Shiroi yajuu / White Beast (1950)

6 03 2013

Mikio Naruse’s best films are ones begging to be revisited. One could say that this film, 1950’s White Beast is a film that begs multiple viewings as well, but it’s not because it’s a masterpiece. If anything, this film is a complete mess, one that conflates a social problems film with a completely sensational project more fitting to a more exploitative director. There’s an overbearing score and some obviously noir-inspired visual flourishes, making this film quite unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. There are moments where he achieves a poetry that is remarkable as anything in his more acclaimed films, and he flirts with making some actually progressive statements, but the whole thing is more of a fascinating misstep.

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Yukawa, a presumed sex worker, is sent to a women’s rehabilitation facility. As the facility’s personnel explain, she’s not there against her will but she will be arrested and sent to jail if she tries to leave. Yukawa’s arrival works as something of a launching point, as her more refined clothes and fancy haircut bothers the other women in the facility. Yukawa develops an interest in one of the rehab’s staff members, Nakahara, who is an outside doctor. Yukawa gets close to Nakahara but it’s only with the intention of learning the extent of Nakahara’s relationship with Izumi, who serves as the director of the entire facility.

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The drama that comes from the main protagonist, Yukawa, serves as something of a traditional main plot line, but Naruse weaves in multiple stories about several different women within the institution and with doing so, he doesn’t seem to unfairly divide his sympathies. Indeed, the strongest and most charismatic character is Yukawa, who is something of a fireball. She’s a femme fatale but she’s been stripped of her place in society and demoted to the ranks of the other sex workers in the film, who we are to presume come from a lower economic standing in Japan. This is where things start to get interesting with the film, while it does present its arguments under the umbrella of liberating sex workers, it takes on other contexts as the story unfolds.

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Perhaps the most oppositional of these contexts in the implication of Yukawa’s homosexuality. Her interactions with Nakahara are eventually framed as being faked for a chance to get closer to Izumi, but the early sequences between them are convincing that Yukawa was completely interested in Nakahara from the very beginning. Sure, we get her seducing Izumi but not after her own proclaimation that she’s “not sick” – a reference to her profession before she joined the institution. Additionally, Yukawa explains her disgust with her sisters or inmates by comparing their antics to that of childish men, and she delivers a big blow towards the film’s end when she declares “I just can’t stand the hypocrisy of men.” Considering the conditions, Naruse probably never intended such a story but these moments should be considered, especially when they’re woven with the melodramatic fibers as they are here. This is the sort of film Parker Tyler would have loved.

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As one might be able to deduce from what I’ve written so far, a lot of the film is driven by the Yukawa character. The performance by Miura Mitsuko might not be close to the usual high-standards in a Naruse film, but it is indeed memorable, albeit in a different fashion. The scene where she attempts to seduce Izumi (played by the legendary So Yamamura) borders on being comical as Mitsuko wiggles around on her bed in a desperate attempt to be sexy. It comes off as pathetic, but that might be the film’s intention. She’s become so conditioned to seduce, as a means for money, that she has worked it into her own life as a means of performing her femininity for a man she has a crush on. It fails and this is not a surprise, because there isn’t any way we’re going to see a filmmaker reward the tortured past of a prostitute in 1950. Her failure in seducing Izumi directly relates to her profession, as Izumi shows an interest in the more respectable Nakahara, who has the most acceptable profession, one in medicine.

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I think there’s something to be said about the class distinctions between the sex workers and the doctor, Naruse seems very much concious of the fact that the doctor achieved her position starting in a more privileged background. We understand simply by the way the inmates dress that they’re coming from the bottom of the economic pool. Here’s another oppositional reading but one that gives the film it’s most progressive tilt: the institution itself is a metaphor for a patriarchal society. It claims to be protecting the women and helping them, but it pressures them to turn against each other and in one instance, it enables one of the members to be raped by her boyfriend. This sequence in particular is disturbing even as Naruse shows little. This is because Izumi tells the women in question that her boyfriend is probably sorry and that he really loves her. The cycle of abuse continues to turn thanks to the push of the institution’s director, who certainly doesn’t seem like an evil guy but such a sequence announces something more disgusting brewing underneath.

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This is all taking some liberty with the story, which is mostly meant to being nothing more than sensational and stylish. Perhaps the last theory explained is going a little bit too fair but I think even within such salacious territory, Naruse very much knows what he’s doing. The film’s most wonderful moment is one of Naruse’s loudest from an ideological perspective. Some corporate gentlemen arrives at the institution to give the women a speech about their damned profession. He says that it’s not worth the money, and that it’s better to starve than to bring down all of Japanese womanhood. Yukawa breaks out in laughter and asks, “and who are our customers? You are! And your sons!” It’s a powerful moment and argument, perhaps the brightest moment in a film that struggles to find a perspective. It’s not Naruse’s most affecting work, but moments like this one make it a vital one.

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