Gate Of Flesh (Japan, 1964)
Seijun Suzuki’s military career in the Imperial Japanese Army was nothing less than comically horrific. Conscripted in 1943 and sent to East Abiko, Chiba for basic training, he formally entered the army with a rank of Private Second Class. Yet, after his induction into the ranks, he was ordered to ship out to the Philippines and while only a week into his tour of duty, the cargo ship he was on was torpedoed by an American submarine. Luckily for Suzuki, he washed up on shore, but ironically, by the time he arrived, American forces were already poised to take the islands back from Japanese control. Then, while escaping on a freighter headed to Taiwan, Suzuki narrowly escaped death again when a squadron of American fighter planes sunk his ship, leaving the future director stranded out at sea for about eight hours before finally being rescued. In between these harrowing adventures, Suzuki spent a majority of his time and money getting drunk or enjoying the company of comfort women. It is no exaggeration to state that his experiences during the war left him with very few illusions about battle and a lot of resentment towards institutions that posed as authority figures.
By 1964 though, Seijun Suzuki had already directed 30 films, released his first gonzo masterpiece, Yaju No Seishun (Youth Of The Beast), the year before and in a scant three years would be fired from Nikkatsu studios with the controversy over his film Koroshi No Rakuin (Branded To Kill, 1967) turning the man into the great enfant terrible of cult cinema. Before all that though, Suzuki was merely one of the handful of talented craftsmen under contract with Nikkatsu studios. And in 1964, it was business as usual as he directed three films that year, Hana To Doto (The Flower And The Angry Waves, 1964 ), Nikutai No Mon (Gate Of Flesh), and Oretachi No Chi Ga Yurusanai (Our Blood Will Not Forgive, 1964). Of these three, Gate Of Flesh would be the most iconic and, for good reason, a perfect example of the gonzo style that exemplified the films he directed for Nikkatsu during the 1960’s. In short, the film heralded a streak of baroque and pugnacious genre works that not only challenged the studio bosses who bankrolled Suzuki’s hothouse fantasies, but also took to task passive spectators who expected nothing but cheap thrills from the films they watched.
As seminal as Gate Of Flesh is to Suzuki’s oeuvre, it may be a shock for cinephiles to learn that the film was not a passion project for Suzuki. In fact, the film was just another work for hire and, when Suzuki first read the script, adapted from a novel by Taijiro Tamura, he found nothing particularly exciting about it. Nonetheless, Suzuki had no choice but to accept the job and in turn, Nikkatsu gave him one simple directive: make an erotic film which teased the male audience with female nudity and shook up the crowd with scenes of sadomasochistic brutality. Of course just as American filmmakers at that time had to deal with the Hays code, the Japanese studios fought a never-ending battle with the Motion Picture Ethics Committee.
Around that time Japanese films were categorized into either adult or general releases. The main difference between the two was that adult releases were allowed to have “pornographic elements” while general releases were safe for mass consumption. Yet even with these simple guidelines, the committee added a series of criteria that all adult releases had to abide by. The main issue of contention for Suzuki though was nudity and how he would shoot it without violating the committee-enforced codes while still making each shot not only interesting but also pictorially beautiful. Although Gate Of Flesh has the reputation for being a precursor to the Nikkatsu roman porno films that became popular during the 1970’s, Suzuki’s film has a lot in common with the work of American sexploitation director Russ Meyer. In fact there are certain thematic and satirical parallels between Gate Of Flesh and Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a film released a year after Suzuki’s. Specifically the blending of sex and violence, provocative upturning of traditional gender roles, and aggressive female characters that border on caricature. Yet whereas Russ Meyer used the medium of film to lampoon American conservatism and indulge his obsession with big breasts Seijun Suzuki seemed to make films as a way to exorcise his anger towards the Japanese status quo. And after watching Gate Of Flesh one can’t help think that the entire film is one giant middle finger to Japan’s reconstruction efforts immediately following the war.
