Placed on the table before you are three images of Tokyo, each of them representing aspects of the metropolis as it existed back in 1964, some nineteen years after firebombings had reduced the city to rubble, signaling the beginning of the end of an era of military aggression that left the entire Japanese nation in a state of physical decimation and psychic disarray.
In the first of these images, we see smiling passengers preparing to hurtle at record speeds and in air-conditioned comfort from Tokyo to Osaka on the newly opened Shinkansen, the modern transportation marvel nicknamed the Bullet Train, symbol of Japan’s newly emergent position at the cutting edge of technological innovation and industrial design. In the second image, we’re given a bird’s-eye view of that newly state-of-the-art supercity, complete with the latest in ultramodern roadways, inter-urban monorails, and skyscraping hotels—all finished just in time to facilitate the Summer Olympic Games to which Tokyo so proudly played host that momentous year. Both images seem to teem with healthy people, happy faces, bodies strong: the populace of a resurrected nation, radiantly reborn. Our third image, however, describes the city from a slightly less elevated view.
Formatted in scorched-horizon widescreen and apparently hand tinted by some ragged-clawed demiurge in shades of festering rage, this final view reveals no new roads or railways, no vigor in the faces, only starvation and derangement, venom and despair. Like an irradiated reverse angle on those visions of what futurists used to call “tomorrow, today,” established by images one and two, this third look at Tokyo is in fact a piece of yesterday, today: an image created in 1964 but which represents the infernally decimated city as it might have appeared a decade and a half before. A re-creation of the days immediately following the end of the war, it is a period piece that says as much about fears of the then present as about the continuing presence of the past; a Cinemascopic freeze-frame on humanity’s lowest depths that lurches into motion when someone finally shouts from deep within it, “Dead man coming through!”
Welcome to director Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh.
Pass beyond this portal and you enter a nether realm of juiced-up joy girls in color-coded party skirts; beef-jowled strong-arm bandits and leering American leathernecks; humanity with a rope looped through its nostrils; compassion tossed carelessly away, like a crucifix half buried in dirt. Beware this churning vortex of carnality and aggression, this venal postwar whirlpool, at whose center roils a startling vanishing point of unvanquished passion: a pair of soiled pink panties, property of the caterwauling sweater girl whom two cops are dragging, her splayed and stocking-clad legs clinched in their white-gloved fists, crotch-first into our view. Heed well the warning label stitched within those knickers: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
The thirty-fifth film in the long and extraordinary career of Nikkatsu Studios’ famously fired and vociferously admired subversive genius masquerading as B-picture hack, Gate of Flesh marked a welcome change of pace for the then forty-one-year-old Suzuki. Already eager for a detour from the pop art–damaged crime capers and flamboyantly antirealist yakuza action pics on which he’d thus far made his name, and not yet fully committed to the irrationally enlarged “incomprehensibility” that would, some three years later, make Branded to Kill (1967) his studio tenure’s last stand, Suzuki accepted an assignment to adapt novelist Taijiro Tamura’s lurid and trendsetting 1947 account of desperation and survival among prostitutes and black marketers in the ruins of postwar Tokyo. Well aware of the neutering that director Masahiko Makino’s 1948 version had visited upon Tamura’s novel, Suzuki burrowed well beneath its surface, hoping to unearth the hallucination dissertation on the ways that subjugations of the body result in splinterings of the mind that he’d sensed lurking deep within. With subject matter that would give fresh vent to his favorite flourishes—gleeful non sequiturs, contusive jump cuts, confrontational surrealism—Suzuki shattered the nar-rative into shards of competing inner voices and staggering superimpositions and used them to stage a fearsome guerrilla night raid on an axis of oppression that includes the state, the church, the U.S. military occupation, and both the commercial exploitation of sexuality and the nonprofit pleasures of carnal love. The Kabuki confusion of coruscating anti-Americanism and crippling self-loathing that resulted would prove one of the director’s most successful and enduring films: a radically fragmented skin flick and riotously entertaining morality play that’s as shockingly modern as Hiroshima mon amour (1959)—even if extracted from ingredients that a lesser grind-house alchemist might have drained into a bottle marked Nagasaki Nooky Bait.
