“Street of Shame” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1956)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai, 1956) offers a last look at one of his recurring themes – the difficulties that women without resources have always faced in the world.  In fact throughout his film career, Mizoguchi’s sympathies and focalizations were usually with women. However, unlike some other male directors who tended to romanticize their female protagonists, Mizoguchi often had a more nuanced view of how women struggle to come to terms with their male-dominated surroundings.  In fact, far from romanticizing women, on many occasions Mizoguchi examined the fates of women for whom circumstances had forced them into a low life of prostitution, and examples of these films include, Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936), Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936), Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952) – and here, finally, Street of Shame.

In fact Mizoguchi could presumably draw from his own personal experiences with the netherworld of brothels, since his own sister had been sold into prostitution by his destitute family when he was a young boy, and in his early days he himself was a frequent client [1].  So, although bourgeois Japanese society presumably looked down on brothels as shameful, Mizoguchi probably saw them a bit differently.  Thus the English title for this film, “Street of Shame” may stray somewhat from Mizoguchi’s intent, and we should probably keep in mind the literal meaning of the Japanese title, “Akasen Chitai”, which is simply “Red Light District”.

As was customary with MIzoguchi’s mature films, the camera work in Street of Shame features extended, carefully composed shots that maintain balanced framing as the camera pans and tracks.  His meticulous mise-en-scene made the movement of both the characters and the camera seem natural for the dramatic actions, and so the camera’s eye became a particularly organic element of the narrative.  However, Mizoguchi’s camera aesthetics in this film are not as deliriously beautiful as in some of his earlier work, and in general the visual side of the film is not a major feature and is more of a matter-of-fact element of the production.

Note that although women are the focus as usual, on this occasion the main social theme of the film, which is based on the novel Susaki no Onna by Yoshiko Shibaki,  is the very nature of prostitution, itself.  To tell this story of Akasen Chitai, Mizoguchi and scriptwriter Masashige Narusawa follow the fates of five prostitutes working at a brothel in Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s famous red light district.  These women have distinctly different temperaments and outlooks, and together they survey the possible options available for women in these situations
  • Yasumi (played by Ayako Wakao).  She is young and pretty, but she is also a selfish and manipulative opportunist who looks out for her own future.
  • Mickey (Machiko Kyo). She is a young, sexy hedonist who lives only for her own immediate self-gratification.
  • Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a middle-aged women from the countryside who, after becoming a widow, found prostitution to be the only option in order to sustain her young son.  Her son is now a young adult.
  • Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) has similarly become a prostitute in order to feed her seriously ill (and hence unemployable) husband and their young child.
  • Yorie (Hiroko Machida) is another woman from the provinces who has received a marriage proposal from a man who operates a clog-making shop.  So she has a way out.
Note that we don’t see these women falling into prostitution in the film; they are already practitioners of their trade at the start of the drama.  In addition these women have not been physically coerced into prostitution but have more or less chosen to be prostitutes because of their impecunious circumstances.  They each have their own stories, and these are presented in the film over the course of its three main sections.
1.  Licensed Prostitution
The beginning shows the madam, Tatsuko Taya  (played by Sadako Sawamura), of a licensed brothel  discussing an upcoming bill before the Japanese National Diet (Japanese parliament) that would outlaw prostitution.  (In fact at the time of the making of Street of Shame, such a bill was being discussed in the Diet, and the reaction to this film may have contributed to its ultimate passage later that year.)  Tatsuko grumbles why the government would make such a change, since the Yoshiwara district has been around and accepted for 300 years.  Then some of the other girls at the brothel are shown discussing the implications of the bill. 

We also see the pretty young courtesan, Yasumi, talking to a man, Aoki, who wants to marry her.  In an effective 97-second shot, she seductively urges him to pay her debt of 150,000 yen [2] before she can accept his offer.  We will later learn that most of the girls in the brothel are heavily in debt, and that is the main reason for why they must ply their trade.

A pimp, Eiko, then arrives with a new recruit for the brothel, Mickey, who is seen to be a lascivious and rebellious young showoff who bow her head to noone. Tatsuko explains to Mickey that the pay rate at the brothel is “40-60", which seems like a pretty high take for the house. By the end of this sequence, the viewer has been introduced to all five of the prostitutes highlighted in the film.