With the help of key collaborators Takeo Kimura, the production designer for all of Suzuki’s films since Akutaro (The Bastard) in 1963, and his cinematographer, Shigeyoshi Mine, Gate Of Flesh becomes a post-apocalyptic nightmare that rivals any of the dystopian masterpieces that Stanley Kubrick, Walter Hill, or John Carpenter would later release. Although budget constraints forced Kimura and Suzuki to make do with the cramped space of a studio backlot, these setbacks would ultimately help, more than hurt, the film. By reappropriating building materials from torn-down sets and foregoing the use of wide shots until the very end of the film, Suzuki and his collaborators successfully create a claustrophobic and highly theatrical black market shantytown. To get a better understanding of just how stylized Suzuki’s set is, viewers only need to look at any of the jitsuroku-eiga directed by that paragon of documentary realism, Kinji Fukasaku, specifically his Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series or his 1975 masterpiece, Jingi No Hakaba (Graveyard Of Honor). Although Fukasaku, like Suzuki, favors tight shots and a gritty visual aesthetic, the two differ in their aesthetic choices. Fukasaku”s aim at grounding the narrative in a specific reality; the avant-garde tropes present in a Fukasaku film exist to give the audience a visceral experience and basically immerse the audience in the chaos of the story. Suzuki, on the other hand, has a detached approach towards the films he directs. At no time during my viewing of Gate Of Flesh, or any Suzuki film for that matter, am I ever not conscious of the artificiality of the film”s diegetic world. Thus, while it is easy to imagine a Fukasaku film continuing long after the credits have finished rolling, the cycle of street violence and political corruption continuing in perpetuity, a Suzuki film exists only in what we can see within the confines of the cinematic frame and anything outside of those margins is a nebulous no-man’s land.
Yet, as arresting as the visual style of Gate Of Flesh is, Suzuki’s decision to have each woman wearing a specific monochromatic costume throughout the film was not born out of artistic indulgence. Rather, the choice was a practical one since the women’s costumes provided by the wardrobe department were much too similar, making distinguishing one woman from another very difficult. And thus, a simple color palette was devised to allow the audience to more easily distinguish the main actresses from the background extras. Of course, this has not detracted critics and fans of the film from reading all sorts of meanings into what each color meant to the overall narrative structure. And so, during a 1994 Institute of Contemporary Arts article titled Suzuki on Suzuki, the director gave scholars and fans alike a peek into his thought process during the production of Gate Of Flesh:
“In Gate Of Flesh, I used green as a symbol for peace (if there hadn’t been a war, Maya would have been an ordinary woman). I wanted to show the purity of her cool self-awareness, but since she was a prisoner of her circumstances, I shot her as if some mystic had shrouded her in a green veil. My way of filming is conditioned by Japan’s art traditions. I used to resist them when I was young, but now I’ve chosen freely to evoke those aesthetics and that style of beauty in my films. My one regret is that technical problems with colour have prevented me from perfectly representing my idea of ‘formal beauty’ in film. The green, symbolizing peace, is opposed to dark green, yellow, red and purple. In my symbolic system, green represents peace and calm; red stands for sudden eruptions and fear; yellow stands for niceness and compromise; and purple for inner revulsion. Recently, I’ve been using white for solitude and uncertainty. Gate Of Flesh was made during the days of ‘realism’. We took all sorts of clothes out of the storerooms, but the women didn’t look right in them. So we had some cheap clothes made; that way we could at least choose the colours we liked.”
