Akasen I and II, the Japanese red-light district

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In 1958, the Anti-Prostitution Law is finally enacted in Japan. Since the years of the American occupation (1945-1951), the government had started dictating laws and rules to gradually reduce, if not the business, at least the openly accepted and public offer of sex-for-money on the streets and in the red-light districts (akasen), mostly pressed by the morals of the international community the “reborn” country wanted to join. 赤線地帯 Akasen Chitai (The red-light district), from 1956, and 赤線玉の井ぬけられます Akasen Tamanoi Nukeraremasu (Streets of joy), from 1974 and considered a remake from the previous one, were shot considering this context. However, although both films have a common structure –the particular but interrelated lives of a number of prostitutes working in a brothel- they also hold very different perspectives. Mizoguchi Kenji’s movie shows much more explicitly the misery of post-war times, with Hanae, a young mother married to an unemployed man and prostituting herself to provide for their baby; or Yumeko, a mature widow who has worked hard at the brothel to raise a son, who, now a member of the society and working in a factory, repudiates her; it’s clear the director’s intention of confronting the society’s double standards of morality, as prostitution’s beneficiary and, at the same time, its censor. But there are also the vocational ones, like Mickey, coming from a wealthy family from Kobe and doing it as an act of rebellion and to purchase needless luxury articles; or the attractive and selfish Yasumi –amazing as usual in her role Ayako Wakao– manipulating men to get big amounts of money from them, and who eventually manages to leave the brothel and start a kimono business.

Almost twenty years later, Tatsumi Kumashiro shoots Akasen Tamanoi, a film with a much more personal aesthetics, going with the times (the 70’s) and alternating the sequences of the life of five prostitutes and their more explicit sexual encounters with intercalated images of manga-like interpretations of the different stories plus text written over a red screen. There is not so much social denounce and the solidarity of the women with each other and the generalized atmosphere of harmony in the brothel give a more positive image of that life, although it also introduces the limited role and freedom of women in society, as when Kimiko –Maika Seri, already typecast in the roles of a young prostitute- gets to marry a young man but her dull life as a wife impels her to go back to 幸福屋 Kofukuya (place of happiness) brothel to visit her former colleagues, catch a client and enjoy sexually with him before going back with her husband. The contrast with her traumatic first sexual experience as a prostitute –in the movie in the form of an achieved flashback- at the age of 15 creates an ambiguous interpretation of the meaning of red-light districts for women in those years. Naoko, a hard-working and dedicated prostitute –as diligent as a Japanese office worker- tries that final day before the prohibition (the story, apart from flashbacks, is limited to 24 hours) to break the brothel’s record for the number of clients in one day, 26; and we, as voyeuristic viewers, are instructed in the tricks to get good clients and make them finish quickly. The partying atmosphere –mixed with the claustrophobic of the small rooms and the impossible angles of the camera- is sweeten with strange and hilarious religious elements, as a stone sculpture with the form of a phallus, representing a Shinto god who provides the brothel with enough clients, and which they ritually worship. Other characters are Shimako, in love with a good-for-nothing tattooed gangster who abuses her and spends her money on drugs and gambling, fulfilling her masochistic inclinations; and Shigeko, aging and trying to kill herself, although not too convincingly, just as a dramatic pose.

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