The geisha house has become an institution by the time Kenji Mizoguchi reaches his swan song, the legalized status threatened but the female trouble within scarcely less exploited than in Sisters of the Gion. Women are for sale, yet the red-district of postwar Japan has little room for the gentility of courtesan past: the avid gals grab at male passersby and drag them into the cathouse, life's a hustle, their establishment's been dubbed "Dreamland." The anti-prostitution bill is pending for the umpteenth time, the boss and mamasan consider themselves "social workers," the women trenchantly enact the traumas of the trade. The drama is purified of sentimentality or tawdriness: Aiko Mimasu rents herself to support a young son, who disowns her upon discovery; Michiyo Kogure's trick money goes to her baby and sickly husband, who must be reassured "soon we will be glad we didn't kill ourselves"; Hiroko Machida leaves the place only to return after finding far worse (i.e., unpaid) servitude in matrimony. The main moneymaker is Ayako Wakao, who understands the economics of the job and is ruthless enough to juggle suitors to finance her ticket out -- the smitten deliveryman hands her a few bills, she turns down his invitation for a date and runs upstairs to foil a marriage proposal from another client, the whole sequence a series of shots modulated for the feel of a single take, a rebuke to Noel Burch's critique of Mizoguchi's late style more than twenty years before Burch's book. Wakao dreams of escape, though Machiko Kyo, the newest addition who swaggers into the pool for a mock-Botticelli pose, professes no illusions: she's long ditched the kimono for tight pants, but even her mask of Westernized cynicism is momentarily broken (and breathtakingly recomposed) by her father's visit. Mizoguchi enriches reformist grit with the spiritual heft of his period work for a farewell balance of hope and despair -- Kogure returning home to stop hubby from hanging himself and reaffirming her strength with a bawling baby by her side, and rookie Yasuko Kawakami powdered up for her maiden stroll, peeking from behind a wall at the raucous street of shame that is earthly bondage. With Kumeko Urabe, Eitaro Shindo, and Sadako Sawamura. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce