Street of Shame
Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1956

by Leo Goldsmith

With another summer of sequels behind us and an autumn of festival films and award-fodder ahead, New York is graced with not one, but two important retrospectives this month. As a half-dozen masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi shimmer quietly on the Film Forum screens in downtown Manhattan, about three times as many films by Josef von Sternberg (most, but not all, masterpieces) shimmer somewhat more loudly at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. At first, it might not be apparent how fruitfully the two coincide. Both are directors, often cited as masters but less often screened, who bridged the silent and sound eras, but aesthetically (and geographically) they seem worlds apart. Mizoguchi is most lauded for his stately, evocative period pieces and doleful portraits of impoverished Japanese women; Sternberg for a baroque, almost garish body of work, disorienting in its cinematography and mise-en-scène, with subject matter appropriate to Mad King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles and Tom Waits songs.

And yet, for all their discrepancies, Mizoguchi was an avowed disciple of Sternberg’s work, and at least one of his films, Osaka Elegy, is a patent translation of the American director’s Marlene Dietrich cycle to modern Japan, complete with addled chiaroscuro lighting and Isuzu Yamada displaying Marlene-like insouciance in the face of constant abuse. (The film was made the same year Sternberg visited Japan, and there is even some unsubstantiated talk of the two directors touring geisha houses together.) If Mizoguchi’s more widely celebrated jidai-geki tend to jettison Sternberg’s excessive stylization in favor of a more subdued, but no less powerful, elegance, traces of the more manic style nonetheless remain in Mizoguchi’s less numerous modern-day dramas.

For this reason, 1956’s Street of Shame, which was to be the director’s last film, will seem a curious work for those viewers only familiar with more majestic films like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. The film’s opening credits are set against a panorama of Tokyo’s Yoshiwara red-light district, grey and uninviting in insipid daylight, with the weird glissandi (theremins? musical saws?) of Toshirô Mayuzumi’s score lending an otherworldly, almost science-fiction quality to the cityscape. Already we are light years from the Meiji period that Mizoguchi so often portrays, with its mournful traditional music and serene landscapes, and are thrust into a grim present, ironically juxtaposed with the sentimental epigram that follows the film’s credits: “Yoshiwara: where flowery courtesans, romantic and proud, gloried in years gone by….” With one of Mizoguchi’s trademark tracking shots, the spectator is lured into the circuitous, highly plastic, and quite Sternbergian interior of a brothel called Dreamland, where we will meet the protagonists, four women who, for various reasons, have been forced into prostitution.

Strangely, this tracking shot—the narratological device for which Mizoguchi is most widely recognized—is one of only very few in the film. Kazuo Miyagawa’s deep-focus cinematography, the lengthy, single-take sequences, and the richness of detail in the mise-en-scène (of which Kurosawa was an admirer) are all in place, but rarely does the film offer the spatio-temporal unity—the sheer transcendence—that the tracking shot affords. Rather, the only movement in Street of Shame is cyclical and back-and-forth, like the lives of the characters, perpetually leaving and returning to their profession. Similarly, the tone of the film itself shifts effortlessly between social realism and the phantasmagoric. Discursive interior sequences in which the characters openly discuss the social causes and effects of prostitution suddenly give way to the conduct of the business itself in the dim, winding Yoshiwara nighttime, where prostitutes reach out to literally drag their patrons into Dreamland. These sequences in particular bear a strong similarity to parallel worlds in Sternberg’s films: the shadowy alleys of Morocco, the cobble-stoned, tunnel-like streets of The Blue Angel, the deep, labyrinthine bars of The Docks of New York.

Through his own obscure, serpentine passageways, Mizoguchi charts the various fates of his protagonists as they struggle under the social and economic burdens of their occupation. Most abhor their work, and more than one schemes, usually unsuccessfully, to leave it. Yorie sees her exit in the form of a marriage proposal, but once she suffers the indignity and strain of an impoverished married life, she returns to Dreamland with the consolation that at least she can spend the money she earns on herself and not give it to her husband. Others, like Yumeko and Hanae, accept the lifestyle with regret as a necessary means to support themselves and their families. The former works to earn enough money for her teenage son, Shuichi, back in her native village, though Shuichi eventually rejects his mother for her shameful profession. Hanae and her small family live in abject poverty, but she works with the fate of her infant son in mind, noting to her sickly husband, “Soon, we will be glad we didn’t kill ourselves.”

Again and again, Mizoguchi drives home both the injustice and the cruel necessity of prostitution. Mr. Taya, the owner of Dreamland, repeatedly proselytizes the social worth of his business, extolling himself as a social worker to his uninterested employees. But if the film doesn’t quite agree with Mr. Taya’s estimation of prostitution, it nonetheless stops short of portraying it as an utter tragedy, allowing for glimmers of possibility and even agency for the characters. Mickey, a young, gum-chewing Americanized girl, is the daughter of a wealthy business owner who seems to have sought out her profession to humiliate her tyrannical father. And Yasumi uses her position to swindle money from her clients, amassing a fortune large enough to buy a business of her own and make her exit. Like Sternberg’s Dietrich characters, these two are able to use their profession subversively to their own ends. Through deception and masquerade, they have turned prostitution to some small advantage, but Mizoguchi never fails to emphasize the degree to which each has already been beaten down by the male-dominated world around them. To this end, the film’s cinematography utilizes an unusual technique for a Mizoguchi film, the close-up, whereby the camera gets steadily closer to each protagonist as the various causes of their downfall to prostitution are revealed.

Mizoguchi’s attention to the trials of womanhood in Japanese culture is sustained over his career, and yet its meaning is less obvious—and perhaps less laudable —than many would like to believe. The psycho-biographical interpretation of Mizoguchi—whose sister was sold as a geisha when the director was young—rhymes nicely with the Western conception of him as a feminist filmmaker. But Mizoguchi’s attitude toward women is more complex, and many of his most ardent cinematic appeals for women’s rights, including the cycle of women’s suffrage films he made in the late Forties, were as much products of the American Occupation and its efforts to “modernize” Japan as indices of a deeply felt social conviction. The Japanese tend to peg him as more of a “feminisuto” than a feminist: that is, more of an aestheticizer of female suffering, extolling and reveling in the strength and resilience of women, than one who fights against the causes of their hardship.

But in watching Street of Shame, there is little doubt where Mizoguchi’s sympathies lie. Even as the anti-prostitution bill is debated in the Diet, on the radio, and by the brothel managers, Mizoguchi’s dissection of his protagonists’ lives avoids any simplistic interpretation. This is not to say that the film is not stridently polemical. Like many Japanese films immediately contemporary with it, the film meets a variety of social issues head-on: the lasting effects of the American occupation, the treatment of women and the lower classes, and the conflict of tradition and modernization. Its year of release, 1956, was an interesting one for Japanese cinema, seeing the first of the cycle of brash, horny, youth-oriented taiyozoku films, like Crazed Fruit and Season of the Sun, which paved the way for “New Wave” directors like Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, and occasioned more socially critical efforts by master directors, such as Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight. Street of Shame is of this latter category, which means that it is at once politically engaged and emotionally subtle. In this way, it is indeed far from Sternberg’s films, which, though they put forth a particularly complex understanding of gender politics, never seem to relate it to any immediate context. Mizoguchi’s film, on the other hand, is inscribed with a rare urgency that is nonetheless balanced by humanist understanding, an understanding that is remarkable even for him.