Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#298: Gate of Flesh

(Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

With all progress comes inadvertent negative effects. In film, the move towards auteurism has been rightly hailed as a major development with almost universally positive results for artists and filmgoers alike. However, the ability of talented directors to work outside of the contract system has rendered films like Gate of Flesh archaic, nearly impossible to recreate.

Seijun Suzuki's notorious run with Nikkatsu meant he was forced to make films regardless of his opinion of the material. Like many contract Hollywood directors before him, Suzuki chose to make the most of his situation and undermine the simplistic intentions of his employer at every turn. What the script for Gate of Flesh provided for him was notably less than the finished product.

In fact, the studio merely wanted a soft-core sexploitation flick, the kind of film that would have been set in a women's prison in America. Here, it's bombed-out Tokyo after World War II as a defeated and occupied Japan barely scrapes by, struggling through the hard times before the boom of the 50s and 60s. The story - about a gang of prostitutes trying to maintain their sanity - is a minor one, infused with melodramatic character backgrounds and ordinary arcs that seem overly familiar for 1964 let alone today.

But there's nothing ordinary about Suzuki's work. There's no doubt in my mind that Suzuki's films had a huge influence on Nobuhiko Obayashi when he made House, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gate of Flesh specifically was in regular rotation in the crew's screening room. There's so much here that is bursting with ideas, from the color-coordinated girls to the various superimposed profiles that appear to be in the same frame but slowly fade from view. Then there are the sets - gorgeous, colorful, surreal sets (created under a tight budget with discarded wood on the Nikkatsu lot) - that are unmistakably theatrical, but somehow make the film's characters seem all the more vivid. It creates a film that is constantly at war with itself - struggling to burst out of its typicality - which oddly makes the story much more powerful because the characters themselves are trying to achieve the same thing.

This battle is probably also true of Suzuki's later Nikkatsu masterpieces, Youth of the Beast and Tokyo Drifter, but the gangster genre lends itself so much to the studio system (and on a personal level, I just happen to enjoy it so much more) that I don't notice the dichotomy as much. That makes Gate of Flesh a sort of intellectual exercise in pre-auteur film history class - one that highlights the law of unintended consequences.

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