Street of Shame: Japan’s Answer to Italian Neorealism

When Roberto Rossellini decided to direct a film about children and the Italian resistance movement in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Rome in 1945, nobody could have predicted the lasting impact on cinema and legacy of Rome Open City (1945). What Italian neorealism did was give a voice to those that did not have it. Its entire philosophy revolved around using non-professional actors in real-life locations to present the stories of men, women and children of working class background, their preoccupations, fears and desires. The atrocities of war, and the long-lasting misery that came with it provided European cinema with a deeper, more nuanced insight into the lives of people who up until then had been marginalized and prevented from appearing on the silver screen. As Italian neorealism blossomed with the likes of De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Fellini (La Strada), Japan witnessed the rise of a different kind of cinema. Established directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, who had been forced to make propaganda films to support the empire’s war effort were finally allowed to explore and develop their own ideas: Kurosawa was initially drawn to stories of organized crime and violence (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog), while Ozu grew to become an expert of family dynamics (Late Spring and Tokyo Story). However, the director I want to talk about today, Kenji Mizoguchi, went down a different path, at least until the final year of his life. Mizoguchi’s most known works include Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, stories of oppressed peasants set in feudal Japan and known for their theatricality, however his swan song, namely Street of Shame released the same year of Mizoguchi’s premature death, is the one that I consider to be, in a catalog of classics, his finest achievement. And here’s why.

Kenji Mizoguchi on the set of Street of Shame.

Street of Shame is a film about prostitutes in the Red Light District of Tokyo as the country is trying to pass an anti-prostitution bill. Dreamland, the brothel which houses the women, is a place cut off from the rest of the world, a place that, if entered, offers different sets of rules that do not necessarily apply to the external world. For one, family members are not allowed inside, and clients who visit regularly are nothing but strangers when stumbled into outside the brothel’s doors. Dreamland is a place of endless debt: the women that work there are all in debt to each other and ultimately, to their pimp and manager. Their money is subject to increasing interest rates and is, in a way, what prevents them from leaving this place. The women working at Dreamland are, like in all of Mizoguchi films, real, fleshed-out characters: aging mothers still supporting their grown-up children, devoted wives working tirelessly to pay rent for their unemployed husbands, teenagers running away from home, hoping to make a name for themselves. Their evident differences in age, background and beauty are often subject to fights, acts of betrayal and feelings of hopelessness and despair in the face of a society that treats them purely based on one thing – their bodies. This society, having been driven to the ground by the devastating effects of war, now desperately trying to come back from the dead, has created and consistently reinforced a culture of misogyny, where it is okay for these women to openly admit to themselves ”I’m nothing but an object for sale.”

Everything on display is for sale.

What becomes apparent when watching Street of Shame for the first time is how modern it feels. It never attempts to be anything other a study of oppressed women. Whereas Kurosawa and Ozu were busy making movies steeped in genre (Kurosawa with film noir, and Ozu with classical melodrama), Mizoguchi directed Street of Shame similarly to Rossellini with Rome Open City; the line separating these two films and the reality they present is razor thin. Mizoguchi’s Japan is busy rebuilding itself and its reputation. And reputation goes a long way. Reputation is what leads the son of one of the prostitutes to push her away after years of sacrifice and care. Reputation is also what drives the husband of one prostitute to try and hang himself. The oppression and abuse these women have endured over the years is constantly being swept under the rug in the name of a man’s reputation. Mizoguchi’s watchful eye sees this cruel irony, and lets it patiently unravel. He makes the male characters in Street of Shame stand in for Japan’s patriarchal society: the suffering these women undergo for them is taken for granted, and to them it is never a matter of lack of choice. In their minds, this is the profession these women wanted all along. Thankfully, Mizoguchi unmasks the hidden mechanisms that enable this cruel, endless cycle of oppression. When the father of one of the younger prostitutes, Mickey, announces he’s there to disown her after her shameful conduct, it is revealed that he is one of the brothel’s most frequent customers, known for his preference of younger flesh.

Victims of a power-hungry system.

The cruel twists and revelations in the film are often served as vignettes. There is no real plot to be found, only a sad string of sequences that put the life of each woman on display. One of the more devastating instances occurs when Yasumi, one of the older prostitutes, tries to escape Dreamland in search of happiness in the form of marriage. Gathered outside, some of her friends and colleagues wave at her speeding car with evident envy. Yet, soon enough, Yasumi returns with tears in her eyes. Her marriage was as much of a trap as prostitution, because a woman is not supposed to have dreams and passions; a woman like Yasumi is to serve. At least at Dreamland she gets to charge for the service she provides. It is this realization, of a sealed destiny within the confines of the brothel, that makes Mizoguchi’s film feel timeless. This cast of characters, so vibrantly unique in their own right, are shoved into a corner and told outright: You don’t matter. Whatever change the country is undergoing, they are not part of it.

