Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan’s most admired director, first began directing films in the silent era and by 1936 had already made over sixty features. It was about that time, however, with films like Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, that his mise en scène reached its full maturity. His celebrated cinematic approach involved very long takes in structurally deep environments, with elaborate camera and character movements maintaining a fluid, but balanced, visual composition throughout the shot. During this period, and over the remaining twenty years of his life, his films maintained this uniquely crafted aesthetic, but there were occasional variations as in his 83rd feature, Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), which was based on a novel by Eijirô Hisaita. This film, as with most of his films during his mature period, was focused on the feminine perspective and on issues concerned with the place of women in Japanese society. But his cinematic aesthetic notwithstanding, we must recognise that most films inevitably reflect somewhat the social circumstances in which they are made – and Women of the Night is no exception. Japan had just emerged from a devastatingly destructive war, and its society was undergoing at least as much stress and forced adjustment to modernism that Europe was going through at that time. All over the world films were then being made that reflected a greater social consciousness and an attempt to uncover the “reality” of life as it is truly lived by the people. This seems to have influenced Mizoguchi at this time, as well, although attempts to go out onto the streets in order to find realism did not fit well with Mizoguchi’s elaborate studio-based camera techniques. As a consequence, we have the curious hybrid of Women of the Night, which represents an example of Mizoguchi’s attempt to accommodate his aesthetics with social realism.
The story, with five main sections, concerns the fate of three related women who are struggling to survive and come to terms with the new post-war situation in Japan.
- Tragedy for Fusako. Fusako Owada, a young mother, is shown trying to sell some of her clothing to a dry goods merchant in order to make ends meet while she awaits news of her soldier husband who has been missing since the war. During the long 3:30 shot, Fusako is encouraged by the cold-hearted shop owner to make money as a prostitute, and the shocked Fusako runs away in horror. There follows a 3:00 shot in which Fusako returns home, where her teenage sister-in-law, Kumiko, reports that her husband’s old business company has just obtained news about his current circumstances. Fusako and her mother-in-law rush over to the company, only to learn that Fusako’s husband is dead. The company president, Mr. Kuriyama, offers his curt condolences and says he is willing to provide financial assistance.
- Fusako and Kumiko Fall. Although no obvious clue has been given, time has apparently passed. Fusako runs into her sister, Natsuko, from whom she had been separated by the war. Natsuko, who is clearly very worldly and works as a ”dancing hostess” (taxi dancer), moves in with Fusako, who now has a job as Mr. Kuriyama’s personal secretary and has apparently submitted to her boss’s romantic entreaties. Economically, at least, things seem to be on the up and up. But when Fusako later learns that Mr. Kuriyama’s business is about to be raided by the police, she is asked to take home some compromising materials and, upon arriving at her apartment, discovers her sister is also Mr. Kuriyama’s lover. Demoralized by this discovery, Fusako goes back to the dry goods merchant and arranges to become a prostitute. Meanwhile sister-in-law Kumiko runs away from home to find her “freedom” and is soon raped by a street boy who had befriended her. Then, in an elaborately choreographed 100-second moving-camera shot, a collection of street girls are shown beating Kumiko and ripping off her clothes, telling her that her only option now that she has been defiled is to join their prostitution ring.
- Natusko Tries to Rescue Fusako. Learning that Fusako has become a prostitute, Natsuko goes to look for her in the streetwalking area and gets arrested for prostitution, herself. In the jail, she discovers Fusako, now a hardened prostitute, and she also learns that she herself is pregnant and has syphilis. Natsuko tries to convince her sister to give up prostitution, but Fusako, bitter with her sister for stealing her lover and now hating all men, angrily vows to infect them all with syphilis. She is then shown escaping from prison, in a dramatic outdoor shot that emphasizes her new toughness.
- Fusako Rescues Natsuko. Now out of jail, Natsuko criticises Kuriyma for sleeping with both sisters. But the unrepentant Kuriyama says that he was only being generous to the women – and, besides, Fusako was destined to become a prostitute, anyway. “We’re not animals,” she responds. Fusako later returns to her old flat and finds Natsuko drunk and eight-months pregnant (though she doesn’t look it, of course). Fusako takes Natsuko to a womens’ refuge, where there are doctors to attend to her. Natsuko’s baby is stillborn, but she is OK. Then the attendants try to convince both girls to get their lives in order, but they do not convince Fusako.
- Fusako rescues Kumiko. Back on the street, Fusako sees her fellow prostitutes attacking a girl for streetwalking without gang permission. It turns out to be Kumiko, who has also become a hardened prostitute and has “spent time in the slammer”. Fusako is so shocked to see her young sister-in-law’s fall to degeneracy that she first physically attacks her and then breaks down crying. But when, after her outburst, she tries to take Kumiko home with her, the prostitute gang leaders (all women) start beating them ruthlessly. The other prostitutes, who have been watching all this, are moved by compassion to intervene and help Fusako and Kumiko escape to a better life.
In general there is an uneasy mixture in the film between Mizoguchi’s studio scenes and gritty daylight shots on the streets of Osaka. These street shots pull the vision away from Mizoguchi’s usual controlled, expressionistic environment, a la von Sternberg, into a here-and-now sense of the everyday. It is perhaps for this reason, that Women of the Night has been likened to Italian neo-realism. But despite those occasional moments on the street and the contemporary concerns of streetwalkers, the film is pretty remote from the Italian neo-realist aesthetic of the late 1940s.
Apart from the odd aesthetic mix, there are also nontrivial flaws in the cinematic narrative. The opening street scene of Act 2 presents Fusako and her sister after some time has passed, but this is not initially signaled and Fusako’s now-calm demeanor has not been motivated. These kinds of narrative jumps can be appropriate in certain types of crime films, where the viewer is challenged to make sense of the narrative. But it doesn’t seem to fit well with the aesthetic demands of this story and is merely confusing for no reason. Similarly, Fusako’s sudden transformation into a hardened, street-tough whore is not adequately motivated. Such a wild swing needs more justification, especially if the film wishes to make a socially-conscious statement about society in general. Kumiko’s swing into prostitution is similarly too impetuous.
Overall, Women of the Night does have a hard-hitting feel to it, even today. There is open and frank talk in the film of sex, rape, syphilis, and a depiction of women engaging in savage physical violence. But in general, Women of the Night tends to portray women as morally weak and requiring strong parental guidance. The people at the women’s refuge speak in sanctimonious tones to the women there as if they were little children who need to be given tasks in order to keep them out of mischief. Moreover, this moral tone is undercut by the uneasy fact that the only women shown as tough and able to take the initiative are the morally corrupt prostitution gangsters. It is true that there are critical turns in the film when Fusako and Natsuko compassionately come to each other’s aid. But these moments of feminine compassion are interspersed in a general environment of women brutalizing each other and contributing to their own misery. So in terms of modern sentiments, it seems that Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night is rather patronizing and belittling towards women.
Women of the Night is a strange, somewhat time-bound, noirish work in the Mizoguchi oeuvre. It is interesting to compare it to some of his masterworks that came later. It is said that Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism sometime around 1950. That apparently made all the difference.