Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh ★★★★★

If it is true that only that which survives opposition has the power of permanence, Seijun Suzuki is one of cinema’s strongest warriors. With over 50 films in his repertoire, and at his time at the Japanese studio Nikkatsu averaging about 3 or 4 films a year, he was able despite his creative servitude to create more than one masterpiece. Having seen almost all of his films with that prestigious title routinely prescribed, there is no doubt in my mind that his greatest is Gate of Flesh. When some of his other films (even his consummate works) suffer somewhat from talkiness, overlong action, or the difficult task the viewer has in trying to actively piece together a cohesive narrative, Gate of Flesh has all the elements that make a Suzuki film indelible in addition to immortally audacious ideological subtext. In some ways, it is a political allegory for the departure of longtime allegiances, in others a colorful excursion into the beauty of artifice, and perhaps at the end of the day what it was commissioned as: a wildly devil-may-care exploitation quickie. I settle for this: can’t it be all three? Here Suzuki shuffles unflinchingly through themes of anti-Americanization, gender roles, aesthetic limits, and moral boundaries, creating something that like all great movies can’t be pinned to a single word. It only makes this shocking film more bottomless. If it does indeed function as a political parable, then it does it better than any film I’ve seen in a long time. For context, a brief synopsis is as follows: In a postwar Japan ravaged by war, a group of prostitutes try to cling desperately to their internally implemented moral codes, but a hyper-masculine and sexually provocative Japanese patriot begins to challenge their loyalties. The metaphor should be obvious by now. The Japanese attempted to hold desperately onto tradition after World War II, but the appealing and rejuvenating American ways began to seduce the population into change. But the fact that the entire country’s landscape is symbolized as damaged prostitutes reveals darker and sadder layers. The idea that this society walked right into the guillotine and the executioners clumsily put the head back on leaving multiple open seams is a depressing thought. But Suzuki has nothing but fun with this. Those who love visual and painterly flamboyance will not be disappointed. Gate of Flesh is a meticulously dense battleground of avant garde sensibilities. In fact, I would honestly claim without repose that had the film not been released through such a cynical studio it might have been remembered as one of the benchmarks of the 60’s new wave of filmmaking. But the fact that it isn’t, that a great director had to bypass cigar-chomping businessmen, craftily conceal exuberant levels of subtext, and in the process managed to make a truly peerless work of art makes this one unique among all of them.

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