Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises.
The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient.
Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it.
Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough.
A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas.
The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance.
When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination.
The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds.
A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.
Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken.
The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants.
On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film.
Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey.
Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them.