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The Criterion Collection presents
Story of a Prostitute (Shunpuden) (1965)

Mikami: How could I do something like this?
Harumi: It's all right. You've shown me true happiness. I love you. When you hit me and I saw the anger in your eyes, I realized I was in love with you.

- Tamio Kawachi, Yumiko Nogawa

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: August 11, 2005

Stars: Yumiko Nogawa, Tamio Kawachi
Other Stars: Isao Tamagawa, Shoichi Ozawa, Tomiko Ishikawa, Kazuko Imai, Megumi Wakaba, Kayo Matsuo, Kentaro Kaji
Director: Seijun Suzuki

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, nudity, sexual situations, language)
Run Time: 01h:36m:12s
Release Date: July 26, 2005
UPC: 037429177822
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

War is absurd in several respects and brutal in all. The same can be said of prostitution, so it's not terribly surprising that Story of a Prostitute (Shunpuden) centers its narrative on a woman, Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa), who renders her body to the Japanese military. She's not so much a victim of society as a survivor. Already working as a prostitute when the story begins, Harumi leaves the Chinese city of Tianjin after biting the tongue of her lover—a form of punishment inflicted upon him for marrying another woman.

Harumi flees to northern China, where a Japanese battalion is locked in guerilla warfare with members of the Hachiro army. Suzuki uses the barren landscapes as a beautiful representation of Harumi's desolate disposition as Harumi joins the caravan and does not even flinch when it comes under attack from landmines. Arriving at the brothel, she sets to work immediately until the sadistic adjutant (Isao Tamagawa) interrupts a client session and brutalizes her into submission. The abuse awakens Harumi's zest for life, causing her to concoct a scheme in which she will seduce the adjutant's orderly, Mikami (Tamio Kawachi), into killing him. Things go awry, however, when Mikami and Harumi actually become lovers and need to hide their burgeoning romance from the military.

Mikami is a disgraced soldier and suffers many abuses in order to prove his adherence to Imperial Japan's strict military code. Harumi most likely hopes that the two can disappear into the vast landscapes, but the escalation of military violence makes this impossible. The Chinese continue to attack, mounting more and more successful assaults on the Japanese that will forever change the lives of these people.

Director Seijun Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa, working from a story by Taijiro Tamura (filmed once before as Escape at Dawn) create a strongly antiwar motion picture. Suzuki's work here is strikingly more mature and refined than anywhere else in his career, with a tremendous attention to the plight of these characters. The cinematography is ambitiously kinetic, ushering in a new visual tone for the Japanese material that contrasts against the tradition set by Yasujiro Ozu and others. This break from more serene filmmaking captures the undertone of the film's themes, for the story challenges many of Japan's well-established societal mores. Accompanied by chaotic and elliptic editing that make for stunningly horrifying battle scenes and a lush production design, Suzuki is at the height of his powers here.

The performances are particularly effective, from the emotionally charged performance of Yumiko Nogawa to the quiet power of Tamio Kawachi to Isao Tamagawa's domineering turn. The two lovers come across as real people, making the events all the more devastating. Nogawa's tearful scenes do suggest a certain degree of melodrama, but her work is primarily successful as she conveys the hard-edged nature of Harumi and her fragile state of mind. Kawachi's acting is fantastic, particularly in a scene that occurs late in the movie. Without any dialogue, he simply turns his head and looks at the other actor—it's an image that's worth a thousand words.

The haunting score that begins the film sets the tone for the remaining 96 minutes. Suzuki's work here is breathtaking, heartbreaking, and exhilarating. While many motion pictures are merely content with giving their audience what it wants, I am pleased to say that Story of a Prostitute is so much more than what its title might lead one to think.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 2.40:1 black-and-white widescreen transfer is gorgeous to behold. Depth is so strong you practically feel like you can touch the screen's objects. Contrast is fantastic and blacks look exquisite. Detail is also noteworthy and the image looks remarkably filmlike. Some print defects are present, but none standout.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono Japanese mix is preserved on this DVD, but it's not perfect. Throughout the mix you'll notice a slight hiss, but it's not enough to ruin the experience. On the whole, though, the sound is sufficient and a nice bit of film preservation.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:36m:45s

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—contains an essay by film critic David Chute, as well as DVD notes.
  2. Interviews—new video interviews with director Seijun Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura, and Japanese film critic Tadao Sato.
Extras Review: The supplemental materials begin with an insert containing an essay by David Chute. He reviews the film and provides its context in director Seijun Suzuki's career. There's nothing particularly profound in his analysis, but it's still an intelligent piece of writing. The insert also contains notes about the DVD's transfers and film credits.

Following that is a collection of interviews on the DVD itself. Running just over 27 minutes, director Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura, and Japanese film critic Tadao Sato discuss the movie and Japanese cinema. For those not at all familiar with Japan's film industry, or even those who are moderately acquainted with it, this should prove to be a highly informative feature. Even the most knowledgeable moviegoer should still check in, however, to hear these three men talk about their opinions on the film. Sato gives a great explanation about the movie's reception and its status in Japan. Kimura and Suzuki give some interesting insight into their collaboration and how their personal lives influenced their work here.

The film's original theatrical trailer is also shown in anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen and heralds that the movie will "change the standards of filmmaking." That's probably an overstatement, but it accurately reflects the experience of viewing Story of a Prostitute. The extras are limited, but of high quality.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Story of a Prostitute is a great film that should be viewed by all who profess a love for the cinema. The Criterion Collection once again triumphs in their ongoing efforts to preserve motion pictures. The image transfer is stunning and the audio preserves the original theatrical experience. Special features round out the package nicely, making this DVD easy recommendation.


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