Mizoguchi’s scarce use of long shots is quite haunting.

The reason movies like Street of Shame are so important is that their vision goes beyond the screen. In fact, Mizoguchi’s final film acted as a further motivator to pass Japan’s anti-prostitution bill in 1957, the year following the film’s release. The Japanese government considered Street of Shame a catalyst in the matter, and as a consequence introduced laws meant to protect sex workers from trafficking, punish third parties involved in the trade and rehabilitate women who chose to evade prostitution by setting up guidance homes in all regions of the country. In such instances, the power of cinema is undeniable, and it seems only fitting for a director of Mizoguchi’s skill and influence to leave this world by inspiring an entire society to strive toward progress. Neorealism, after all, was meant to do just that. Directors like Rossellini and De Sica wanted to inspire audiences to consider the movies they were watching as stark observations of everyday life. All of a sudden, the people they chose to ignore on the street were the same people they paid to watch on the screen.

”You’re bound to lose your virginity, you might as well charge them for it.”

Vibrations of Life

Drama is something extremely hard to do.  Good drama, I mean. Maybe more so than comedy. Maybe that’s only how I see it but in recent years there have been very few films that tackle drama without slipping into the shallow, predictable melodrama (Silver Linings Playbook is one of those). In film, if you want to leave a mark on the viewer, if you want him to truly feel affected by what he’s seeing, then you have to make drama feel like real life drama. Characters that go around yelling, screaming, crying, kicking furniture and repetitively shouting out swear words does not necessarily transmit the characters emotions properly. Once upon a time there was this little Japanese fellow, a man who lived his entire life as a single man and spent his days over at his mother’s place writing scripts and whatnot. This man was Yasujirō Ozu, one of the greatest filmmakers of all the time,  inventor of the ‘tatami’ shot (a type of shot in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat) and master of silent drama. Ozu, to those who know him, was the real deal when it came to telling stories of daily life, blue collar work, boredom, rituals, routines, and so on. He brought the most powerful human emotions to the screen in a very quiet, organized way. But today I do not wish to write about Ozu, although I could write entire pages on him. Today I wish to bring to light a name that perhaps hasn’t been heard so much in the ‘pop’ mainstream cinema world of today. The name is Hirokazu Koreeda. And the movie I want to talk about is Still Walking from 2008.

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Still Walking is the definition of real life. Real relationships. The setting is the small town of Yokosuka, Japan. The time frame is 24 hours in the life of a family that reunites after not seeing each other for quite some time. Toshiko and Kyohei are the parents, the eldest generation. They’re hosting the family reunion over at their place. Chinami is the daughter, who has a husband and two children. Ryota is Chinami’s brother, and he brings along his new wife, Yukari (who married him as a widow) and her son from the previous marriage. What lies beneath all the layers of family life?  The horrific death by drowning of the eldest son, Ryota’s older brother, who died while saving another boy’s life twelve years prior to this reunion. Wow, this is Brazilian telenovela material, huh? Wrong. You see, Koreeda is a director who has always had an interest in exploring relationships, their value in people’s lives, the importance of a compact family (like in his later film, Like Father, Like Son) and the teachings family members can absorb from it (like in this year’s Koreeda film, Our Little Sister). It seems as if it’s his mission to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. In Still Walking the sound of the cicadas outside, the water running from the tap in the kitchen, something boiling on the cooker, children laughing and playing under the warm sunlight, it all adds up when creating an atmosphere, which will be used in order to tell the story. Like family, this movie has many different layers and fractions. We get glimpses of the relationship between mother and daughter, mother and son, father and daughter, and most importantly father and son. Ryota suffers when he looks his father in the eye. The man who never acknowledged him for who he was, but always wished him the worst. The man who felt the wrong son had died.

