As the rather sordid title suggests, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame exists somewhere between melodrama and social polemic, with the director’s final film taking place in Tokyo’s 300-year-old Yoshiwara district. The Japanese title – Akasen Chitai – literally translates as the more matter-of-fact Red Light District, but Mizoguchi was as much a dramatist as he was a documentarian, and Street of Shame is an emotional experience that grounds its narrative within the context of the 1950s debate regarding the anti-prostitution bill. This was not the only occasion that Mizoguchi would focus on the lives of women forced to sell themselves for economic survival; Osaka Elegy (1936) tells the story of a telephone operator who becomes a mistress to her employer in order to settle family debts, while both Sisters of the Gion (1936) and A Geisha (1953) take place in brothels and observe the interactions between the women that work in such establishments. Although the director was particularly concerned about the plight of women in Japanese society, any material that dealt with the sex trade had additional personal significance for him; economic circumstances forced Mizoguchi’s parents to put his sister up for adoption, and she was subsequently sold as a geisha, explaining the director’s regular return to such subject matter. Street of Shame takes place almost entirely within the confines of the Floating World (licensed places for middle-class pleasure-seeking, such as brothels, tea house and theatres), tackling the issue of prostitution at a time when political parties were using their stance on the matter as a means of influencing electoral power.
The episodic narrative of Street of Shame devotes an equal amount of attention to each of the five women who work at a brothel called Dreamland. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is always the top earner, not only saving her money but lending it to her co-workers on the condition that it is paid back with interest, earning the nickname ‘Lady Shylock’ while also stringing along a local businessman who has made her a marriage proposal. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is struggling to support her family, which consists of a baby and a tuberculosis-ridden husband who is prone to suicidal impulses; they are constantly being threatened with eviction and, as the pressure of such familial responsibility becomes physically apparent, Hanae becomes less appealing to customers who prefer to spend time with younger courtesans. Yorie (Hiroka Machida) manages to marry a man who makes clogs for a living and is thrown a leaving party by her co-workers; however, she soon returns to Dreamland in a state of distress because her husband has simply expected her to be his servant. The older Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a ‘country bumpkin’ who moved to Tokyo years ago to provide for her son, but has recently discovered that he has also relocated to the big city; meeting him outside the toy factory where he has found work, Yumeko is rejected by her son who is ashamed of her profession. The youngest of the five is Mickey (Machiko Kyo), who has walked away from a relatively wealthy background due to a strained relationship with her father; she is always in debt, and borrows money from both Yasumi and Dreamland proprietor Mr Taya in order to make it through the month.
Mizoguchi was shooting Street of Shame while members of government councils were meeting to discuss passing an anti-prostitution bill, and the employees of Dreamland listen to summaries of these talks on the radio. There is a sense that Mizoguchi is documenting the beginning of the end in this area of the sex industry, not only in terms of its status as a legal enterprise, but also with regards to its rapidly declining professional standards. Looking back on the role of the geisha – perhaps through rose-tinted glasses – the maid comments, ‘In the old days, a high-ranked courtesan would be skilled in Japanese poetry, the way of tea, flower arrangement and even calligraphy’. However, the women who work at Dreamland do not seem to have cultivated any of these abilities, and often resort to desperately dragging their customers in from the streets. There is little professional code among these women of the night, with ‘you can steal anything you want except another girl’s customer’ being the only house rule that is mentioned, although even this one is broken when a regular patron of Dreamland decides to try a different girl. The younger generation of geisha is represented by the gum-chewing Mickey, an arrogant example of Westernisation who racks up debt around the district and moans about having to get up early. The slightly older and financially sensible Yasumi seems to be a more traditional geisha in both attitude and appearance, but is eventually revealed to be a master manipulator; her father has been jailed for extortion and she leads another man down the path that placed him behind bars in order to raise the bail money.
By mixing melodrama with social concern, Mizoguchi is able to follow five story strands while maintaining a world view that is consistently critical regardless of the individual outcomes. Yasumi actually has more progressive business sense than her employers as she eventually leaves Dreamland to take over the bedding and quilting shop that sells directly to the brothel; she has sold her body as a relatively swift solution to a family problem, but her newfound prosperity is certainly tinged with resentment. While the prudent Yasumi has an escape plan, and the spendthrift Mickey is happy to whittle away her earnings and self-respect, Hanea, Yorie and Yumeko want to leave the profession but do not have the means to do so. Although there are distinct differences between these women, they are united in their bitterness towards the individual circumstances that led them to Dreamland. Yasumu and Mickey blame a lack of parental responsibility in the respective areas of finance and marital faithfulness, while Hanae is frustrated that she and her husband could never earn enough money to live on despite being hard-working and Yorie’s illusions about marriage turn out to be just that, leaving her with little to live for. However, it is Yumeko who truly pays the price for her choice of profession; although she dislikes her work as much as the other women, she has willingly made the sacrifice in order to support her son and only wants to see him succeed, but his vehement refusal to allow her to be part of his life shatters Yumeko’s fragile sense of self, swiftly resulting in mental breakdown.
While discussing the anti-prostitution bill with the Mamasan (Sadako Sawamura), a policeman observes, ‘the government has to deal with public opinion’; this is what happened in Japan in 1956 as the anti-prostitution bill was finally passed, a legislative event that was partially attributed to audience response to Street of Shame. Mizugochi is typically sympathetic towards the women of Dreamland, but finds their profession unpleasant and considers their employers to be little more than exploitation merchants. Mr Taya may insist, ‘We are the ones who really care about you. We built this club so you can do business. That’s how you can make a living. We are compensating for work that the government overlooks. We’re social workers!’ but does so on several occasions in a pre-rehearsed manner, suggesting that this is less of a heartfelt social statement than it is a means of motivating his workforce. Yoshiwara is presented as a maze of squalid streets with customers and workers struggling to find their way out, while ToshirÃ´ Mayuzumi’s luridly off-kilter score adds a surreal element to the proceedings, emphasising that everyone in this district is on a downward spiral. The loss of Yasumi and Yumeko prompts the proprietor of Dreamland to take on a new worker, the virginal Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami), and Street of Shame ends with her induction as the Mamasan ensures that make-up is properly applied before sending her out to learn the trade. Based on the five lives that Mizugochi has explored, Shizuko has three options: save and buy her way out, live with no regard for tomorrow, or become shackled to the profession with dreams of normality remaining just that. Whichever path she chooses, Mizugochi makes it clear that the bitterness that is caused by such a loss of innocence is cruelly inevitable.