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Street Of Shame  

Prostitution is so much a part of the seedy underground in many countries that it is very peculiar to see a depiction of the world's oldest profession that takes place in an area where it is in fact legal. Such is the case in Street of Shame, a 1956 Japanese film in which we witness the lives of five prostitutes, in a legal profession, yes, but still just as much in emotional turmoil and misery as in any other country. The fact that this film paints a negative picture of prostitution even as it was legal at the time may be significant; the back cover of the Home Vision Cinema edition claims that Street of Shame played a part in the return of prostitution to its illegal state in Japan.

Street of Shame is a very impressive movie, but it was difficult for me to watch. Not because of the subject matter, but I do have many theories for the difficulty. One, the fact that Japanese films seem to confuse me for some reason. Why, I do not know. Maybe it's because I can't remember all of these strange, unpronounceable names. Or perhaps there is something about the Japanese film making style that throws me off. My second major theory is the fact that I was very ill at the time of viewing. I was sleep-deprived, filled with cold and flu medications, and probably not in the proper condition to be watching a dense Japanese production. I'm inclined to take the latter theory rather than the former as reason for my difficulty.

The story focusses on five prostitutes in the red-light district. Each woman is different, and has her own set of problems, but all of these women share the same emotional fate: they are bound to this sordid lifestyle, and it is virtually impossible to escape. This hard reality is shown to us in very cold glimpses. A young woman, practically kidnapped and lured to the brothel, is confronted by her father, who feels disgraced: his son cannot get a government job, and his other daughter's engagement is at risk, all because of the knowledge that this girl is a prostitute. Another woman gives phony sob-stories to her clients so she can receive more money than necessary in order to repay her huge debts. Another gets married to a man from another village, and she returns to find out that the husband had left long ago, to take a job, somewhere. Another has to support her sick husband and child. And a veteran prostitute is nothing but an embarrassment to her own son, even as she tries to paint the best picture she can of why she chose her lifestyle.

The overall truth of all of these stories is that there is a dark side to this sexy trade. Of course, this should be obvious to people with brains, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded of that fact. For Street Of Shame, the dark side involves the effects of prostitution on family: all of these stories involve some sort of family relationship (and, for the woman with the sob-stories, the phoney promise of marriage), and, in all cases, hardship is inevitable. Probably the most happiest (if that is the proper term) is that of the woman with the sick husband and child, because at least they stick together, even if the husband is naturally dismissive of the occupation.

The film is restored in glorious black-and-white, as they say. And there are some really intriguing shots and individual scenes; the most perfect image being a stark contrast to what we Westerners are accustomed to seeing in visual depictions of streetwalkers. While American entertainment shows the prostitute as a cold, aloof individual, waiting patiently and seductively for a client to approach her, the women in Street of Shame actively, even desperately, go after potential clients. The women literally grab onto men, begging them to enter their pleasure palace, and, in a sense, that is exactly how these women live. Their occupation is sordid, and unrespectable, and these women are despreate to retain what little (money, self-worth, etc) they can.

The message of this film is extremely clear. The lifestyle as depicted here may seem glamourous, sexy, etc. but in reality it is hurtful and emotionally scarring. The women are exploited: their entire lives depend on servicing men's sexual desires, etc for money which either goes directly to the pimps, or ends up becoming money for the women to pay back as debt. As well, young women are essentially coerced into the industry, just as much, if not more, by falling for the spectre of better pay as for the usual belief that these young women are kidnapped and lured outright. In short, the entire occupation hinges on the fact that there is an inequality between the sexes, and on the fantasy that it is the women who benefit from the inequality. This is much like the pornography industry (or, at least, the most insidious parts), in which women are the "stars", they receive all of the "glamour", the "special" treatment, the belief that they are really important, etc, etc, when in reality, these women are easily disposable, and are treated like meat in the actual productions they are in. The lure of a better life deludes these people into believing they are in a worthwhile industry. Street of Shame is a restrained but accurate portrayal of a dirty enterprise.

David Macdonald

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