Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh ★★★★

Take away a man’s appetite for food and sex and what’s left?

Seijun Suzuki begins asking the real questions in as stripped down a way as his leading prostitute characters are throughout the film. The backdrop posed is a war-torn Japan trying to find the light from beneath the rubble of WWII. Suzuki does double-time in the theme-work by presenting a society that struggles with ID loss as a country and when further analyzed sees its individuals struggle with their loss of humanity amidst all the hopelessness there seems to be. The interesting thing is through all of Suzuki’s apparent anger, frustration, and nihilism (in the shadow of the atomic bomb) is that there are unrealized moments that are cries for help and, also, a love/hate relationship towards America that settles more towards hate.

For a quick synopsis: A petty thief (named Maya) stumbles upon a dog-eat-dog brothel that takes her in and makes her one of their own; only with a minor set of laws to abide by... the golden rule is to not give yourself away for free (aka fall in love and be a real woman). The gang soon undergoes a quick hierarchy shift when ex-soldier Shin finds himself in their lovely abode. The film is a fast paced, fascinating-to-look-at exploitation film with all of these parts moving, on top of the central analyzation of its historical context and foreboding existentialism.

Maya, with her apparent abandon and naivety, is the perfect vehicle for the drama and exploitation that unfolds before us: MPs chase deserters or ne’erdowells, brothels compete against other brothels, desperation on the faces of everyone she passes, and the lack of general happiness amidst the dilapidated buildings and shacks. As she adapts to her new friends they provide her with the tips and tricks of their own ways that make them successful. At one point they even ask “Are we eating to sell our bodies, or selling our bodies to eat?”. Obviously a most existential and extreme question when used by itself, and adds to the already bleak outlook the film possesses. A similar question bathed in existential dread is posed in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterpiece Woman in the Dunes Are we shoveling sand to live or living to shovel sand? Since both of these features came out in 1964, it is interesting to see the similarities of themes come from co-Japanese filmmakers.

As much as the film wallows in obvious hate toward America (by purpose of Suzuki) it is simultaneously and undoubtedly a massive cry for help. Since the film is seen through the perspective of naive Maya we see the power struggle between Sen and Shin, and the unabashedly brutal outlook of Tokyo life; men are pigs, women are classless and anyone who is not eating or having sex is just floating somewhere in the middle; lost in the dilapidated projects that are reality’s version of limbo. However, between the competing brothels (and Shin’s personal dealings) they exemplify some taste of pro-capitalism—even if their own groups have leaders that resemble dictators. There are also the character arcs of Maya and Mishiko, who eventually love and become “castrated” by their peers; looked down upon for finding love and aspiring to be wives (finding stability is not allowed). Each of their beatings vaguely resembling that of Christ on the cross (is this a massive stretch I’m still not sure), punished generally for the “crime” of loving others. This in its religion ties to western expansion and the preacher Maya comes in contact with. The cry for help is most greatly seen here even though she foils the preacher’s way of life. And finally, there are the prominent shots of the American flag whenever a character is spewing some form of hate. While the hateful comparison is obviously inarguable, there is also the additional subtle context of which we see the flag; in sunshine, waving majestically where on the contrary we find the flag of Japan withering away in a pile of mud. Probably the best example of Suzuki (at the very least) showing some admiration for the US is in his final shot—as we are finally taken above the rotting shacks and unsorted filth to see the flag above all else after living in the lower depths for the entire duration of the film. 

I’m not ignorant to think Suzuki disregarded the possibilities of how these shots could be interpreted because most of his rage is transparent and undeniable, but there seems to be an unacknowledged respect buried deep within the walls of his heart, along with the justified hate as well. And even if I am misinterpreting the very minor pro-American messages—I still love this film in all it’s grungy, filthy, impoverished, classless glory. Gate of Flesh is a totally unique experience thanks to Suzuki’s brilliant eye in direction.

The direction capitalizes on a guerrilla-style technique. Suzuki gets down to the nitty-gritty fast and with dominant grasp. His tracking shots and filtered images set the animalistic, visceral tone accompanied by the tribalistic beat of a single drum. This fascinating use of “music” plus well-timed editing give the film an undeniable rhythm. The set is very theatrical and manages to be beautiful in a grotesquely dirty and depriving way. Suzuki also shows us his leading women in a vivid assortment of colors, which adds some unique and arbitrary symbolism throughout.

A huge thank you to Brandon Montgomery for this recommendation! More Suzuki is in my future. Also a PSA to all friends. My reviews will probably slow down drastically as I start my new job tomorrow. I will still be lurking when I have the chance! Hope everyone is staying healthy and safe out there!

Viewed on the Criterion Channel.

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