Akasen Chitai

Akasen Chitai (aka Streets of Shame) (1956)

Akasen Chitai (aka Streets of Shame) first published by Film4, 9 June 2008

Summary: Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film examines the state of prostitution in Japan at a time of shifting mores.

Review: “For all the high moral purpose – they tell us this film was made as propaganda in the campaign to ban legal prostitution in Japan – it does some old-fashioned leering and lip-licking over the girls, and it makes as good a case for prostitution as a relief for unemployment as it makes against.”

This is what Bosley Crowther of the New York Times had to say of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Akasen Chitai (aka Streets of Shame) upon its eventual American release in June 1959, some three years after it was made. In a dyspeptic piece from a critic who clearly preferred Mizoguchi’s period classics, Crowther did not mean his words kindly, but in fact he has pinpointed rather precisely one of the great virtues in this tale of vice: its studied ambivalence towards organised prostitution, at a time when Japanese attitudes towards the trade were radically shifting. 

Set during the fourth promulgation (and collapse) of an Anti-Prostitution Bill, Akasen Chitai was released two months before the Bill’s fifth and final parliamentary appearance in 1956, and was widely credited with its successful passage through the Diet – but the truth is that Mizoguchi’s remarkably balanced film offers ‘propaganda’ for both sides of the argument. This might have something to do with the director’s own mixed feelings towards the traffic in women. As a boy he saw his older sister Suzu sold off to a geisha house, and knew it was her sacrifices that funded his education and future – but as an adult he was himself a notorious frequenter of brothels and consumer of prostitutes. This was a man who knew inside-out the highs and the lows, the passions and the perils, of the skin trade – and all these contradictions find their way into his film.

In the ironically named Dreamland establishment in Tokyo’s red-light Yoshiwara district, the work of four very different women is driven by the same economic imperative. The eldest, Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), entered prostitution after her husband died, in order to pay for her beloved son’s upbringing – but now that she is near retirement and her son has reached adulthood, she just disgusts him. Single, aging Yorie (Hiroko Machida) cannot make a living in any other line, and hopes to settle down with one of her regular clients. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) turns tricks to support her laid-off, tubercular husband and their baby. The youngest, and Dreamland’s best earner, is Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), whose life has been ruined making bail for her corrupt father, but who, unlike the others, has a sound business plan to make the most of her situation. Then the four are joined by newcomer Mickey (Machiko Kyo), a ‘hardboiled as hell’ good-time girl in western dress whose hedonistic attitude and brassy insouciance mask a troubled home life.        

Setting the melodrama of these women’s stories against the social realist backdrop of contemporary Tokyo’s sex trade, Mizoguchi delineates his characters’ predicaments with great compassion, and never glamorises their work – but at the same time as he suggests that prostitution is hardly an ideal solution to their problems, he is also keen to illustrate the lack of alternatives. The film’s real target is the failures of Japan’s welfare system and the hypocrisies of Japan’s patriarchy (the latter embodied by Mickey’s ‘respectable’ father, played by Toranosuke Ogawa). The film’s strongest defence of legalised brothels, coming from the lips of the brothel’s proprietor Kurazo (Eitaro Shindo) with his clear vested interest, is certainly ironised, but it also receives some support from the desperate circumstances of the five principal characters – and Kurazo and his wife the madam Tatsuka (Sadako Sawamura) are themselves portrayed with considerable sympathy rather than simply being demonised as exploiters. 

This, and the film’s overall conflict of feelings towards prostitution, are perhaps best illustrated by the pair of scenes with which Akasen Chitai ends. In the first, both Kurazo and Tatsuka are shown wholeheartedly supporting Yasumi in her move away from their business – in a way that her real parents never did. In the second, Tatsuka is shown dressing and grooming young Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami) for her defloration and initiation into sex for sale. It is maternal conduct of the most sinister kind, reflecting the faultlines in the national ‘family’ as it faces both the continuities and changes of an increasingly westernised post-war Japan. 

Entirely as a matter of accident, Akasen Chitai was to be Mizoguchi’s last film; for the director was struck down by leukæmia a few months later, while in preparation for his next project. Even if, however, it was never intended as a crowning summation of his career, it seems a fitting final word from a man whose films, and whose life, were so often engaged with the commodification of women – while the choice of Toshiro Mayuzumi’s discordant, part-electronic score points to a new, experimental direction for Mizoguchi’s work, alas never to be fully realised. This unexpected swansong seamlessly interweaves its different storylines into a compellingly bleak portrait of both organised prostitution and the social conditions that make it possible, or even necessary. 

strap: Kenji Mizoguchi’s final melodrama looks frankly at the economic and social conditions of sex work in a rapidly changing Japan

Anton Bitel