Made about halfway through his career, director Yûzô Kawashima's tale of love, sacrifice, and selfishness is one of those delicate and impressive dramas that Japan seems to do so well, particularly in the 1950s when it could look back at the changes and development within itself after the end of WWII. Looking over the filmography of Kawashima reveals a selection of titles I would definitely be interested in checking out, but I have to confess that I had not seen any of his other movies prior to this one.
The story focuses on Tsutae (Michiyo Aratama) and her husband, Yoshiji (Tatsuya Mihashi), as they attempt to make a life for themselves in Suzaki. Suzaki Paradise is the red-light district, and an area in which Tsutae used to work some time ago, and the couple end up there when Tsutae sees a waitress role advertised. The madam/business owner, Otoku (Yukiko Todoroki), wants to help them as much as possible, keeping Tsutae employed while also helping Yoshiji find work as a noodle deliveryman, but she can see things turning sour as Tsutae starts to spend more and more time with Mr. Ochiai (Seizaburô Kawazu), a customer who is happy to spend a fair amount of money on his preferred type of attractive female company.
Based on a story by acclaimed Japanese novelist Yoshiko Shibaki, Suzuki Paradise Red Light manages to show characters transforming, slowly but surely, into something far removed from whatever they originally envisioned themselves to be. There's optimism, desperation, a changing of priorities, and, of course, misplaced affections while the situation keeps changing. Writers Toshirô Ide and Nobuyoshi Terada do well to illustrate all of this without ever letting the film feel like a miserable wallow in the realms of despair.
Helped by the central performances of his cast, Kawashima presents the dialogue and characters in clear and telling compositions. You can clearly see how relationships are changing throughout the film, and you can see how affected certain individuals are by just one or two key sentences. Nobody is hiding their emotions, largely because viewers are seeing them while other characters are not.
Despite Aratama and Mihashi being the leads, and both doing very well with their roles, the film feels, in some ways, as if it belongs to both Todoroki and Kawazu, the two main people who have seen others come and go through this particular area, and both of them have developed a fairly healthy attitude to the transient nature of the relationships that develop there. You could argue that Kawazu's character acts rather foolish in his eagerness to spend his money on women who are probably making it their main objective to get him to spend his money, but he is self-aware, and happy enough in his foolishness.
There's something about this film that I can't quite put my finger on, something wonderful about it that made me want to watch it again immediately after it ended. I don't think any part of this review really gets to the heart of what that is, and that's okay. Sometimes you can weigh up every element of a movie and explain every reason for your love or hatred of it. Sometimes you can't, but that doesn't stop you from wanting to try. Which can be just as telling.