Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
A dystopia made of prostitutes and their sorority, dignity, and ‘moral’ codes. A lesson taught and learnt from disciplines required for survival in the decadent and desolate post-war Tokyo. Gate of Flesh is a story about characters who are essentially, like others in post-war scenarios, damaged, but also who, audaciously or even recklessly, manage to maintain their flesh, whether it means food, body, food for body, or body for food. Hence the question asked by the head of the prostitute cabal Sen, always in a catchy crimson dress: “Are we eating so that we can sell our body, or are we selling our body in order to eat?”
Yet it remains a story of the gate of flesh, not the gate to flesh. both the beginning and the end of the film display a scene where the protagonist Maya, the youngest 18yr-prostitute, is in a helpless and terrified state, from an orphaned teenager to a prospective wife turned a widow. It seems that ‘the gate of flesh’ has led to nowhere, when knowing how to eke out in a shattered country does not easily guarantee any possibility of return to the affluent past or of the attainment of a decent future.
The narration opens and ends the film. The theme of survival still looms large, overriding the desire, definitely not for flesh, but for love, security, and trust.
A critique on the obviously ‘patriarchal’ representation in this film might be a bit out of place. After all, when the film was produced in 1964, even the major force of ‘feminist’ awareness did not spread all over Euramerica or strike the heart of the people. On the other hand, such a creative cinematic work like the film, forged as a social critique, does not merely unthinkingly assume some aspects of the gendered inequality prevalent in Japanese society. In fact, while highlighting certain feminized suffering, the film largely shapes women into extraordinarily strong, stubborn, invigorated, sometimes cheerful even sympathetic figures. Their catchy clothing in bright crimson, yellow, purple, and green, reveals their persistence and self-awareness as sex workers in a world of dog-eat-dog scenario. For them, the most shameless thing is not to screw for money, but to screw for something other than money. This harsh ‘moral code’ thus deprives these women of any notion of love, which they despise with disgust. It was this kind of harsh self-discipline that empower them and enable them to keep vigor and spirit to survive.
Yet when the runaway soldier Shin appears, pompously displaying his masculine ambition, mingled with non-compromise spirit, and anti-American guts, these daring women suddenly remind themselves of an existence that they no longer hope to find in the tumultuous competition of survival. Shin then assumes the king of the ruined building, the previously prostitute-only enclave of the cabal, as if announcing a return to the older norms of domesticity in which men are believed to be reliable and admirable.
The ‘elope’ plan of Maya and Shin awakened Sen’s sensibility as the guardian of the community and her dignity. Earlier she courted Shin but was rejected, while Maya was instead seen by the same man as a candidate of a wife. Sen was totally damaged even if she tried to claim she was ‘a woman, too.’ Shin does not believe her. Jealousy and humiliation urges Sen to reconcile with what she had known about survival: utopia is impossible, betrayal deserves punishment, and dependency on men represents self-decadency in this chaotic world. After all, according to her, it is men who lost the war. Sen thus initiates the action to destroy the last hope of ‘a normal union’ that Shin and Maya are struggling for, a union of a man from the dignified past, of the aspiration of family values (including chauvinist notions of women as truthful wives) and a woman of the dismantled past but of a new enlightenment of ‘love.’
Sen’s hatred might be the fiercest representation of a fury toward history, and an internalization of despair about the post-war reality. Sen was rendered goofy and worthless when she awkwardly approaches her ‘love’, Shin, something she had long rejected as unrealisitc indulgence in lights of her work ethic in this Hobbesian world. A reconsolidation of her world thus begins when she issues an order to hinder Maya and Shin’s elope plan. The transformation and return of Sen’s emotion fully represents an internalization of destruction and destructive maintenance, as she always lingers around the gate of flesh.
An interesting aspect of the foreign occupation in Japan is the role of a African-American priest. Unlike the exclusively white soldiers or MP, the priest has more emotional investment when he shows up in the film. However, the filmmaker seems to only make a ridicule on the effects of such a superficial, eternal assistance, whether it is defined from God or other alien forces. It simply has not ever entered the inner world of Maya, who senses and feels much more when she witnesses Machiko being punished to hanging and whipping in nudity by the elite whores for her wrong-doing: treating regular customers as husbands, forgetting sex needs to be maintained as strict business, and when she realizes the manly desire revealed from Shin toward Machiko, who is traditionally dressed in kimono and wooden sandals and who behaves demurely. The inner world of Maya is a battle between a realisitc ethos of survival and craving for stabilized prosperity and love, a fate flipped around breakdown and reconstruction.
Interestingly, when Machiko eventually obtains an opportunity to fulfill her long-awaited wish be a wife again, she recoils. It is not clear whether she is made a deeply lost soul for being stuck with a nostalgia of feminine domesticity, or she is already too damaged to carry out the reconstructive plan. At any rate, it makes sense that following this plot, Shin does not choose to run away with Machiko, but instead with Maya, the young Machiko.
The impossibility of a life of prosperity, affluence and love turns around with the theme of survival in the material life of Tokyo folks. But the more devastating force is evinced in the emotional mortification, set up starkly side by side with other seemingly fleshy contacts between food and body, revealed in the exaggerated visual focus on main characters’ expression of pain, struggle, hatred and pleasure. In general, hostility and cruelty is more lasting than any moments blissful or simply hopeful.
It is said that the cinema company originally just commissioned Seijun to shot a film in which naked female body would be expected to be whipped. Nevertheless, Seijun turned the film into one of much larger scope with much more stories to tell. Even if finally he was fired by the company.