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Review: Street of Shame

In his final film, director Kenji Mizoguchi makes his most powerful statement on his favorite theme: the suffering of women in Japanese society, which he previously explored in Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy (both 1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952)… honestly, it would be easier to list his few movies that didn’t touch on the subject.

As the story opens, the earth is shrinking beneath the feet of the working women of the notorious Yoshiwara district. Public opinion has turned against prostitution, and the government threatens to outlaw the practice entirely. Facing the loss of the only occupation they have ever known, the employees of one love hotel react differently: top-earner Yasumi, desperate to settle her debts once and for all, juggles multiple clients… and finally manipulates one man too many; romantic Yorie, already tired of losing business to younger, more modern girls (including Machiko Kyo’s cynical, rebellious Mickey), resolves to find herself a good husband–but soon discovers that marriage is no better than slavery; Yumeko attempts to reconnect with the grown-up son she toiled to support, only to learn he doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s made; and so on.

Street of Shame weaves a tragic tale of women caught between the cruelty of their oppressive profession and the injustice of a society that gives them so few opportunities, and Mizoguchi’s creative choices ensure the viewer shares in their pain. The mournful, haunting music wouldn’t sound out of place in a horror film. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography makes it look as though the narrow streets might swallow up the characters at any moment. The most important element, however, is the script. At two pivotal points, the brothel owner delivers an obviously rehearsed speech designed to break down the girls’ confidence and reinforce their dependence on their lifestyle: the first time, when it seems as though the anti-prostitution law might actually pass, the fearful women swallow the bitter pill; the second time, after the legislation falls through, they respond with quiet, sad resignation–it is merely the latest defeat in a struggle none of them can truly win.

[Originally written September 20, 2012.]

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