Akasen chitai / Street of Shame (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1956) and the Twilight of the Red Light District in Japan
Speaker: Irene Gonzalez
Mizoguchi Kenji’s last film, Akasen chitai / Street of Shame (1956), became a great box-office success, as well as one of his most acclaimed works in Japan and elsewhere. This all-star production depicts the lives of five prostitutes in a brothel in the famous pleasure district of Yoshiwara while the ban on prostitution is being debated in the Diet. The film was released on 18 March 1956, just two months before the Prostitution Prevention Law was approved in 24 May, putting an end to the long history of state-regulated prostitution. Therefore, as the sex industry was being incessantly discussed in Japanese media in relation to law, medicine, human rights and morality, the film brought the heated debate to the big screen; and some critics even argue that Street of Shame was instrumental in pushing the ban through the Diet.
Its popularity and timely release make Street of Shame an extremely significant text to explore how prostitution was perceived in those years of socio-political upheaval and frenetic economic growth during which Japan attempted to redefine its national identity according to international standards. Through a comparative analysis of an array of contemporaneous Japanese media, this paper aims to elucidate the position of Street of Shame in the map of agents imagining prostitution. The examination of Mizoguchi’s film can greatly enrich the discussion of representation of women and sexuality, and illuminate the discourses of power, gender and national identity that, I suggest, were articulated through the depiction of the prostitutes.