December 12, 1964 [Gate of Flesh/Nikutai no mon]

Gate of Flesh is exhausting; the director, Seijun Suzuki, refuses to look on Creation and say "It is good." He has come upon it late in the day, long after the quiet promise of dawn--that day will follow dawn, until another dawn arrives--and another day follows that, and so on, until they are well-measured and long, balanced by steady revolutions of sun and moon. But now the indulged languor is gone, the hunger having peaked about mid-morning, and all promises are broken by lunchtime so that we can fill our bellies with meat, years of it.

Suzuki knows what it means to be hungry, not to have two yen to rub together. So the one he does have he fires in his garish melting pot and pours into his audience's ears, like Claudius with his brother Hamlet, a teaspoon of lava from the scarier part of "the deep heart’s core." This poison, though, wakes you up--OK, with a yelp and a groan; but you nonetheless have no doubt you’ve been poisoned: You're like Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. watching your death-clock--its face your very own--until you're out of time and you drop so fast that no one can break your fall.

The odd thing is, his characters--and his audience--in a queasy kind of way have some fun on the way down. We see post-War Japan through a scowl, with the Americans drunk and eating up everything in sight, then hanging in tatters from Tokyo's charred walls like movie posters, mocking with the promise of happy endings. And Suzuki's band of prostitutes create their own world, with its own code, like Plato's cave, in which the worst one wins. Suzuki even gives us color and a kind of humor, albeit as rough as the torture-punishments the prostitutes inflict on one another for falling in love (evidenced, of course, by doing it for free), but still with a crooked grin that ripples along the movie's surface, a sly Suzuki tickle, setting us up for the punch-line, but not without warning. Pie-eyed and feckless, the girls and their adopted tough guy, at least for a while, sing and joke, rough-house and tease--until, of course, the day goes on, and the bright primary colors they wear turn cheap, smearing easily and dripping like blood from a pulp-magazine dagger.

I’ll admit the whiff of a movie like this is both enticing and troubling, like something delicious burning. It’s the worst of the horror comic books, the spangled fits of a burlesque show--the women tired, hoping for an empty house--the rough-edged mouths of alien invaders and laughing drunks. Gate of Flesh may be instructive, but only if you want to dismantle stuff; this can be a good thing, especially with bombs and tyrannies. But it's nerve-wracking work, and there should be a good long stretch between jobs.


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