Beyond Takeo Kimura and Shigeyoshi Mine, there are three other important collaborators that should be credited with not only elevating Gate Of Flesh to the level of baroque pulp drama, but also raising Suzuki to the status of auteur. The first and most overlooked figure is the film’s composer, Naozumi Yamamoto. Now for many but the most hardcore cinephiles, Yamamoto will be an unfamiliar name, yet his contributions to Japanese cinema is nothing to shrug off. Working with Suzuki since 1958 on the film Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty), a movie in which Seitaro Suzuki formally made the transition to being credited as Seijun Suzuki, he would continue to work with the gonzo director until Suzuki’s firing and subsequent industry-wide blacklist after the aforementioned controversy over the film Branded To Kill. For the soundtrack to Gate Of Flesh though, Yamamoto incorporates the slow-tempo Latin grace of bolero with the Spanish rhythms of flamenco by way of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western and crafts something akin to a modern day Grand Guignol opera. The elegiac score lends the film a certain amount of gravitas, especially when Suzuki incorporates Yamamoto’s score with the Egon Schiele inspired paintings at the start of the film. Yet, as powerful as Yamamoto’s score is, Suzuki uses it only sparingly, usually just to punctuate the action in a scene. For the most part though Suzuki relies on diegetic music, usually pop songs emanating from street stall radios, or the hustle-and-bustle noise of everyday life to inject the film’s soundtrack with an aura of documentary realism.
The other two collaborators that should be mentioned when discussing Gate Of Flesh are the actors Jo Shishido and Yumiko Nogawa. Now for many Japanophiles Jo Shishido should be instantly recognizable as the main lead in Suzuki’s earlier film Youth Of The Beast and the later gonzo masterpiece Branded To Kill. In Gate Of Flesh though, he plays online slots a supporting role as down-and-out returning soldier Shintaro Ibuki. And, as for Yumiko Nogawa, although primarily working in the medium of television back in the 1960’s, she starred in a series of Suzuki films: Gate Of Flesh, Shunpu Den (Story Of A Prostitute, 1965), and Kawachi Karumen (Carmen From Kawachi, 1966). These three films would loosely make up the director’s “Flesh Trilogy”.
Gate Of Flesh, the first film in the trilogy and the only in color, tracks a band of prostitutes living in a bombed out portion of Tokyo as they attempt to survive during the immediate postwar years. Sen (Satoko Kasai), the leader of the pack, is decked throughout the film in a fiery red dress and headband and, although quite gaunt, she exudes such naked rage which oozes from every pore of her sweat-soaked body that no one, be they male or female, dares cross her. To establish a sense of order and hierarchy, Sen institutes a set of rules that must be followed, on pain of death. The most important being never give it to a guy for free. Within these harsh conditions, Sen and her girl gang thrive free from servitude to a pimp or madam and for the most part immune to the barbaric conditions that many Japanese had to suffer through during the Occupation years. Although Gate Of Flesh is technically classified as an exploitation film, it is important to note that Sen and her group are not nymphomaniacs nor are they products of a prurient male fantasy. Suzuki’s heroines may not always be the most sympathetic protagonists to root for, but their single-minded drive to survive and gain economic independence make them far better feminist role models than the idealized mother or girlfriend roles one might find in films that glutted many Asian and Western theaters then and now.
Tossed into this savage milieu, eighteen year old Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) finds herself alone, starving and almost pimped out to an American GI by an unscrupulous street hustler working for the Yoshino clan. Taking pity on her, Sen agrees to take Maya under her wing and teach her the skills she needs to survive. An innocent Maya is then seduced by the sheer power that Sen and her gang of color-coordinated harpies wield and quickly embraces her new lot in life. To survive, Maya quickly learns to shut off her humanity and boil everything down into the quantifiable. Basically money is everything and love is a luxury that no one can afford, and so the small section of the black market at which they ply their trade soon becomes a microcosm for the new postwar capitalist order, a place where everything is for sale as long as you have the money. Throughout the film, Suzuki has a variety of scenes that reiterate this viewpoint. For example, when Sen first lays down the rules for Maya she boils the situation down into one sentence: “This is a business, and our bodies are our merchandise.”, a sentiment repeated again during the impromptu feast of freshly slaughtered beef and wood alcohol that the girls have with Ibuki, the wounded soldier they take in and lust after. When, during the drunken revelry, Sen stumbles upon an interesting paradox: beef is sold at the market at 40 yen a pound, the same price they sell their bodies for. Thus, are they eating to sell their bodies or are they selling their bodies to eat? And even earlier in the film, Suzuki also inserts a nice throwaway scene where we see a gaggle of prostitutes aggressively approaching random men on the street and scuttling them towards various stalls and alleyways to have sex and then afterwards quickly running to a nearby food stand, clutching the money they’ve just recently made in their hands, and gorging on sweet potatoes to keep up their energy so that they can keep going. This cycle of blind consumption reminds me of an Ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a dragon eating its own tail, and in hindsight one can’t help but think that the scene is a metaphor for the rapid economic boom and bust not only in Japan but, at present, the entire Western world.
