Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh ★★★★½

The urban landscapes of Japan right after the end of World War II were beyond desolate. The place was basically levelled - in Hiroshima's case, literally - but there was a physical flattening across the nation matched only by the emotional wreck of the Japanese nation. The ill-judged, ultra-aggressive warmongering of their deplorable government and rulers had ultimately led to the most ignominious and devastating of defeats. The only thing that might have preserved the light of self-respect in the Japanese people might just have been their immediate physical plight. In this post-war wasteland, sheer survival became an overwhelming challenge.

This isn't a story we have heard about much in the west. It's only thanks to my discovery of some of these outstanding Japanese cinematic works from the 1960's like this and Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honour and Humanity (which charts the Yakuza's rise from the ashes of post-war squalour) that have led me to even spare a thought on the subject.

Suzuki's film feels a little more mythical than Fukasaku's. Not to say it's fantastical, but rather than present a dramatised explanation of history, Gate of Flesh explores the spiritual cost of Japan's extreme degradation at this point in time.

Our protagonists are an independent gang of prostitutes who live inside a ruined Tokyo building. In Suzuki's own words "These are rather scary girls, with neither thought nor intelligence, valued only for their bodies". Does the instinctive structure of this quote betray the fundamental thesis of this film? Which is that, in this version of Japanese myth-making, people become what their environment asks of them. This world has no room for sweetness, bravery, compassion or honesty. This world requires viciousness, coldness and exploitation of any asset at your disposal, including your own body.

According to Suzuki: "Physiology is the strongest force and only acts through human will: we can depend on nothing but the physicality of the flesh". And so these women emancipate themselves in one sense, freeing themselves from the depredations of pimps and starvation, but debase themselves in others. Suzuki dresses them in bright individual colours - each of which has a special meaning in Japanese story telling tradition: Maya's green represents peace and is intended to act in opposition to the colours of her cohorts: Sen's red represents shock and fear; Oroku's yellow is compromise and conformance; Omino's purple represents inner revolt. He is painting the characters' yearning to become human again in costume rather than showing it in their actions, because their own humanity has become subsumed beneath the animal.

This is the fourth Seijun Suzuki film I have seen, and it's only now that I have twigged to this sort of interpretation. Although hugely admired as one of cinema's greatest aesthetes, Suzuki's work has traditionally been characterised as shallow from a thematic point of view - when people see something so self-consciously beautiful, they assume such an effect can only be achieved by relinquishing attention to narrative meaning. But Suzuki , I think, chose to build his narratives on a truly abstract framework. The soup of societal and emotional meaning in Gate of Flesh is as heady and potent as its overwhelming visual identity. I've barely scratched the surface of this artist's achievement, and I look forward to continuing the journey.

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