Post-war, movies take notice—not for the first time, or last, but with the conviction that bearing witness can be an assault—of crowds and the weight of history. The two are intertwined, everyday concerns: real places, real times. Paisan
has five stories, each marked on a map. The Naked City
tells one in a thousand. Los Olvidados
tells its with animals, then does it again with humans. Everywhere the same stories are reflected on the real streets. The settings are particular; the tales universal. In fallen cities, characters struggle to fulfill their instincts, and everyone has the same ones to eat and stay warm and get ahead. Because the story of any man is the story of everyman is the story of the crowd and times.
Women of the Night is Mizoguchi’s, and his usual one. Three women, compromised by money and men, are made selfish to no avail. They’re the victims not of the men and fellow whores who brutalize them, but, Mizoguchi has it, History, the modern times (1948) of crumbling shelters and limited resources that’ve driven them to desperation. History just hardly changes. The difference between medieval feudalism and modern-day capitalism, throughout Mizoguchi’s films, is the difference between women who are subjected to humiliation, and women, in useless attempts to pay the bills, who willingly submit themselves to it. History is the story of rape victims becoming prostitutes. It’s also the story of Women of the Night.
As usual, these are goddamn simple characters—which is likely why Mizoguchi’s great films (from Story of the Last Chrysanthemums to Ugetsu to Street of Shame) work as fables, distillations and fantasies, self-conscious stories told, while Women of the Night comes off as simplification, the messiness of the reality it’s meant to capture harnessed to bullet-points demonstrating that society corrupts, that (as stupid a presumption as it is in its inspiration, Rome Open City) people are born innocents tainted by the public realm. As if history just victimizes—never enables. Gone are the goner heroines of Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, who seek out their own destiny at will. Even when Mizoguchi’s next film, Flame of My Love (1949), makes similar assumptions, Mizo will have moved on to his great late style of a camera-pen that seems to assemble scenes as it moves, and moves steadily through rapes and romances and wars and debates, in which, anyway, people just look like players taking pose.
But Women of the Night fumbles for real life and real streets fascinatingly. Juvenile delinquents, abandoned to the streets, inevitably linger in the background, and usually in the foreground, as reminders that our heroines’ stories are three in a thousand, and as threats of what they’ll become. The heroines are always just one member of the scene, and even as they struggle for dignity they’re equated with the rest of the anonymous the slum girls getting by: which is the lesson the girls will teach them first (how to fit in), and then, to clean them up, the doctors and policeman, society’s official representatives, will again (the girls are bodies that consume and are consumed). The main doctor is sympathetic for acknowledging his role as a functionary following rules. Women is blunt; the hospital is shown as lines of identical beds that make the girls look like factory objects, more Mizo girls unable to attain private spaces or a private sense of pride. But Women’s also suggestive with its vignettes of total doom; a man pumping water down a woman’s throat is rape; the hospital looks like detention camps, mass-processing humans, from just a few years before; and when the girls lay scattered among city ruins at the end (rubble recognizable from Rossellini, but a favorite Mizoguchi spot as well, the walls half-erected, somewhere between private and public space but neither suitably), it’s clear it’s not just the buildings that’ve crumbled.
And there are glimpses of daily life. No pillow shots—Ozu’s haiku-like montages of the timeless streetlights and clouds at the outskirts of neighborhoods where incorrigible people have to change and get older and pass by on the streets—Mizoguchi’s own interludes, found throughout his modern-day films, emphasize the grind of a particular time and place as people just watch and wait around for something to happen (Street of Shame will be made up of almost nothing but such in-between moments). A girl leaning back in a subway; a girl dangling her cigarette over Osaka—Mizoguchi is one of the great directors of people just hanging out. Though even in this film, loosened of Mizoguchi’s usual precision, these moments have their purpose. A girl goes to meet her husband; a girl looks over the city to which she’ll fall victim soon enough.
Women of the Night was released on DVD a long time agoon R1 DVD in The Criterion Collection's Eclipse boxset, Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women.