Shunpu den (Story of a Prostitute) (1965)

 

 

 

Director:     Seijun Suzuki. 

Starring:    Yumiko Nogawa (Harumi), Tamio Kawaji (Shinkichi Mikami), Hiroshi Ch˘ (Shibata), Eimei Esumi (Machida), Jűkei Fujioka (Kimura), Kotoe Hatsui (Tsuyuko), Kazuko Imai (Sachiko), Tomiko Ishii (Yuriko), Sokoto Kasai, Kayo Matsuo (Midori), Midori Mori (Takako), Sh˘ichi Ozawa (Akiyama), Toshio Sugiyama, Kaku Takashina (Makita), Isao Tamagawa (Narita).

Country:     Japanese with English subtitles.

black and white film

love story set during Sino-Japanese War between a soldier and a comfort woman

 

This is a very good movie.  It is set during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  Harumi is a young woman who, after a failed love relationship, volunteers as a "comfort woman" to service hundreds of Japanese soldiers on the Manchurian Front. 

Harumi is getting along fine in her new job, but the brutal Lieutenant Narita takes her as more or less his own.  The Lieutenant likes to be abusive to the young prostitute and order her around.  She is infuriated with Lt. Narita and decides to seduce the sensitive and virginal Mikami, an aide to Narita, to help her ruin the Lieutenant.  This task, however, is difficult because Mikami is devoted to the Japanese military code of honor that demands absolute obedience to a military order. 

As Harumi works on seducing Mikami, she soon falls in love with him.  Mikami is ever-resistant to her charms, but, after a great amount of attention from Harumi, falls in love with her.  But how are the two lovers to overcome all the obstacles in their way: Mikami's over-devotion to the Japanese military code and the Lieutenant's negative reactions to the relationship (including sending Mikami to the front to die an honorable death). 

All this is set against the background of war, with the Japanese having to face the Hachiro army. 

There are several interesting elements to the story:  the eroticism of the young prostitute, her near-obsession with Mikami and the inhumane Japanese code of military honor. 

 

Some Interesting Insights from the Director's and Critics' Comments on the Movie:  

Spoiler Warning:  This tells more than you may want to know before watching the movie. 

 

In his early days as a director, Seijun Suzuki was working in the Japanese film industry when it was making some 500 films annually.  The films were divided into A and B pictures.  Suzuki was a director of B films for Nikkatsu Studios:  working with second-tier actors and making movies according to the scripts provided by the studio.  The critics only dealt with A pictures, those by directors such as Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953), Kenji Mizoguchi and the great Kurosawa.  Therefore, they did not review the films of Seijun Suzuki.   

But in the 1960s, the culture loosened up somewhat and critics started dealing more with B movies.  Suzuki said that he was swimming with the current of the times (or he happened to be in the current).    He dealt not so much with traditional Japanese culture with its formal ways, but with another aspect of Japanese culture, the very disorderly and grotesque.  Suzuki takes these more informal aspects of Japanese culture and turns them into things of beauty on screen.  In the case of the Story of a Prostitute, Suzuki took an ordinary studio script and made it into a powerful, moving story. 

The movie was based on a story by Taijiro Tamura, a soldier during the Sino-Japanese War.  It had already been made into a successful film, the romantic Escape at Dawn, with a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and directed by Senkichi Taniguchi.  But that older film did not have the freedom that was available in the 1960s:  for instance, the women were musical entertainers in that film, instead of comfort prostitutes.  In Story of a Prostitute, the male star is bound by the military code, making him struggle internally with between his honor and his love for a woman.  

Suzuki himself had fought during the Second Sino-Japanese War and had experiences with comfort women and the story in the movie jives with his own personal encounters.  The sexual exploits of the soldiers on the front were portrayed unflinchingly, while the prostitutes were portrayed as survivors rather than immoral or tragic figures. 

The films shows the insanity and ludicrousness of those who got carried away by the war and who became victims of the Japanese military code.  (Of course, compared to American culture, the Japanese culture of the warrior code was seen by the Americans as insanity anyway.)   

Suzuki remarked that training and discipline in a Japanese squad were just horrible and yet, no matter how badly you were treated, as a soldier you always had to obey every order (or be sent to the detention block).  But even so, there were always a few who resisted the tyranny of the code.  His own view of war isn't that it is so brutal, but that it is so comically absurd.  In his war experience, there were always these moments of men doing things so absurd that they were funny (such as running in the very direction from where the American bombs were falling or risking one's life to rescue a lunch box as if it were something priceless).  

At first, most Japanese critics did not like the film.  It was considered very shocking.  They did not like the shocking portrayals of some of the brutal aspects of Japanese culture of that time.  They accused the direct of exploiting the erotic and grotesque for a profit.  But Suzuki made the right decisions that stand the test of time.  The Japanese after the Second World War rallied around pacifism and rejected the warrior cult of the Japanese military.  Certainly, the brutal, hateful warrior code has not withstood the test of time.

A note on double suicide:  in Japan double suicide has come to be seen as the ultimate crystallization of love.  Double suicide is not a sin in any form for the Japanese.  Rather, it is seen as something beautiful and Japanese movie-goers are not disappointed with a movie that ends in a double suicide. 

    

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 


Historical Background:

 

The Second Sino-Japanese War

 

Japan wanted to control eastern Asia.  One of the goals was to take China. Japan created various so-called "China Incidents" that were blamed on China to cover the Japanese plant to occupy China.  

1931  --  invasion of Manchuria by Japan (provoked by the spurious Mukden Incident).

1937  --  the official beginning of full-scale war between Japan and China (provoked by the false Marco Polo Bridge Incident). 

1937-1945  --  the Second Sino-Japanese War was fought between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan.

1937-1941  --  China fought Japan alone.

1941 (December 7)  --  after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Second Sino-Japanese War merged into World War II. 

1945  --  the surrender of Japan ended the Second Sino-Japanese War.   

 

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