Story of a Prostitute (1965)
by Seijun Suzuki
Criterion Collection #299
This will be 40th post labeled "Japanese Literature" on this blog. I think maybe 2 of those posts are about books, so I might as well change the label to "Japanese film." Out of all the directors I've watched, Seijun Suzuki is probably my favorite on the strength of his anarchic b-movies like Branded to Kill (1967.) I suppose, at some level, it is possible to connect the somber pre-World War II melodrama Story of a Prostitute with the crazy crime noir Suzuki would turn out later in the 1960s, but that level is not the films have a similar feel, style or look.
Story of Prostitute is about a volunteer(!) comfort woman serving in Manchuria (northern China) during the Japanese invasion of that area, prior to the start of our World War II. Comfort Women are still in the news in the twentieth century, but only in the form of Korean women who were forced to serve as comfort women later during the period of Japanese military aggression in the mid 20th century. Harumi(played by Yomiko Nogawa) is a Japanese prostitute who signs up as a comfort woman to spite a wealthy client who had falsely promised marriage.
Serving in the occupied territory of Manchuria, she is torn between the overbearing Lieutenant Narita (winningly portrayed by Isao Tamagawa) and the bookish Private Mikami (Tamio Kimachi.) Anyone who has watched any of the Japanese films involving prostitutes and their lives in various periods of Japanese history will not be surprised to learn that it does not end well for Harumi.
The source material- a Tajiro Tamura was a critical look at Japanese culture as well as a tragic love story, but its easy to see how the critical perspective on Japanese military culture might be missed or "lost in the translation" between cultures. The aggressive pre-war Japanese military culture stands somewhere between the way the English feel about their empire and the way the Germans feel about the Nazis- a complicated attitude to be sure.