Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh ★★★★½

Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh looks like West Side Story after an encounter with Godzilla, and it feels like an upside-down The Third Man, with sex workers instead of cats, bright colors in place of shadows, and tribal drums in our ears instead of the zither. It's a work of outrageous audacity, and one that showcases Suzuki's ability to bend almost any studio demand ("hey, go put some tits in your movie!") to his own purposes ("I'll give you tits, but you'll take anti-capitalism and scathing anti-nationalism with them and like it!")

The frank artificiality of Suzuki's location sneaks up on the viewer, as we find ourselves unexpectedly leaving behind the chaotic streets of postwar Tokyo for an artfully constructed husk of a bombed-out building, a churchyard that looks crafted by Ed Wood, and a canal so false you can almost hear the echo of the soundstage around it. And it's wonderful, a journey that simultaneously undermines the seriousness of the issues Suzuki explores and forces us to to focus on those issues and nothing else, since the distracting outside world has been totally eliminated.

Inhabiting Suzuki's carefully crafted ruin of a closed universe are women: sex workers in color-coded dresses that set them off from their dank environment and enable them to stand out from the confused masses through which they pass when they enter the outside world. The eliding of identity — the women are "yellow," "green," and "red," useful shorthand that eliminates any need to remember names — further cuts away the fat around Suzuki's furious political message about the exploitative idiocy of war, the inhumanity of its results, and the shameful, submissive commodification of recovery that accompanies the acceptance of American occupation.

As The Man in the story (like the women he has a name, but what's relevant are his gendered qualities: his past as a soldier, his inherent violence, and his dick), Joe Shishido further enhances the clarity of Suzuki's messaging. He's a monster, but he's also there, something which makes him the object upon which the color-coded sex workers can pin their pitifully limited hopes. And, in The Man's arbitrary treatment of the women — alternately boastful, abusive, aroused, and indulgent — Suzuki has yet another weapon with which to illuminate the laughable instability of the postwar world, and the promises it breaks as easily as it makes them.

Suzuki's decision to illustrate the brutality of survival in postwar Japan through the violence — physical and emotional — of women upon women is, while perhaps unsurprising, nevertheless disappointing. While part of this was necessitated by the studio's mandate to produce a skin flick, presenting women as the enforcers of the need for inhumanity ("the moment I become a real woman, I'm an outcast") gives their cruelty a weight that none of the men in the film are forced to bear.

That said, however, Suzuki's natural cynicism shines through even this most simplistic of characterizations, because though he allows his female characters to frame loving a man — whether or not that love is one-sided — as a source of salvation (in love, "for the first time, I've felt human"), simply by placing those dreams within the world of Gate of Flesh, he's cutting them off at the knees. Though the woman have their grand dreams, clinging to what they believe to be the noble sacrifice of love and humanity in an inhuman world (what one calls "the happiness of the fallen"), their devotion to men leaves them destitute and alone, while those they now consider beneath them proudly continue to scratch and claw together, thriving in their small, defiant ways.

Watched because of the connection Mike drew between Gate of Flesh and Querelle in one of his excellent reviews of that film. Thanks to him for the accidental nudge!

sakana1 liked these reviews