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Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women

Four discs; Criterion Eclipse Series; $59.95

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant

This set collects some lesser-known features by the great Japanese director of Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu. Instead of lush period pieces, however, these four black & white films—Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936), Women of the Night (1948) and Street of Shame (1956)—have contemporary settings. The films all deal with prostitution, both the refined geisha kind and raw streetwalking. While understanding the traditional place prostitution plays in Japanese society, Mizoguchi also exposes the exploitation that dogs sex workers. The director treats his female characters with great respect for their resourceful responses to difficult circumstances. They certainly come off looking much better than the clueless, pitiful and imperious men around them. In Osaka Elegy, a woman starts an affair with her boss to help cover her family's debts, a decision that costs her a chance at a respectable marriage. The soft smoky visuals include an extended tracking shot showing the heroine restlessly pacing behind the gauze curtains of her apartment while waiting for her boyfriend to climb the stairs—it is worthy of Max Ophuls as his most fluid. Two sisters, one a traditionalist, the other more modern minded, must sell themselves to survive in Sisters of Gion. Made in the immediate post-war era, Women of the Night looks and feels like a Japanese version of Italian neorealism. Faced with shortages and the loss of their husbands, several women are driven to a desperate kind of prostitution in a blasted landscape full of rubble and grime. A social worker tries to salvage some of these lost women, but the prospects are bleak. A certain stability has returned by the mid-'50s of Street of Shame. A prosperous brothel caters to well-off businessmen; the women range from a hard-headed business type to a flashy new girl. The brothel owner lobbies against a measure to outlaw prostitution, asking his workers, "What's wrong with selling what you own?" Meanwhile, the women all ring up debts that will keep them trapped at the house. Marriage offers a possible out, but as one woman cynically comments: "Marriage is selling yourself at a monthly rate instead of a daily one." No extras.

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