Criterion first made the work of Japanese oddball Seijun Suzuki available to a wider audience with the laserdisc (and later, DVD) release of Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill, two of Suzuki's flashier genre mash-ups, which cut up gangster clichés with Jean-Luc Godard-esque anarchy. Criterion has continued to revive Suzuki's '60s films, with the release last year of Youth Of The Beast and the profoundly touching Fighting Elegy, and now with the first two parts of the director's "prostitution trilogy," Gate Of Flesh and Story Of A Prostitute. All four of those films feature some of the wild style and blazing imagery of Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill, but strangely, the more conventional work has been just as revelatory as the way-out Suzukis.
The lurid 1964 melodrama Gate Of Flesh splits the difference between staid and nutty. In post-World War II Japan, a group of prostitutes eschew pimps, banding together in a bombed-out house in a nightmarish red-light district. The one rule: never give away what somebody will pay for. If any of the housemates break that rule, they get stripped and whipped. Then local tough guy Jo Shishido turns up on their doorstep, boasting about how he shanked an American soldier, and the ladies take him in as their protector and lust object. For the most part, Gate Of Flesh is just an excuse to show scantily clad women undergoing various physical and emotional tortures, but the skimpy plot gives Suzuki room to skewer his homeland's postwar pandering. (In one memorable scene, people in the street line up for "American stew," which is laced with used condoms.) He also gets to play with color and light, primarily by giving the women distinct monochrome wardrobes and arranging them on a bare-lit soundstage where he can spin the camera—or sets—at will. By the final matching shot of a Japanese flag in a gutter and an American flag flapping proudly, Suzuki has made his punchy little exploitation film into a study of exploitation itself.
The following year's Story Of A Prostitute is a much classier affair, shot in finely shaded black and white with sudden shifts to stark contrast. Yumiko Nogawa plays a jilted lover who volunteers to be a "comfort woman" on the Manchurian front, where she quickly falls in love with Tamio Kawaji, even though she's still expected to sleep with all of his comrades and commanders. There's less visual flash to Story Of A Prostitute—though a long tracking shot of Nogawa running across a battlefield is justly famous—but the movie is every bit as pointed as Gate Of Flesh, especially once Nogawa and Kawaji's love story enters a metaphysical realm to rival Robert Bresson or Lars von Trier. While the two are joined together under a flesh-colored blanket, the insane military bureaucracy outside doesn't matter so much. It continues to matter to Suzuki, though. He openly criticizes the Japanese fascination with sacrifice in an ironic conclusion that—on the comprehensive featurette that accompanies the Criterion DVD—causes a sympathetic film critic to choke up, overwhelmed by the director's direct appeal to his countrymen's repressed emotions.