Killing in Yoshiwara (1960)

2 02 2008

On the surface, this may seem to be an early example of the Japanese exploitation films that would become very popular about five years later. In fact, this film occasionally feels like Seijun Suzuki’s own interpretation, if only for the technicolor cinematography and the presence of some sleazy elements. However, past the surface, this is still very much a Tomu Uchida film. His compassion towards his character and the issues they face, is handled delicately and his semi-cynical humor is as apparent as ever. Still, I’d be lying if I said this was on the same level as Uchida’s own Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji.

Sano, a wealthy silk merchant, has it all financially, but a scar on his face has crippled his love life. On a trip to Yoshiwara, he meets Otsuru, the only prostitute willing to spend time with him. As an ex-convict, she is also looked down upon by her peers. Sano realizes that she may be the only woman who isn’t disgusted by him and he invests almost all his money into setting her free. The feeling is not mutual, Otsuru is using Sano’s money to begin a new life with her husband, a man whose existence is unknown to Sano.

Tomu Uchida is, once again, delicate in establishing his character and once again, he makes the occasional violent outbursts have real emotional repercussions. He also structures the action sequence – in relation to the rest of the narrative – in the same way as Bloody Spear but both instances are spread out and paced in a way that when the fights do start, they usually feel spontaneous. I might even go as far as to say that the motivations for violent acts are completely warranted but it might sound like I have some issues myself.

If I do have one particularly large problem with this film it’s that Uchida has begun to oversimplify characterization. From the moment Otsuru appears on the screen, it’s made very clear that she is deceitful. When we see Sano, we are suppose to immediately sympathasize with him – he’s lonely, old, honest and giving. The film unintentionally implies that if you are a nice person, mean people will come and take advantage of you. Once one thinks about it more, Otsuru’s intentions seem quite rationale. A rich old guy comes along willing to give you everything, society has taught you that he is an awful person, and without his help, you’ll be stuck becoming a nobody. Uchida doesn’t give this point of view much thought.

Perhaps it’s good that this is considered to be one of his lesser, yet (ironically) more easily obtainable, films. Otherwise, his reputation as a liberal humanist might be thrown into question (at least by me) by such a lack of female characterization. Then again, Sano’s response to her at the end of the film doesn’t look particularly noble. I guess it’s a testament to Uchida’s skill as a filmmaker that his adaptation of an old kabuki play can make someone ponder so much.

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