Yasujiro Ozu’s Kaze no naka no mendori—in the States, A Hen in the Wind—and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Yoru no onnatachi might be considered film sisters; both are from 1948, both address Japan’s postwar socioeconomic devastation, one in Tokyo, the other in Osaka, as reflected in the protagonist’s dip or slip into prostitution, and both (brilliantly) star Kinuyo Tanaka, who was named best actress at Mainichi Film Concours for both performances.
Mizoguchi’s gut-wrenching film, drawn from a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, interweaves the fates of three girls or women, two of them sisters, all who become prostitutes. Tanaka plays Fusako Owada, who loses both husband and son to illness (I presume to divert censorship from U.S. occupiers); her experience and that of the other two include rape, gang beatings, syphilis, and a newborn’s death. Unlike other films by Mizoguchi, this one bears the influence of Italian neorealism.
The film is stark, brutal. At the last, a swarm of sister prostitutes descend like Furies upon Fusako, assaulting her with slaps and belt amidst war’s rubble at night, when she decides to risk leaving their shared life behind. The situation is ironic; it is doubtful, despite her aspirations, that she will be able to survive once she has gone “straight.” But the other prostitutes are moved to bash her for even offering them the affront of trying to do so when they remain mired in such hopelessness. It is a betrayal; their solidarity is the only shield they possess against the terribleness of their lives. The imagery compounds the irony; in the background is a stained-glass depiction of the Virgin Mary and her infant Jesus. Belonging to a bombed-out church, it suggests that Buddhist Japan no longer felt it could call its soul its own.
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