Opening with the sounds of heavy artillery beneath the glittering Nikkatsu logo, and set in a jagged warren of photogenically ruined buildings and ramshackle ramen stands, all jumbled just closely enough together to obscure the looming sound-stages of the studio’s back lot, Gate of Flesh centers on a sorority of savage streetwalkers, led by a tattooed trixie nicknamed Komasa Sen (Satoko Kasai). Costumed according to Suzuki’s private mood palette (as relayed in the 1994 book Branded to Kill)—with Sen in crimson (“sudden eruptions and fear”), the bovine Roku in yellow (“niceness and compromise”), and the simmering Mino in purple (“inner revulsion”)—this elite whore corps operates under a single, simple creed: sex is strictly business, and anyone caught giving it away will be flogged and left to die. A fourth member, Machiko, strategically counterdressed in a traditional kimono and wooden sandals, seems a clear symbolic ringer for Japan’s demolished past, and her wifely devotion to her regular customers marks her as certain to violate the hotchas’ cootchie code. But it’s the arrival of Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), a shell-shocked teenager with a permanent pout and a passion for debasement, that finally sends the film’s fleshy dialectic of pleasure and mortification into full tilt.
Into this already seething snake pit limps a wounded ex-soldier named Ibuki (played by Nikkatsu’s stalwart “mighty guy,” Joe Shishido), on the lam after knifing an Ameri-can GI. Now trafficking in bunk penicillin and macho bluster (even as Shishido looks more than ever like the world’s most dangerous chipmunk), the aviator-shaded Ibuki soon has all the women under his sway. Suzuki, too, or so the film’s close-up interest in Ibuki’s bandy-legged flexings, wearing nothing but his sweat and briefs, makes it seem; refreshingly polymorphous in its nudie gusto, the film goes so far as to give Shishido a bare-assed shower scene all his own. Snuggling cozily within the cultural cleavage between the erotic earthworks of Onibaba and the annihilation follies of Godzilla Versus the Thing (to name but two cine contemporaries from ’64), the film goes on to make bedfellows of everything from frivolous theatrical gimmickry—like the spotlight that shines on Sen while she’s entertaining a “date” on a filthy flophouse mattress—to pornographic detail, as when Suzuki lingers all too clinically over the on-screen slaughter of a hapless cow. Obscenities abound, from the missionary seduced and suicidally drowned in a sluiceway to a condom found floating in a bowl of “American Stew.”
As a popcorn psychopathology of war-tornanguish, Suzuki’s vision proves as brutal-izing as a Goya canvas, and its drooling passion for turning harpies into martyrs—by leaving them naked, bound, and beaten in the wreckage of cathedrals where the glass isn’t all that’s stained—rivals any of Yoshitoshi Tsukioka’s torture-themed wood-block prints. Driven by migraine pulse beats hammered out on lonely tom-toms, and fluttering with backward close-ups of Old Glory waving vainly over a land of rising slums, Gate of Flesh—later joined by Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Carmen from Kawachi (1966)—doesn’t just inaug-urate Suzuki’s so-called “flesh trilogy”; it completes a sixties triumvirate of dystopian, Japan-as-junkyard panoramas, bookended by Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970).Fittingly, when asked to comment on the playful nihilism that characterizes so much of his work, Suzuki once told critic Tadao Sato: “I think that what remains in our memory is not ‘construction’ but ‘destruction.’ Making things is not what counts. The power that destroys them is.”
Was the director thinking back on scenes like those that open Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965), where wrecking balls clear away remnants of the past, leveling the playing field for a pumped-up new Japan? Or was he remembering Ibuki’s conviction about his mother country’s chances for postwar recovery: “Hit bottom, suffer the hard times, and rebuild from scratch. That’s the only route to a new life”? Godzilla never stomped as hard on Tokyo as Suzuki does in Gate of Flesh. And while, like Japan, you may very well survive its gargantuan violation of the cinematic senses, it will leave you scarred in ways you’re unlikely ever to forget.
Chuck Stephens is a contributing editor to Film Comment and a freelance contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Village Voice, and Cinema Scope. He lives in Bangkok.