When stripped of pride and when the bonds of love are revealed to be meaningless, are human beings lost animals? Or was it all delusion to begin with? Seijun Suzuki's 1964 film Gate of Flesh (肉体の門) is another of the many great Japanese films to emerge in the three decades after World War II, nearly all of which in some way deal with the aftermath of Japan's loss in the war, thematically or explicitly. Gate of Flesh chooses a group of prostitutes working in U.S. occupied Japan to tell a story of cynicism born of wounds and one woman's breakdown as she discovers she lacks the capacity for that cynicism.
The film is told mainly through the perspective of Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), a young woman who joins an unusual brothel, a group of women who manage themselves without pimp or madam, only paying tribute to the local yakuza.
The film features conspicuous stylisation alongside attempts on a low budget to create a realistic reconstruction of the miserable conditions following the war. The women lived in a bombed out building of twisted and burnt brick and pipes, each woman always wearing a distinct colour. When Maya joins she's wearing an ordinary navy blue dress but soon she's assigned the colour green and wears that for the rest of the film.
One could read it as reflecting her innocence, the fact that she's "green" or new to the trade, or her connexion to genuine nature as she's the only one who's unable to completely bury her feelings. We learn she was raped some time before joining the women and was taken in by an American army chaplain and for a time she'd found the new faith something of a solace after her rape and the death of her brother who'd been a soldier.
The women develop a nostalgia for pre-War Japan and refuse to have sex with American soldiers. This after we've witnessed prostitutes throwing themselves in the road to stop American cars before dragging the soldiers out. The small, independent group of prostitutes slowly seem to become proud of being able to maintain an ideology without the pure profit motive of a pimp controlling them. They institute another rule--no free sex. Any of the group caught having free sex will be beaten and humiliated as we see early on when a former member is left outside wearing only a net on a little boat.
Things get complicated when a fugitive ex-soldier, Ibuki (Joe Shishido), sneaks in and takes residence by force. One of the women describes it as primal law as Ibuki stays by his physical strength alone since Roku (Tomiko Ishii), the prostitute in red and the closest the group has to a leader, is unable to beat Ibuki up. But he doesn't rape them or assault them in any other way--though when they hit him he hits back--he just wants a place to sleep and lie low.
All of the women quickly become attracted to him but because of their rule it remains a subject of growing tension. The rule becomes doubly important because any woman who does have sex with Ibuki will invoke the jealousy of the rest. It becomes a particularly troubling issue for Maya for whom Ibuki brings back memories of her brother who died in the war.
Ibuki performs a sort of strip tease for them one night when he gets drunk and he acts out marching in formation and singing an old patriotic song. In the bombed out building, stripping for prostitutes, it's hard to imagine a more painfully brash symbol for the bruised and undead lump that had become of the ardent pride the nation took in itself before the war. No, it's not subtle, but I think it works because the film generally has a hot lamp quality, the tired and sweaty bodies we're shown again and again without the shield any comforting belief, faces always forced into the camera.
Twitter Sonnet #786
Green telephone wires wither in blue.
Faded wind shambles across fronting cloud.
An idle goblin lawyer sweats to sue.
Wooden barristers grow apace, unbowed.
Obstinate mem'ries of Rubik's cubes vex.
Riot hued puzzles have hewn Moche brick.
Potted faces tell of infinite sex.
Exhausted candles consume God's own wick.
Eight bumble bees design a flower's fate.
Twice four is equal to honey makers.
All overlapping names and numbers cannot wait.
The NEET shepherd wants any nymph takers.
Cold colour rainbows show on bright display.
Opaque waters no jellyfish conveyed.