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And this is when Koreeda draws his inspiration from Ozu. The way he handles the painful pauses, the quiet moments of dinner time, particular characters questioning each other’s motifs without talking to one another, is incredibly subtle and yet the vibrations, the force of it can be felt just by watching what goes on on the screen. Koreeda focuses on acting, just like Ozu. He waits for the right reaction and if the actor has some tough time with it, he waits, letting the camera roll until the actor finally gets it. The moments are not cut in half like most in most movies today.  As I said, Koreeda seeks the ultimate truth. His camera is there to find it. Actors play off each other in a magnificent way and nothing feels out of place or awkward or false. It feels necessary and natural at the same time, it feels like real life. Problems are not skipped and forgotten, everything needs to stripped down and taken apart and put back into its former place. There is tension between certain characters but it is never expressed. It is there and it is felt but characters try to suppress it and this heightens the film’s emotional impact. The viewer demands justice, we live in an age where we all want the big payoff at the end, and here, we don’t get it. A family stays a family, it has its problems, its ups and downs, but it is still a family. There is death, there is disappointment, regret, frustration, embarrassment and empathy. Everything becomes part of Koreeda’s tale of life, really. Similarly to Ozu, Koreeda does not wish to make a big moral ending out of nothing. He just wants to let simplicity sink in. Every frame is soaked in simplicity and maybe that is the secret of good drama. Both directors do not reveal the whole truth to us, they expect us to work it out ourselves.  It is the viewer’s duty to be able to work things out, if we’re proper human beings, we’ll understand, says Koreeda.

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Father and son.

Brother and Sister

Some of the greatest heartbreakers and tearjerkers in film history belong to the animation genre. Animation, a genre that was always meant to be targeted at younger audiences, has now become another way of delivering very emotional and thematically powerful subject matters to the big screen. Once upon a time, Walt Disney developed the idea of telling certain stories such as fairy tales by drawing them on paper and editing them out in order for them to be more accessible to children. Soon enough, animation turned into this massive genre that is now one of the most successful ones at the box office. Movies like UpFinding NemoInside Out were all major hits critically acclaimed by audiences, critics and award shows. However, these movies wouldn’t have the same character and body if not for a genre like anime, the Japanese animation. And one of the best examples to demonstrate this is Grave of Fireflies.

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Believe me, I’ve never been a fan of anime. I appreciate the imagination, the effort and true professionalism that go with it but usually its themes are way too distant for me. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is in my opinion one of the very best directors and artists of the late 20th century, early 21st. His movies, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are grand accomplishments but I’ve never been fond of the supernatural and the way it is used to tell a certain story. It just doesn’t hit me where it should. However, I found Isao Tahakata’s Grave of Fireflies (1988) to be exactly what I wanted to see in order to become a fan of the genre. Don’t think it’s kids’ stuff. It’s not, and it was never meant to be made for children. It is the story of a fourteen year old Japanese boy and his younger baby sister who try to survive on their own in the war torn Japan of 1945. In the very first scene Seita, the brother, speaks to us in a sombre tone: “I died on September 21st, 1945.” That’s not the way to start off a kids’ movie, huh? It’s a warning. It’s a warning for the viewer not to dismiss the movie’s emotional quality just because of the way it is depicted. It is more of a challenge. And indeed, this film is just as powerful as any live action feature, be it Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Platoon. It is extremely relentless in the way it keeps sending punches towards us and showing no mercy for its characters. Seita and Setsuko are on their own. And they have to fight to get through each day.

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There is something in anime that you can’t find in other animation features such as those that are nowadays produced by Pixar or Disney. Anime lives and breathes because of symbolism, imagery and texture. An object like a glass bottle or a cough drops tin can aren’t just simple objects. There is always something standing right behind them, offering a much more emotional message than most of those typical Hollywood ending speeches where all the characters find inner peace, harmony and comfort. In anime everything is meaningful. A simple gust of wind can symbolize loneliness, yearning or sadness. A house on fire can express a character’s anger, frustration or troubled past (similarly to most Kurosawa movies). Tahakata, the director, wanted to make his characters look and feel miserable in order for audiences to understand them better. This objective could only be achieved  with the use of animation and animation had to posses soft colors and a delicate palette so  that the contrast between childhood and war would be more visible. Fire is soft red, almost orange. Water is light blue, almost transparent. Every storyboard is so expertly crafted that there is a contrast in almost every frame, be it a contrast of perspective, of size or character. It’s always there and it proves exactly my point: that this kind of animation has the ability of expressing itself much better than most movies nowadays. Today we go watch a movie in the theater and most of the time we have no idea what is going on until the very end of it and not because of its complex message or twist ending but because of how it is presented to us. Most directors nowadays cut their movies up in such fashion that a frame lasts a maximum of 2-3 seconds whether as Alfred Hitchcock’s frames lasted  a good 6-9 seconds. In Grave of Fireflies the message is chaotic, wrapped in a cloud of fire and riddled with bullets by the omnipresent war but there is still something very calm and peaceful about it. About the way it feels when we look at it and the way it expresses its warmth in a terrifying manner. There is no rush. No alarm bell ringing in the distance. It’s quiet. A relationship between a loving older brother and a younger sister never felt more real.

By the end of it, you’ll be drowning in tears asking yourself how is it possible to make something this tough with the simple use of a pen and paper.

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Everything is a matter of…

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… perspective