Killing in Yoshiwara (1960)
Directed by Tomu Uchida

Killing in Yoshiwara
Yoto monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara hyaku-nin giri
Starring Chiezo Kataoka (Jiro Sano), Yoshie Mizutani (Otsuru/Tamazuru), Eijiro Kataoka (Haruroko), Akiko Santo (Osaki), Sadako Sawamura (Ogen), Shinobu Chihara (Yaegaki), Kogiku Hanayagi, Isao Kimura (Eiji), Minoru Chiaki
Screenplay by Yoshikata Yoda

Toei Company, 105 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

When I want to explain to novices that jidai-geki means more than just samurai movies, Tomu Uchida's Killing in Yoshiwara gives me a golden example to point to. Here is an emotionally gripping Japanese period drama that has nothing to do with samurai or yakuza or ninjas or wars. It's about an ordinary man dealing with personal misfortunes that drive him to the brink of ruin, a nice guy who gets mad as hell until he's not going to take it anymore.

Uchida's frequent collaborator Chiezo Kataoka stars as Jiro Sano, a moderately wealthy silk merchant whose face is badly disfigured by a birthmark that looks like a patch of dried gray mud across his right cheek. Despite being abandoned as an infant for his horrific appearance, Jiro has become a successful businessman beloved by his employees and respected by the community. His one failure is reaching middle age without finding a wife and starting a family, since the many prospective brides Jiro has pursued have been repulsed by his face.

After yet another candidate spurns him, a client friend takes Jiro on a visit to Yoshiwara, famed for its licensed "pleasure districts." At the Hyogoya Geisha House, none of the courtesans is willing to serve as a companion to the frightening Jiro. Anxious to avoid offending a client, the hosts round up a low-ranking servant girl named Otsuru to entertain Jiro. Otsuru was arrested for illegal prostitution and sentenced to serve as an underling at the Hyogoya house. The formally trained courtesans look down on Otsuru as a criminal and a common whore, and she feels determined to rise up to their social level or higher.

So Otsuru seizes the rare opportunity to pose as an official geisha, granted the more glamorous alias of "Lady Tamazuru," and she escorts Jiro pleasantly without regard for his birthmark. Touched by this unfamiliar degree of kindness and attention from a beautiful woman, Jiro immediately falls in love with Otsuru and returns to Yoshiwara for repeated visits. Soon Otsuru tells Jiro she wants to marry him, but only after she has reached a level of social standing to be worthy of him. Jiro agrees to the expensive proposition of sponsoring her training to become a dayu, or head courtesan.

But complications arise when bad weather destroys the season's silk harvests and Jiro's business is sent into a tailspin. He is forced to choose between putting his savings into paying his subcontractors and protecting his employees or spending an ever-increasing fortune on his ambitious mistress. When Jiro goes to lenders to borrow extra funds, they object to reports that he's been hanging out in Yoshiwara and spending profligate amounts on a courtesan, which is disrespectable behavior for a businessman – especially one asking for money.

As for Otsuru, beguilingly played by the ravishing Yoshie Mizutani, at first she comes across as a sympathetic and fairly sincere character. It seems that she and Jiro have lived parallel lives of struggling against persecution in search of elusive goals: Jiro seeking a wife and heirs despite his ugliness, and Otsuru seeking legitimate social rank after being a street prostitute. In a Hollywood romantic comedy, these two crazy kids would find a way to make things work and live happily ever after. But Uchida has a more realistic and heartbreaking outcome in store.

In a climax remarkably similar to Kataoka's previous outburst that closed Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji, Jiro lashes out for justice against those who have cruelly exploited and betrayed him. It's a brutal and unforgettable ending that distinguishes Killing in Yoshiwara from the gentle Kenji Mizoguchi-style jidai-geki of tragic romance, though the screenplay was in fact written by longtime Mizoguchi collaborator Yoshikata Yoda.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema