Shape of Night, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Jun 19, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Shape of Night, The (Blu-ray Review)


Noboru Nakamura

Release Date(s)

1964 (April 30, 2024)


Shochiku Studios (Radiance Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B+

The Shape of Night (Blu-ray)

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The Shape of Night (Yoru no henrin, 1964) is something like a bridging the great woman-centric films of Kenji Mizoguchi (and, to some extent, Mikio Naruse) and the visual stylings of Wong Kar-Wai. Like many of Mizoguchi’s films (and Naruse’s), director Noboru Nakamura’s bleak work is about a woman trapped and repeatedly victimized by men in a man’s world. What Nakamura brings to this well-worn sub-genre is an unusually credible portrait of one such woman’s descent into prostitution, a descent visually contrasted with the primary-colored nighttime glow of Tokyo’s neon-lit back alleys. Though in his booklet essay Chuck Stephens refers to the film as “lurid” and a “potboiler,” it’s not that kind of picture at all, but rather a strikingly commendable, authentic character study. The look of the film that he and other critics find so mesmerizing (and thus redeeming) is just one of its many qualities.

Based on a novel by Kyoko Ota, the story opens with world-weary prostitute Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) propositioned by shy first-timer Hiroshi (Keisuke Sonoi), a self-described architect involved in dam construction. Yoshie is beautiful but notably circumspect, cold and businesslike, yet Hiroshi nevertheless almost instantly falls in love and becomes determined to “save” her. His genuine interest in her triggers memories of how she fell into the trap of hooking, and most of the story is told in flashbacks.

At 19, Yoshie was a fresh-faced factory worker (pointedly, at a neon bulb factory), working class, trying to support her poor family. She takes an additional part-time job at a snack bar where she meets Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), a handsome customer who quickly seduces the naïve girl. What follows is very credible grooming: first he charms her and treats her well, then he asks to “borrow” a modest amount of money, then a much larger amount, then he pushes her into sell her body for sex “just once” to pay off his gambling debts, then it becomes a regular thing, etc. Because she loves him she’s blind to the obvious fact that he’s a bottom-rung gangster-pimp. First, they take 40% of her earnings then, then when she “officially” becomes a streetwalker, must turn over all her income to the local gumi who’ll provide her and Eiji a meager monthly stipend. All this plays out in a very believable and probably quite accurate manner. It’s also harrowing: when she tries leaving Eiji and returns home to her family, two thugs lure her to their headquarters where she’s summarily gang-raped as punishment.

Japanese film company Shochiku, unlike Toei and Nikkatsu, was hardly known for yakuza movies. Yet in Toei and Nikkatsu yakuza pictures, women were either sexualized victims, hardened male-like, elaborately tattooed gangsters themselves, or shrewish, unscrupulous anesan, money-grubbing wives of oyabun. Completely unlike Toei’s later yakuza films, The Shape of Night is resolutely not exploitative: Yoshie is never seen even partially naked, even during the gang-rape. Yoshie’s only failing was her childlike naivete when she first falls under Eiji’s spell. His manipulation of her, probably SOP within this world perhaps even to this day—where pretty young women are still stopped on the street by Eiji-types with promises of glamourous, high-paying jobs – is at once masterful and clumsy.

Eiji is both physically abusive and caring, clever but immature, which not only makes him a realistic character, but helps segues to the film’s fascinating last act, when the audience can comprehend and sympathize if not exactly approve of their doomed co-dependency. She wants to leave him for a second chance at life with Hiroshi, but feels obliged to ensure that her by-now pathetic pimp can at least survive, something surely impossible were she to abandon him.

The lesser-known leads are all very good. Primarily a supporting player, Miyuki Kuwano appeared in Ozu’s Late Autumnm and Kurosawa’s Red Beard but in smallish parts. She also teamed with Mikijiro Hira earlier in the year for Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai, but is mainly remembered for her frequent work with Nakamura, and for her role as another rape victim, in Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth. She retired from films before the 1960s were out. Hira, who died in 2016, had a long career in films and on television, and more prominent leading roles in things like Gosha’s Sword of the Beast. Keisuke Sonoi was a busy Shochiku actor mostly trapped in genre films including the infamous The X from Outer Space and Genocide/War of the Insects. Bigger stars like Bunta Sugawara and Isao Kimura appear as Eiji’s yakuza bosses, but they’re wasted in trivial, minor parts that could have been played by almost any actor.

Indeed, one has to admire director Nakamura’s razor-sharp focus. Except for Keiko (Yoshiko Hiromura, an interesting, obscure actress), a seasoned prostitute who takes a maternal-like interest in neophyte Yoshie, the film is really only concerned with its three principals; the others are incidental and only rarely do we ever glimpse Yoshie’s “Johns” (“Juns”?). Further, unlike most Japanese movies from this period, which are often fascinating for their travelogue-like glimpses of early postwar Tokyo, The Shape of Night is likewise so focused on its three main characters, their surroundings are always photographed in a manner that tunes out almost everything around them, save for the glow and hum of all that neon. When Yoshie and Hiroshi visit a department store rooftop overlooking the city, for instance, Nakamura never bothers to show us the view.

The Shape of Night arrives on Blu-ray (a world premiere, according to the packaging) courtesy Radiance Films, the video transfer provided by Shochiku as a high-def digital file. The transfer, in 2.35:1 Shochiku GrandScope and color, is impressively sharp with strong color. The uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono is above average and the subtitles are excellent. The disc is Regions A/B encoded and the release limited to 3,000 copies.

Supplements consist of a new, 16-minute interview with Yoshio Nakamura, son of the director; a 13-minute visual essay by Japanese film scholar Tom Mes about Shochiku Studios during the 1960s; a 27-page full-color booklet featuring a new essay by Chuck Stephens and an archival article by cinematographer Toichiro Narushima.

The Shape of Night is a most welcome, offbeat Japanese title, set in the yakuza milieu but focused on a single woman, her pimp boyfriend, and would-be rescuer. Highly recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV