Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1956)

I suppose you know what you’re in for with “Street of Shame” right from the opening credits, which features a camera pan of a slummy part of the city set to some very bizarre music (I think I even heard a theremin in there…), as we’re getting set up for the uneasy and uncannily disconcerting lives of a group of prostitutes occupying a whorehouse.  That music, and later some of the ominous lighting and settings and cinematography further the notion that the lives of these women are completely outside the normal world, and are strange and unnatural ones.  Hell, at one point a scene in which the women bid farewell and present gifts to one of their own who’s making the transition to married life, in which pretty much nothing out of the ordinary happens, is presented with that same ominous, surreal music, and all of a sudden a scene of a seemingly normal farewell takes on a nearly supernatural tone.  You’ll see scenes like this one dispersed throughout “Street of Shame,” and yet, those scenes, and those eerie opening credits, are kinda misleading, because when all was said and done I was surprised at how realistic and filled with genuine human emotion this film was, especially after the orgy of tragic melodrama known as “The Life of Oharu.”  Mizoguchi’s final film may have been the most grounded in reality of any of his that I’ve seen thus far.

Sure, Dreamland is a somewhat grim place and sorta has that air of surreal hopelessness, emphasized by this crooked angle or that low angle, but otherwise, the women in this place are far from the sex objects a place like Dreamland would advertise them as: they’re fully realized people with real problems and real desires both inside and outside of Dreamland.  For sure, they’re more fully realized than any character I ever figured a filmmaker like Mizoguchi could come up with.  There’s the woman who proves to be incredibly savvy as a moneylender, the one trying to conceal her occupation from her teenage son, the one who has to prostitute herself to support her depressed husband and infant child, the spoiled and debt-ridden newcomer Mickey, and other women who all weave a seamless tapestry within and without the confines of Dreamland.  Yeah, I might sound insensitive or careless at not having been able to remember any of these characters by name other than Mickey, but frankly that might actually be one of this film’s strengths, that they all come together and are one character in and of themselves.  Otherwise, they’d be separate, and they’d be stereotypes, and character clichés.  Sure the film is somewhat episodic in nature giving each of these women’s stories plenty of separate screen time, but I found that they all came together into a unified whole of general unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams, so that that universal theme was more important than plot or plots alone. 

Also, despite each woman getting plenty of screen time so that they’re all pretty well fleshed out, we only get snippets and hints of their individual stories, so that no one woman’s story outdoes the other – they feel incomplete to us, as we meet them right in the midst of this crisis or that moral quandary with really no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, which makes them all the more real and sympathetic.  Sure there’s cliché and hammy performances and melodrama – this is a Mizoguchi film, after all – but the way these arcs are just so fitting for each woman and the way they come together makes you look past that.  Mickey, for example, seems like the least realistic of all the girls and more like comic relief than anything in just how spoiled she is, throwing money at clothes and jewelry galore and blowing off the more experienced women of Dreamland, but even her story comes full-circle when she encounters her father and, in a rage after hearing news about her mother, tries to seduce him.  It’s a horrifying and sad moment, made even more horrifying because you can almost read it as being funny, seeing as how it involves the film’s by-default comic relief.  Other scenes, like a character’s descent into madness and another’s suicide attempt, probably do go overboard with the melodrama and veer from the roots of realism that the film had sown to this point, but work because of, of all things, the technical qualities – the dreary sets and even drearier lighting and the static camera that, other than a few expressionistic angles here and there, remains unobtrusive and lets the actors and their performances take center stage, for instance.  It may not be the height of realism, but boy is there an air of despair that’s absolutely palpable. 

Despair, but also a hint of hope in just how dynamic these women are, and how determined they are to survive and to even thrive within the station that life’s given them.  A big subplot in this film that’s never really addressed directly but rather talked and whispered about abundantly as it lies in the background is the ongoing government debate on a potential law outlawing prostitution, which of course would leave these women in quite a predicament.  Despite this, “Street of Shame” never really takes a side in the debate over the benefits and detriments of prostitution – we’re shown how these women are often treated like dirt and like meat by their lascivious customers, yet it’s the only way they know of to support themselves and their families.  I’ve always liked those kinds of films in which those with out-of-the-ordinary professions or stations in life band together and form a strange kind of solidarity and family structure – the wrestlers in “The Wrestler,” the boxers in “The Set-Up”, the, umm, freaks in “Freaks”  … “Street of Shame”’s women often only look out for themselves (and in fact there is a good amount of backstabbing), but that sense of camaraderie and having to band together is there at least to a certain extent.  That’s where the sense of hope comes from in this film, in celebrating the will of these women to endure and to keep going…and yet the final image involving the previous new girl Mickey and the NEW new girl is quite haunting (albeit a bit too much on the overly-melodramatic and melo-ominous side) and does seem to condemn the life of a prostitute and lament what appears to be an endless cycle of misery and degradation.  This film takes both sides, and neither side in the debate, but ultimately, the debate over that heady issue proves irrelevant – the more or less three-dimensional lives of these women who just happen to share this particular profession are what matter.  They don’t live happily ever after, or very happily period, but they survive, so there’s that inkling of hope in the world’s oldest profession after all.


3 comments so far

  1. olof on

    look, he’s trying to think…

  2. Simon M. on

    if you’re referring to Agent Rosenfield mocking Sheriff Truman, I believe he said “look IT’S trying to think.” Get it, ‘cuz he was trying to insinuate that Sheriff Truman and all his country bumpkin folk are sub-human, hence the ‘it’s’ rather than the ‘he’s.’ GOD…

  3. Bill Bartmann on

    Excellent site, keep up the good work

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