The Shape of Night: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Radiance Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (5th May 2024).
The Film

Yoshie (Red Beard's Miyuki Kuwano) graduates from high school and heads to the city to study dressmaking and work part-time at the Fruit of the Tree Bar where she hopes to become more sophisticated in the company of interesting customers. She is bowled over pretty quickly by the attentions of handsome "businessman" Eiji Kitami (Sword of the Beast's Mikijirô Hira) – who is unbeknownst to her actually a member of the Kabuto yakuza syndicate – so much so that when he forces himself on her, she sees their subsequent routine of dinner and window-shopping before taking a room for the night as the beginnings of a meaningful relationship. Eiji constantly solicits loans from Yoshie to meet his quota with the syndicate, suggesting that Yoshie earns the money to cover his debts with the "perks of being a woman."

Yoshie leaves Eiji only to be dragged back by his gang on the orders of his boss who has his men gang rape her to punish Eiji for not being able to control her. A guilt-ridden Eiji attempts make amends to Yoshie by easing her into the life of a streetwalker, at first finding clients for her and promising to be nearby should she need help. After Eiji suffers an emasculating injury during a street fight, however, his moods swing between doting affection and violent jealousy. When one of her regulars architect Hiroshi Fujii (Genocide's Keisuke Sonoi) falls for her and tries to rescue her from her unhappiness, Yoshie believes that there is only one true way to free herself.

Reading on paper like every other Japanese prostitution melodrama, Noboru Nakamura's The Shape of Night distinguishes itself in the execution which has been compared to the work of Douglas Sirk and as a precursor to the films of Wong Kar-wai. Eschewing the grit of other depicts of post-war urban Japan, the film transforms its seedy district into a nocturnal emotional landscape of saturated neon lights against impenetrable black shadows. Conventional dramatic exchanges are depicted in flashbacks while the rest of the film is a series of photographic studies of Kuwano's face from various angles under various hues of light. Even in Yoshie's scenes with Hiroshi, the focus is on her expressions more than her words in response to such trite questions as "Why is a nice girl like you doing this?" With the narrative structure moving fluidly between past and present, the viewer may be as bewildered as Hiroshi as to the Eiji's seeming hold on Yoshie and the offense she seems to take at his attempts to "rescue" her – especially when he pretends to be her fiance when she runs into a school friend now happily married with children – if they cannot recall from early on that six years have elapsed from the earliest point in the story.

Even before Yoshie adopted the disaffected mask of a jaded prostitute, the viewer discovers that some of her life may have been a lie. She was ostensibly come to the city to study dressmaking but she may just be the "factory worker" Eiji says she is, and when she reveals to her parents that she quit – without telling them that she is a prostitute – her mother immediately complains "You know we need the money." Just as the viewer wonders how much of Yoshie's life really was her own, it does not take words to realize that as much as she feels she is not good enough for Fujii; and she may also feel that she is trading one form of prostitution for another as her relationship with Fujii would hinge on his keeping secret her past. In the end, she can physically free herself from both men, but will she ever actually "feel free?" According to the disc's extras, the film was very atypical of the work thus far of Shochiku lifer Noboru Nakamura, but the unavailability of his other works in the West can only leave us wondering just how much it differed and if he continued in this direction stylistically in the remaining fifteen years of his career.


Unreleased in the United States or United Kingdom theatrically or previously on home video – and thus far unavailable in digital formats in its native Japan – The Shape of Night comes to 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray from what the booklet describes as a "high definition digital file" provided by Shochiku with additional work performed on it by Radiance Films so any flaws are presumably inherent in the file provided by the studio and whatever work they might have already done on it. There is no evidence of archival damage, fine detail can impress in well-lit close-ups - some low-lit and color gel-lit shots look softer and murkier - and the colors are vivid from the neon lights to Yoshie's clothing as well as the more muted décor of seedy apartments and syndicate meeting spaces. In many of the neon shots that for the psychological backdrop of Yoshie's wanderings, blacks are impenetrably deep and it is likely a studio environment to produce this Stygian environment while the shadows of the film's location work are more diluted by exposure and flaring on the anamorphic lenses.


The sole audio option is an uncompressed Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track in which the dialogue is all post-dubbed always sounding as clear as the scoring. Sound design is rather sparse given the nightlife setting of most of the film, and even the sound of location sequences seem to have been entirely constructed in post. There is some faint hiss evident in the quieter passages. Optional English subtitles are free of errors.


Extras start with an interview with Yoshio Nakamura, son of director Noboru Nakamura (15:45) who reveals that his father came from a theatrical family – his grandfather was a samurai who became a kabuki playwright – so it was only natural that he would join Shochiku which started out as such. He also reveals that fellow directors Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba) and Kôzaburô Yoshimura (Rica 3: Juvenile's Lullaby) were dissatisfied with Shochiku's treatment of their projects and tried to convince his father to go freelance with them, but his father felt a loyalty to the company.

"Major Changes" (13:15) is a visual essay by Tom Mes who discusses the history of Shochiku and how during the first half of the century it had been the leading trendsetting studio including the "Japanese New Wave" of Yasujirô Ozu and Nagisa Ôshima. Feeling that the new wave directors had too much control, the studio split with the movement – Ozu died in 1963 and Ôshima left the studio – and moved towards popular genres including the pink genre which had previously been the domain of back alley theaters. 1964 not only saw Shochiku's Nakamura's more conventional melodrama The Shape of Night but also the softcore erotic film Daydream – one of the studio's efforts that did see play in the United States, albeit in dubbed form with the deletion of some footage and addition of new color sequences – before another decision to steer away from pink films that became the domain of competing studios like Nikkatsu.

An Easter Egg features a Yoshio Nakamura interview outtake called "Yoshio Nakamura's Baseball Memories" (5:27) in which he recalls one of the pastimes shared by himself and his father while living near the studio.


The disc comes with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow, and the first three thousand copies are presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable obi strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings and also include a 27-page booklet featuring "Beautiful Downer" by Chuck Stephens who discusses the ways in which the story of the film is "as old as exploitation itself," the work of Nakamura and Kuwano as well as the influence of Oshima in whose previous works she had become known. The booklet also features a reprinting of an article by Nakamura on the film in which he discusses the source story and how the relationship between a woman and her pimp grabbed him, as well as discussing how to realize it cinematographically.


Reading on paper like every other Japanese prostitution melodrama, Noboru Nakamura's The Shape of Night distinguishes itself in the execution which has been compared to the work of Douglas Sirk and as a precursor to the films of Wong Kar-wai.


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