2.  The Dreamland Salon
The film’s second section shows the relatively complicated circumstances of the five women.  There is another effective 90-second shot showing the newcomer and more sexy Mickey trying to steal one of Yorie’s regular clients – a violation of one the fundamental house norms.  This is one of the rather infrequent occasions where the separate story lines of five women happen to intersect.

Then the brothel proprietor Mr. Taya arrives and, in a two-minute shot, tries to rally all his working prostitutes concerning the national debate concerning the proposed law banning prostitution.  Yumeko voices one side of this long-standing debate by asking rhetorically, “what’s wrong with selling what you own?” 

Mr. Taya assures them all that he is their ally.  But a major problem for the women at the Dreamland Salon is that the brothel takes advantage of them and keeps them interminably in debt by issuing them short-term loans at exorbitant interest rates.  The crafty Yasumi does the same thing to the other women.

Later and separately the more pragmatic Hanae is shown trying to deal with her ill and suicidal husband.  Their destitution had once led them to consider a joint suicide, before Hanae decided to commit herself to life and support their family by becoming a prostitute.  After interrupting another of her husband’s suicide attempts on this occasion, she tells him,
“We’re not going to die, no matter what you say.  I’ll live to see . what will become of a prostitute. I’ll see it for myself.”
Afterwards, the emotionally exhausted Hanae comes back to the main salon, where Tatsuko complains to her,
“Can you not look so worn out?   You’re merchandise.”
Yorie, sick of the humiliation of being a prostitute is then encouraged by the other women to run away and marry her clog-maker fiancé.  They all throw a good-bye party for her and send her off to fulfill her dreams.

The guileless Yumeko goes back to the provincial home of her in-laws to visit her seldom-seen son, but discovers that he has moved to Tokyo and now has a job at a toy factory.  She wonders why he has not come to visit her and worries that he might be ashamed about her profession.

3.  Disappointing Outcomes
The women have their aspirations, but the final phase of the film shows that things can only get worse for all five of them.

  • Yorie soon returns to the brothel, having fled her failed marriage.  It seems that her husband only wanted a housemaid and a cheap laborer for his clog-making operation.
  • Mickey is visited by her father, who urges her to return home.  He tells her that her mother recently died and that he has taken a new wife.  But Mickey concludes that her father only wants her to return in order to uphold “face” for his business operations.  So she renounces him and throws him out the door.
  • Yumeko finally meets her son, but in an excellent 146-second shot, he tells her that she has humiliated him.  Then he renounces her and says he never wants to see her again.  So much for Yumeko’s long self-sacrificing efforts to financially support her son’s upbringing!  The disappointment for Yumeko is so great that she soon lapses into madness and has to be taken to an asylum.
  • Hanae learns from her dismal husband that they have been evicted from their flat, and so she now has to borrow more money to try to keep them going.
  • The crafty Yasumi, who has wangled large sums from would-be fiances by leading them on, is finally seriously beaten up by one of them.
In the end, though, Yasumi recovers from her injuries and turns out to be the only one to have enough money to leave the brothel.  By seductively swindling the owner of a futon shop, she takes it over and now has her own business. 

In the final shots Tatsuko is shown grooming and preparing an innocent newly recruited teenage virgin from the countryside for her new job as a prostitute.  Like all the other women, the new girl has been socially compelled into this role by her family’s indebtedness.  And so it goes.

As with all of Mizoguchi’s cinematic tales, the men depicted are self-centered and generally weak.  It is the women who make difficult decisions and take some action.  Here in this film they are shown to have chosen to sell their bodies and survive rather than to submit to some even more destructive practice such as ritual family suicide. 

Thus there is a certain ambivalence about prostitution in this story. Perhaps it is better regulated than left to operate in the criminal underworld.  It even seems to offer the women better options even than lifelong servitude to an unfeeling and exploitative husband.  Unfortunately, however, the only person who succeeds in this story is the equally exploitative Yasumi.

What was and is needed is not just external prohibitions, but some form of regulation from a compassionate perspective that can give people more wholesome options for autonomous engagement.

  1. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Akasen chitai/Street of Shame”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, XIX:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (29 September 2009).
  2. The conversion of the yen in terms of modern US dollars is about 13 yen to the dollar.

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