Beyond being a commentary on the economic disparity present in postwar Japanese society, Gate Of Flesh is also a frank exploration of the link between sex and violence, the only outlets from which the characters can truly express themselves. Maya constantly compares Ibuki, a returning soldier who ends up becoming the catalyst for the group’s fracturing, to a wild beast. Ibuki represents everything Sen and her girl gang love and hate about men. To Maya, he is the big brother she lost and thus a relic of a happier time she can never go back to. For Sen, he is her idealized tough guy but also a reminder of Japan’s humiliating defeat during the war. And for Machiko (Misako Tominaga), Ibuki represents the security of marriage but at the cost of accepting the drudgery and boredom of domestic life. All three women lust after him, though and in several brutally violent and highly theatrical scenes, Suzuki contrasts the women’s sexual fantasies against shots of Ibuki either reveling in Sen and her gang flogging, beating and humiliating other women or reminiscing about his time fighting in the war. This mingling of cruelty, beauty and innocence illustrates just how low the characters have sunk as Suzuki’s camera spends as much time lingering on shots of sadomasochistic violence as it does photographing naked bodies in heated passion. And so in a twisted and desperate world like the one depicted in Gate Of Flesh, there is no concrete divide between pain and pleasure.
It’s not going out on a limb to state that the overall mood running throughout the entire film and the primary emotion motivating all the characters in the story is anger. Be it toward Japan’s defeat during the war, toward the government for dragging the country into new depths of poverty and desperation, or most of all, toward America and its occupation forces, anger pervades every shot, scene, and cut in Gate Of Flesh. Suzuki uses three visual motifs to represent America’s perceived hostile and negative presence in Japan: Army MP’s who lecherously troll the black market, a self-righteous Catholic priest (Chico Roland), and the American flag which dominates the Tokyo skyline. The characters, as well as the director’s, hatred toward the West stems not from a simplistic notion such as nationalistic pride, but a complicated tangle of political observations and personal experiences. Suzuki’s film makes a concerted effort to liken America’s presence inside Japan to rape, be it the numerous black market crowd scenes where throngs of impoverished prostitutes are busy either enticing servicemen into cheap roach motels or are themselves herded into trucks for impromptu orgies, there is no love lost between Japan and America. And even the eponymously named “American Stew” that is advertised by the army as being healthy and nutritious is merely just a hodge-podge of food scraps and discarded waste, i.e. used condoms, being fed to the poor to keep them happy enough not to revolt but not strong enough to completely fight off the American advance.
In Martin Scorsese’s brilliant four-hour documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), the Italian-American director offers up three categories from which to divide films into: the director as illusionist, the director as smuggler, and the director as iconoclast. Within that framework, Seijun Suzuki would fall under the banner of smuggler. Suzuki, like fellow smugglers Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, worked within the confines of genre conventions to express his own personal philosophy. Gate Of Flesh, an unabashed exploitation flick, stands out from the rest of the pack not just because of the names attached to the project, but because underneath the veneer of sweat slick bare flesh and cheap erotic titillation lies a harsh honest film about a class of people who have no voice to represent them in the mainstream and no hope to ever climb up above their caste. Unlike the thousands of exploitation flicks released during that time, Gate Of Flesh is not some dusty relic of a quaint, kitschy or idealized past, the issues addressed by Suzuki’s 1964 film are topics still debated about and, sadder still, ones for which we still have no solutions.