Seijun Suzuki on the set of Gate of Flesh (a.k.a. Nikutai no mon), 1964
To put things simply, Gate of Flesh is one of Seijun Suzuki’s greatest films and without a doubt one of the best films produced in Japan in 1964.
Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter, Youth of the Beast, etc.) shot Gate of Flesh for Nikkatsu studios at the time as an “adult film” which would later be called “Roman Porno” a.k.a. pink movies, but in usual Suzuki style the great director makes it much more than just a standard pink film. Like many Japanese filmmakers and actors from the same era, Suzuki had survived WW2 and as a soldier he experienced firsthand the devastation that the war had brought to Japan. In Gate of Flesh the director brilliantly uses his own anti-American sentiments at the time, as well as his obvious resentment against his own country, to tell a haunting story about damaged people and missed opportunities.
Besides being a thoughtful social commentary on the aftermath of WW2, Gate of Flesh is also filled with stunning imagery and inventive set designs. Suzuki knows how to make the most use of creative color photography, stylish framing, a driving soundtrack and his minimal budget. His impressive eye for pulp style drama is on full display here. He also doesn’t shy away from using plenty of iconographic imagery and loaded symbolism that is impossible to miss. Some critics have called his work heavy-handed but I find it breathtakingly bold and modern.
The talented actor Jo Shishido (Youth of the Beast, Branded to Kill, Bloody Territories, etc.) gives what could be his greatest performance in Gate of Flesh as a broken Japanese soldier running from the law and longing for the past. He soon meets his match in a band of prostitutes who all vie for his attentions in the hopes that he’ll somehow redeem their shattered lives. The actresses in the movie are all marvelous in their roles, but little known Satoko Kasai really stands out as the sensitive, smart and tough prostitute Sen while Yumiko Nogawa does a great job of transforming from good girl to wicked woman in her extremely demanding role as Maya.
The standout soundtrack by composer Naozumi Yamamoto also deserves a mention. It makes great use of authentic Japanese instruments and driving rhythms. Yamamoto’s music really helps to evoke a mood of stifling doom and creeping unknown threats throughout the entire movie.
Gate of Flesh is easily one of Criterion’s most interesting releases and considering the size and scope of their release catalog that’s saying a lot. The quality of the DVD is amazing and the widescreen print transfer looks and sounds terrific. The DVD also contains a beautiful still gallery and insightful interviews with director Seijun Suzuki as well as art director/production designer Takeo Kimura. Seijun Suzuki is a man of his times with an unusual sense of humor and he tends to be a lot more humble and soft-spoken than most modern Japanese directors, but the interviews are interesting and shed a lot of light on this fascinating 1964 production. The quality, as well as the extras on the DVD, make this Criterion release well worth owning if yo appreciate challenging and thought-provoking Japanese cinema.
At the time that Seijun Suzuki made Gate of Flesh and many of his other films, his work was often dismissed by critics inside and outside Japan, who considered him a minor director reduced to making what they considered second rate movies. Thankfully stylish genre pictures such as the “Roman Porno” films of Japan as well as the “Pinky Violence” movies and “Yakuza” crime pictures have been given a second life on DVD recently. Modern critics around the world with an appreciation and understanding of genre cinema have been able to reevaluate the important work of Japanese New Wave directors like Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku and Yasuzo Masumura, with a much more sympathetic eye and offer them the long overdue critical praise that had previously only been heaped on directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.
With the growing interest in Japanese genre cinema and the release of many previously unreleased films to DVD by companies like Criterion and Panik House, Japanese film fans can look forward to even more critical attention being given to these films. Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh should be appreciated for what it is, an astonishing, provocative and creative film made for a studio that only wanted him to deliver cheaply made entertainment.
(Originally written Aug. 2005)