“To the country which doesn’t allow ideals, farewell.”
Seijun Suzuki has always been one to defy expectations, consistently bending conventions to the breaking point and Story of a Prostitute is no exception. In fact, it’s his most straight-forward narrative, only occasionally deviating from formula to indulge in some experimental editing. The film lacks Suzuki’s characteristic camp and is a surprisingly somber experience – no less relevant and entertaining however. The clash of nationalism and individual right is the central theme of this piece and Suzuki presents it in the most subversive way imaginable. It is a criticism of an oppressive despotic convention that is more concerned with retaining a “moralistic” image than providing quality of life for the people involved. Here, Suzuki portrays the appalling fate of those who obey unconditionally; there is no freedom in unquestioning loyalty and never trust anyone who demands it.
The titular character is Harumi, a prostitute for Japanese soldiers in China during World War II. This is such a well-developed character who expresses a wide-range of emotions; a true individual that Suzuki has crafted here. There are occasions where she screams in anguish and Suzuki portrays it in slow-motion as if her blood-curdling cries were not enough to convey the dire situation she is in. Jilted by her lover, she embarks on a fatalistic journey born by defiance and self-destruction. She is “commandeered” by Lieutenant Narita who rapes and abuses her physically and psychologically. She meets Private Mikami who looks at her differently from the others, partially out of his supposed love for her but mostly out of his sense of nationalism – he will not allow her to become a distraction from his duties. He is a respectable man but has been brainwashed beyond the point of return. Her refusal to accept this is a recurring conflict in the story. At one point she screams at him, “I only know your body!” Mikami is incapable of contradicting Narita’s will. He disagrees with it but he ignores his own individuality – Harumi cannot understand this. Another notable character in the film is Private Uno; fond of reading philosophy and demoted for antimilitary ideas, he is constantly being railed on by Sergeant Akiyama, a Narita clone bent on tyrannical dominion over those beneath his rank. Uno’s side story is very interesting as he ends up being the only character in the film to have rejected Japanese traditionalism and lived to enjoy it. Indeed, Uno and Harumi are very similar characters. Both refuse to be brainwashed by their superiors and this is very rare.
There are some wonderfully experimental excursions Suzuki descends down, such as a still image of Lieutenant Narita literally being torn apart on-screen as if Harumi enacted some kind of telekinetic revenge in her mind’s eye. Also, the unique way he uses extreme slow-motion, heightening the effect of a tense moment almost to the point of being unbearable. There’s also an unforgettable scene where Harumi rushes towards incoming enemy fire at night towards Mikami who’s been wounded in a trench, abandoned by his comrades. This is Suzuki at his most gut-wrenching and war at its most harrowing.
It’s certainly Suzuki’s most tragically realistic character studies and arguably his greatest and most mature film. Shot in stark black and white, the isolation and hopelessness felt by the characters is clearly communicated to the audience with the gritty harshness of a Haneke film. One can feel Suzuki’s personal investment in this film because of the sheer brutality that is often offset with dark humour in his other films. There is no gimmickry here; it is a brief glimpse into Suzuki’s world where relief is horrifyingly absent.