In making its belated Australian debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, Tomu Uchida’s 45-years-old Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter veritably brought the house down. It is a gorgeous, sumptuously colourful widescreen melodrama in a similar vein to Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s ‘Love in Osaka’, but with an even more astonishing shift in tone in the final act.
Uchida’s standby actor Chiezo Kataoka stars as the disfigured Jirozaemon, a wealthy but naïve and lonely textile manufacturer. When his friends drag him to Yoshiwara to be pampered by geisha, he is humiliated to discover that even women he’s prepared to pay handsomely are too frightened and/or disgusted by his appearance to be in his company. Enter Tamarazu (Yoshie Mizutani), a former street prostitute and lowly servant at the geisha house who agrees to service Jirozaemon. She must be the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, right?
Wrong. In spite of Tamarazu’s eloquent reassurances that Jirozaemon is not the ugly monster he has come to believe he is, her darker agenda begins to emerge. Having fallen in love with her, Jirozaemon visits her regularly and begins to spend untold sums of money at her geisha house. The owners, a married couple who have Tamarazu bound to a contract, convince him to become her patron and help her climb to the top of the geisha hierarchy. This is a deal they enter into with less than honest motivations, and it soon becomes apparent that Tamarazu herself is complicit in the swindle, and may even have been planning it all along.
While slow-moving by modern standards, Yoshiwara is the most accessible and entertaining of the five Uchida movies that screened at last year’s MIFF. The simple story progresses with a mounting sense of dread as a good man is slowly destroyed by the trio of evil hucksters, but the fact that it’s so openly manipulative makes sure it’s a kind of amused dread rather than genuine discomfort. The movie’s generic obviousness also manages to dilute the fact that its story is ludicrously misogynistic: women are either shallow imbeciles or unscrupulous gold-diggers.
And what an ending. Finally realising that he’s been the victim of a cruel scam, Jirozaemon snaps out of his put-upon loser persona and takes matters into his own hands in no uncertain terms. While this is not exactly unpredictable (in fact it’s so predictable it’s actually genuinely surprising that they didn’t do something different – if that makes sense), the extent to which the movie revels in Jirozaemon’s transformation and revenge is both breathtakingly audacious and utterly hilarious. Most of the large audience I saw it with was obviously satisfied at having been taken in by such a transparently manipulative story, and I was unashamedly one of them.