It took the full-throttle wackiness of Branded to Kill to get Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu Studio for making “incomprehensible films,” though the motto of Japan’s New Wave gonzo-maverick has always been “Fuck lucidity!” No fragmented or psychedelic stone was left unturned in Suzuki’s genre demolition jobs, yet Story of a Prostitute finds the director in a more somber, relatively narrative-friendly (if no less delirious) mood. Indeed, the plot’s emphasis on women selling their bodies while trying to hang on to their souls might point toward the sublimely spiritual cinema of Kenji Mizoguchi, even if nobody will confuse Suzuki’s style with serene classicism. Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), “prostitute, harlot, strumpet,” is introduced confronting the new wife of a beloved john while a wedding portrait flickers grainily in the split-screen foreground, moments before bloodily biting into the duplicitous beau’s lip. From there, it’s on to a military outpost in the Manchurian front, where she is to join the other “comfort girls” in servicing the Japanese forces during the Sino-Japanese War. She immediately becomes truculent Lt. Narita’s (Isao Tamagawa) preferred object of abuse, but escape may lie in her affair with sensitive, dog-loyal Mikami (Tamio Kawachi), Narita’s toadying subordinate.
“I don’t understand! I only know your body!” Harumi howls at Mikami during their frantic first bout of lovemaking, yet to Suzuki the narrative’s (and, by extension, society’s) various tensions can only be exorcised through intense physical contact. Women (and, more specifically, whores) have often been the bearers of wartime traumas in Suzuki’s Japan, and the heroine’s seduction of the young soldier at first is just a way to turn her tormentor “to pieces”—at one point literalized on the screen, Narita’s image shredded in a remarkable example of Suzuki’s disjunctive lyricism. As her feelings for Mikami grow, however, she becomes determined to pierce through his militarist armor and, in another flight-of-fancy stunner, tries to rouse his rebellion by racing to the adjutant’s bed, kimono dropped as the screen becomes drenched in atomized brightness. It’s typical of Suzuki’s subversion that the couple’s breathless amour fou ultimately becomes far less irrational than the institutionalized madness (military occupation, war, imperial codes of honor) swirling around them.
Yet those solely familiar with the director’s brand of yakuza cartooning will be taken back by the midway shift from carnal to spiritual, as a lateral tracking shot rushes along with Harumi through a battlefield and into the trenches where her wounded lover lies, the explosions suddenly silenced—a moment of emotional incandescence out of Frank Borzage. The original source, Taijiro Tamura’s pulp novel (previously shot in 1950, with an Akira Kurosawa screenplay), is a clear-cut anti-war tract, though Suzuki’s societal autopsy delves deeper and bleaker; despite a short-lived idyll at a Buddhist sanctuary, the couple’s happiness is shaken not so much by battleground shelling as by the soldier’s inability to rebel against an oppressive code that isn’t above manufacturing “honorable deaths in combat” in order to keep its pernicious purity ideals untainted. Like fellow ’60s firebrands Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, Suzuki understands the political power of transgressive behavior, and it is part the film’s sense of tragedy that not even a war-torn Liebestod can shake the foundations of unquestioning obedience. Perhaps more than any other Suzuki effort, Story of a Prostitute dissolves the splashy surface to reveal the disillusioned social agitator underneath.