The first shot of the protagonist in Story of a Prostitute will look oddly familiar to fans of Japanese action films: an isolated, kimono-clad figure striding across a barren, almost volcanic landscape. It harks back to the conventional introductory images of rootless heroes in countless films about ronin (masterless samurai), outcast warriors adrift in an existential wasteland. The difference here, as we soon discover, is that the protagonist, Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), is a woman, and a very real one at that—not just a “woman warrior” fantasy figure, like the sword-swinging paragons of the Crimson Bat and Lady Snowblood B action series. This is, after all, a film by Seijun Suzuki—a director famous for twisting genre conventions—so we shouldn’t be surprised that he has added chambara (swordplay) overtones to what is essentially a melodrama, a lacerating, sardonic tragedy about a “comfort woman” servicing Japanese imperial soldiers on the Manchurian front, in China, in 1937.
Harumi is an extraordinary creation: ferocious, willful, fearless. Even without ever wielding a sword or striking an imitative pose, she qualifies as a genuine warrior. At times almost terrifying in her vehemence, she is explicitly associated with the mythical masked demons of the stylized Kabuki theater productions Suzuki loved. Indeed, there is an operatic grandeur to her intensity. In a startling early shot, the director uses extreme slow motion to extend one of her cries of anguish into something primal, tendrils of hair eddying around her face like the serpent locks of Medusa. And at every phase of the story, it is Harumi who supplies the narrative’s driving energy. There is no denying that her trajectory is self-destructive, but this is a story with a military backdrop, a context in which we take for granted that men who make the supreme sacrifice are doing something glorious. Suzuki’s view of that sort of glory is sarcastic in the extreme, and Harumi’s story is a perfect subversive vehicle for his pitch-black irony.
Harumi is already a prostitute working in the Chinese city of Tianjin when she is jilted by her highborn Japanese lover, who has promised to take her back to the homeland as his wife. So her immediate decision to volunteer as a comfort woman, which is prostitution on the assembly-line model, is an inverted gesture of revenge, as if to say, “He’ll be sorry when he finds out what I’ve done.” But the job’s day-to-day requirements are so blatantly dehumanizing that even Harumi is shocked. Its horrendous grubbiness jump-starts her will to live. The commanding officer of the battalion, Lieutenant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), is a sadistic martinet who has the born tyrant’s impulse not just to use people for his pleasure but also to degrade and destroy them. He turns his first session with Harumi into an assault, a bureaucratically sanctioned rape, and becomes the undisguised embodiment, for her, of a soul-crushing system that will not be satisfied until her humanity has been obliterated. In one of Suzuki’s boldest visual strokes, we momentarily see Narita through Harumi’s hate-filled eyes: his image is literally torn apart on the screen, as if it had been printed on paper, and in a voice-over she vows to tear his power to shreds.
At the heart of the film is the power struggle between Harumi (who wields her sexuality as a weapon) and the imperial military imperative personified by Narita. It’s possible, though, to overstate the importance of the “antimilitaristic” theme in Story of a Prostitute. The film is certainly linked in Suzuki’s oeuvre with Fighting Elegy (1966), a tumescent portrayal of a hormonally tormented Japanese teen in the prewar years, who finds an outlet for his seething frustration first in gang violence and then in warfare. That film could almost be read as a prequel to this one, an account of the forces that could mold a person into a sexually bent bully like Narita. But here sexuality is also seen as a potent anarchic force that, in its implacable selfishness, brushes aside any sort of order or discipline.
Harumi’s supposed savior, Private Mikami (Tamio Kawachi), a decent man whom she clings to like a drowning person latching on to a life preserver, has compulsions of his own, and they’re pulling him in the opposite direction. A former officer who has been demoted and is now desperate to redeem himself, the educated, bookish Mikami passively accepts Narita’s bullying as a form of penance. Even worse are the public humiliations dished out by the illiterate noncom Sergeant Akiyama (Shoichi Ozawa), in a Neanderthal version of class warfare. If Mikami is willing to put up with all this in order to redeem himself as a soldier in his own eyes, what are the odds that he will be willing to flee into the Chinese hinterlands with Harumi? If Harumi is the irresistible force in Story of a Prostitute, Mikami is the immovable object. From the moment they hook up, both of them are doomed.
It is a critical truism that there is sometimes more creative freedom to be had in low-budget genre projects than in mainstream studio fare. But Suzuki exhibited a remarkable spiritual kinship with Harumi, in his insistence on pushing his vaunted freedom further and further, to the breaking point and beyond. He supposedly lost his job at Nikkatsu for making pictures like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), B gangster films in which familiar narrative gestures were gleefully decontextualized until they mutated into a form of pop surrealism. In those films, Suzuki’s disjunctive visual twitches were indications of his boredom with the bland hack scripts he had been assigned, a gesture of contempt that his bosses eventually picked up on.
Story of a Prostitute was different, an adaptation of a novel Suzuki admired, by Taijiro Tamura, whose Gate of Flesh he had filmed the year before. Suzuki was in the Japanese navy, in the Philippines, during World War II and commented often, in later years, on the almost surreal brutality of his experiences. This may help explain the unexpected intensity of his anger when he tackled an explicitly military subject for the first time. In this film, his visual heightening isn’t just a style applied to the material but an essential device for conveying the nightmare quality of his (and his heroine’s) experience. His deep-focus, perspective-shifting tracking shots across Takeo Kimura’s layered sets have a silky, gliding sensuality. But his black-and-white Nikkatsu-Scope imagery is also mercilessly hard edged, his editing rhythms spasmodic and intentionally disorienting. His style seems seductive and lulling, right up to the moments in which he catches us off guard with unexpected gusts of emotion. Suzuki looks like a great artist in Story of a Prostitute, rather than a genre trickster, because in this case his convulsive expressive gifts are harnessed to personally challenging material. This is the movie that proves Suzuki should be lifted out of the limiting category of the Asia Extreme cult directors, the “Japanese Outlaw Masters,” and placed at the grown-ups’ table, alongside Kurosawa, Okamoto, and Kobayashi.
David Chute has been writing about movies for more than two decades in Boston and Los Angeles. Since the mid-1980s, he has published many pieces about Hong Kong and Bollywood cinema. He is writing his first book, Tigers and Dragons: Re-Discovering Chinese Martial Arts Movies, for Faber and Faber.