Friday, June 17, 2011

Street of Shame

1956, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Mizoguchi's final film returns to the theme of socially marginalized women, in this case the workers in a brothel, with the narrative stitched to a backdrop of (real life) political debates on the outlawing of prostitution in Japan in the mid-1950s. Mizoguchi punctuates the film with radio accounts of the discussions in parliament, contrasting those more formal exchanges with the prostitutes' own conversations on their collective future, as well as with the (generally self-serving and yet not wholly inaccurate) views expressed by the brothel owner.

The film is essentially constructed in two halves, the first introducing the primary characters and their life stories, with the second commencing as each storyseems to come unravelled - with sometimes dramatic outcomes - before the cycle begins again in the raw final scenes, capped by the final shot in which a young prostitute tries to shrink behind a wall, a sharp contrast to the defiant directness of the central character at the end of Osaka Elegy.

I'm surprised that there is so little work that compares the films of Mizoguchi with those of Ousmane Sembène: leaving aside both filmmakers' interest in the social importance of women, they are both political filmmakers in a very direct sense, intervening in ongoing social debates and, arguably, acting as important influences in those debates. For Sembène, such engagement was more or less a career principle, whereas some of Mizoguchi's films are only indirectly concerned with contemporary social commentary, unlike this film, which doesn't feel at all dated despite the very topical concerns. The resonances between the cinema of Mizoguchi and Antonioni feel particularly strong here, with Mizoguchi's exteriors prefiguring shots from Antonioni almost a decade later.

Deserto rosso (1964, Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Street of Shame (1956, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

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