Street of Shame, 1956

The red light district of Yoshiwara in 1956 bears little resemblance to its evocative tradition as the place “where flowery courtesans, romantic and proud gloried in years gone by”. The government has waged an annual campaign to ban prostitution, but in the uncertainty and devastation of postwar Japan, it is a tragic and ignoble reality that women have turned to the streets for economic survival. At an establishment called Dreamland that proudly displays a euphemistic “Cafe and Tea Parlor Association” placard, the joyless lives and faded dreams of five women intersect. The widow, Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), has entrusted her son to his grandparents in the province and is rarely able to visit him, ashamed of her disreputable profession. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is a resourceful, manipulative young woman who uses her influence on men for personal gain. Hanae (Michiko Kogure) is a mother burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family when her husband loses his job. Mickey (Machiko Kyo) is an unsentimental young woman whose extravagant lifestyle perpetuates her indebtedness to the proprietors of Dreamland. Yorie (Hiroko Machida) is a hopeless romantic who dreams of settling into a tranquil, domestic life, and fondly shows off her prized collection of kitchen tools to her coworkers. However, with the increasing momentum of the anti-prostitution bill, the women find their allegiances tested by economic necessity and personal conscience.

Kenji Mizoguchi creates an elegant, poignant, and unsentimental portrait of adversity and human resilience in Street of Shame. Using the recurrent imagery of rectangular compositions, Mizoguchi reflects the estrangement and social isolation of the tragic heroines: Yumeko borrows money from the calculating Yasumi through a slight opening in a privacy screen; Mickey’s interview with the proprietor is shown through a wall opening; Yumeko avoids seeing her son and watches through structural beams as Hanae sends him away; the haunting image of Yumeko singing a melancholy ballad by the stairs. In the end, what emerges is a self-perpetuating, tragic cycle of exploitation and personal disappointment – a lonely and painful existence inexorably bound to the physical compromise of the body – a desperate struggle to retain a vestige of purity within the human soul.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.