Thursday, September 15, 2022

My exploration of Kinuyo Tanaka's directorial work continues with Girls of the Night (1961) (Film review)

(and ended half a month ago) but there's still advertising for it about :)
Girls of the Night (Japan, 1961)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Portraits of Women -- A Tribut to Tanaka Kinuyo program
- Kinuyo Tanaka, director
- Starring: Chisako Hara, Chikage Awashima 
With over 200 screen appearances to six directorial credits, there's little question that Kinuyo Tanaka's main body of film work lies in her acting rather than helming.  But even while I can't say that any of her directorial efforts are of the same quality as some of the classic works in which she starred (notably Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama and Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu), many -- if not all of -- them have interesting subject matter and treatment.    
Take her second film with a script by Sumie Tanaka (after Forever a Woman).  Girls of the Night is a social realist drama examining the plight of ex-prostitutes to rehabilitate in "reform centers" that come across as like a cross between boarding school, factory and prison before seeking to be reintegrated into "regular" society.  As is revealed in the movie's prologue, the former "girls of the night" didn't willingly opt for this but new anti-prostitution laws caused their line of work to become illegal -- and many remain unconvinced that what they did for a living was actually all that immoral or otherwise bad.
Kinuyo Tanaka takes a line that manages to be both sympathetic to those seeking to reform the women with a good heart (like the head of a "reform centre" played by Chikage Awashima) and the women sent to be "reformed" like Kuniko (portrayed by Chisako Hara).  One way she does this is to make the characters multi-dimensional rather than mere "saints" or "sinners".  Another is to show that some of the "sinners" may be more "sinned against" than actual sinners.
Kuniko's story is also made interesting by way of the different (types of) people that she encounters in "mainstream" society when sent to take up various positions.  One involves being a general dogsbody in a general store run by a man who is more henpecked husband than master of his domain.  Another involves working in a factory whose workers are mainly young women, some of whom are far less innocent than they initially look.  A third involves a flower farm run by a kindly couple who, nonetheless, are slaves to certain societal conventions that makes it so that there sympathy for an ex-prostitute can only go so far.
As I've come to know from viewing her other films, Kinuyo Tanaka does not shirk from showing that life can be hard indeed for women, be they a noble lady who married a prince (cf The Wandering Princess) or a housewife turned famous poet (cf. Forever a Woman).  But she also shows that happiness -- or some modicum of satisfaction, and certainly self-worth -- can be reached by members of "the second sex".  And I must say that I found the way that Girls of the Night concluded quite heartening (even if by no means a classic "lived happily after" one)!
My rating for this film: 7.5     

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