitute, this perfectly fits in with her code and she quickly starts singing along with a Chinese anthem the soldiers are singing. She can't understand why Mikami wants to kill himself, unable to imagine how different his fundamental code is.

The film presents an underlying question for viewers to debate--whether Harumi is more liberated or less. She can switch sides when captured and is psychologically better adapted for this than Mikami but the first part of the film shows how fundamentally and cruelly divided her mind is from her body to facilitate this flexibility. Suzuki presents the question but is wise enough not to attempt settling it.

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