Director Kenji Mizoguchi's bleak and downbeat final film (made in 1956 and officially released on home video in 1997) is a compelling depiction of five prostitutes eking out a living in a Tokyo brothel. Renowned for his masterful tales of women oppressed, Mizoguchi (1898-1956) offers

stinging condemnation of a Japanese tradition stretching back hundreds of years.

For three centuries the Yoshiwara licensed quarter in northern Tokyo has been a thriving district of nocturnal pleasures, but female members of parliament are rallying a bill to outlaw prostitution. Among those working at the Dreamland brothel who would be put out of business are Hanae (Michiyo

Kogure), a practical woman supporting her infant son and ailing husband. When comely newcomer Mickey (Machiko Kyo) arrives after running away from her father--a self-centered hedonist with several mistresses--she quickly becomes a favorite among the customers for her carefree, lusty ways.

Middle-aged, homely Yorie has a longtime client desert her for Mickey. Yorie decides to run away from the debt she owes the brothel to marry her boyfriend, only to return in disgrace when she discovers he doesn't love her at all, he just wants to use her as free labor. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), an

aging widow who has worked for years to support her son in the country, is contacted by the boy, now grown; he is disgusted and ashamed and wants nothing to do with her. And Yasumi, the cold and heartless manipulator, drives several men to crime to feed her bank account. In the end, she buys out

the business of one of her former lovers, while the broken Yumeko is carted off to an asylum and a timid young virgin is groomed to continue the business.

Although the characters are vaguely stereotypical, the ensemble cast is superb. Sleeping late, dealing with the increasingly strict laws and curfews, living in the brothel (except for the married Hanae) and constantly borrowing against their wages to run up a perpetual debt--these are lost women

who hate their lifestyle but can't support themselves any other way. Following closely the progress of the anti-prostitution bill that is discouraging customers and hurting business, they wonder what will become of them if prostitution is outlawed, while the brothel owner insists he is their

friend and benefactor, the government cold and merciless.

In the meantime, Hanae the survivor just keeps plodding along, living day to day, hand to mouth. Yumeko, filled with dreams of the day her son will be grown and he can begin to take care of her, is ultimately destroyed by those very dreams. Longing for an apartment early on, she instead graduates

to a cell. Yorie, used to pawing over men as they pass down the lane of gaudy establishments, used to trying to drag them into Dreamland, used to rejection, ultimately escapes to find life outside the same as life at Dreamland--only without the perks. It's significant that the ones who fare the

best are the mercenaries: Mickey, living beyond her means and letting nothing faze her, and Yasumi, who eats men alive and spits out their empty wallets. She is the only one to escape the life intact.

Planned as a semi-documentary to be lensed at actual locations, STREET OF SHAME (or RED-LIGHT DISTRICT as it was known in Japan) was ultimately forced to shoot on studio sets when brothel owners balked, fearing any additional attention at a time when public opposition to prostitution was swelling.

Offering pointed criticism but no solutions, the film is credited with helping to bring about the abolition of prostitution in Japan a year after its release. (Violence, adult situations)