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.”

Long Distance Call

Relationships. Ugh. Just the sound of this word in a cinematic context makes some people roll their eyes. What else can be said about relationships in movies? After all, we’ve seen all of them, all of them under the same light. Mostly negative. Think Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blue Valentine. Think in the line of thoughtful tearjerkers such as Carol and Far From Heaven. Even comedies. Mostly comedies, crappy ones. As a moviegoer, you’ll think to yourself: enough! We have seen all of them. We know what a relationship is. We know the different forms they assume in movies. There is the sex-driven one (Love & Other Drugs), the forbidden one (Brokeback Mountain), the subtle one (Out of Africa), and finally the goofy one (The Big Sick). Yet somehow, after all these years of world cinema, there is a very limited number of movies that mention one particular form of relationship: the long distance relationship. Sure, movies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook tackled the specific form but I highly doubt any of us have taken those movies seriously, right? Now, let’s be honest, auteur cinema has never shown passion nor interest for this subject matter. Directors like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Scorsese and Kubrick, and many others, as good and as artistic as they all are, interested in the human condition, human nature and whatnot, have never delved head-on into the depths of a long distance relationship. For most highbrow filmmakers, relationships are often considered an item that is to be used as background information for a particular character, eg. (Henry Hill’s relationship with his wife, Karen, in Goodfellas), so why should they be attracted to long distance relationships at all? Well, today I’m here to tell you about an Italian director who accepted the challenge at a very young age and successfully directed a beautiful film about this very subject. Today, I aim to pen down a few thoughts about the long distance relationship depicted in Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (1963).

The Fiances 5
Liliana and Giovanni.

The late great Ermanno Olmi passed away earlier this month and I believe he did so as one of the most overlooked directors of all time, a true visionary and simply put, a brilliant artist who undeservedly suffered from a lack of popularity outside of Italy even after he won the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 for his magnum opus, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an exhilarating take on life in the Italian countryside in the late 19th century and the struggle of that particular community of outcasts and social rejects. In short, that’s who Olmi was for those of you who haven’t had the chance to study his work; a man of the people, a man interested in people and the mechanisms within each individual. He was a director who gave a heartbeat to every  single living thing and cared for his characters like no other artist of the neo-realist wave that took over Italy’s film industry post World-War II all the way until the early 60s. As to the film, I Fidanzati is one of his lesser known works, often overshadowed by the aforementioned Tree of Wooden Clogs and the newly restored Il Posto, Olmi’s second feature about a young man desperately looking for a job in Milan. Still concerned with Italy’s Northern industrialism and focused on the local working class, Olmi’s I Fidanzati (literally, The Fiances) tells the story of how a relationship needs to be worked at with care and tenderness in order for it to survive during hard times of separation and doubt, in order for it to grow even during long stretches of darkness and despair.

The Fiances 4
The opening dance.

Well then, how does Olmi do it? Where does the magic lie? First of all, the setting. The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about the relationship we’re about to follow: an empty dance hall slowly but surely begins to fill up with locals. Women and men of all ages start dancing to live music, and while the dance continues and the music becomes livelier by the minute, we meet the two protagonists, Liliana and Giovanni, looking lost and quite uncomfortable being around each other. The reason for this discomfort is revealed in a scene that incercuts with the dance sequence; Giovanni is notified of an available job promotion all the way down in Sicily, in a new factory department, and as a result he must leave immediately. So what is the secret to this opening? Olmi does not pull any punches, instead he aims straight for the jugular and decides to pose the first and most important obstacle that the two protagonists will try to overcome as the movie progresses: distance, an overwhelming physical distance that might threaten their engagement, and eventually, their wedding plans. Giovanni, in frustration, dances with a stranger, and so does Liliana. Their fear and preoccupation are expressed through the joyful practice of dancing, an element that will set the tone for the rest of the movie, an element that should be strictly considered for poetic purposes. Eventually, right before Giovanni’s plane leaves, the two of them dance for one last time. What follows afterwards is Giovanni’s trip to Sicily, and this is where Olmi’s magical trick takes place.

vague-visages-capitolo-20-i-fidanzati-six
Giovanni’s loneliness.

Giovanni is, in my opinion, one of the least predictable male characters I have ever witnessed on screen, and through this unpredictability bursts out a profound sense of humanity that you rarely see in films nowadays. Giovanni’s new life in Sicily consists of habitual-driven actions and routine. He awakens, has a cup of coffee at the local bar, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, repeat. The separation is expressed through the prominent use of wide-screen shot empty locations; bars, streets, factories. Giovanni’s loneliness is a result of Liliana’s absence as only she could fill the empty spaces he finds himself in. His taciturnity is his shield: Giovanni is a polite, quiet and respectful worker who, as demonstrated through a use of flashbacks and jump-cuts, can also turn into a sensitive lover, a dear companion and a faithful fiancée. But all of these listed qualities exist and can be transmitted to the viewer only because of the physical separation the two young lovers are  subject to. Olmi builds a desolate, lonely and silent world around Giovanni, a world, or better yet, an island like Sicily that torments its own inhabitants with an unbearable climate, little to no nature and the same sort of industrial way of life as Giovanni encountered in the familiar North.

vlcsnap-2012-01-05-13h17m24s51
Sicilian nights… nights filled with thoughts.

Giovanni in his free time embarks on short trips across the region to find meaning, a feeling of accomplishment, joy, anything. He visits churches, goes to mass, celebrates a saint’s day with the rest of the inhabitants of the same town he lives in, seeks out fellow Northern workers, writes letters and eventually– constantly thinks about Liliana. The director allows the two lovers to converse throughout the movie through flashbacks, so that their relationship, instead of suffering and feeling threatened, is actually built upon. All of a sudden this separation becomes the driving engine of the relationship as it enables both characters to experience loneliness and regret, two essential elements of a real, matrimonial relationship. Their love grows through the physical distance and through the isolated life that Giovanni is forced to lead on this remote island. During moments of fatigue and helplessness, Liliana’s voice-over echoes across the screen, thus demonstrating the multitude of ways Olmi goes about solidifying their bond, instead of weakening it. Unlike so many other films, most of them following the Hollywood relationship recipe, that try to weaken their characters by presenting them with new challenges (eg, how to resist another woman), new enemies, etc, Olmi poses the unnatural emptiness as the only obstacle worth overcoming. In other words, I Fidanzati is as much a film about endurance, and the strength of the human spirit as it is a film about a specific relationship.

There is a beautiful moment worth noting near the end of this 70-minute-long film; Liliana reads aloud a letter she’s written to Giovanni, where she tells him about the time she got his letter. She says: ”I felt excited and happy running up the stairs. But then suddenly that happiness frightened me.” It is as if this sudden change in her daily routine made her aware of the kind of burden this long distance relationship has put on her shoulders. Suddenly, happiness has become an exclusive feeling in Liliana’s daily life, away from Giovanni and his peaceful, reassuring presence. All of a sudden, this distance has become a thrill to her. A reason not to lose hope.

tumblr_n6cj3iCNJA1tq8vj2o10_1280
Happiness in its purest form.