One of several projects Naruse made after war’s end that uses a current social issue as a container for mild prurience. The topic is the reform of prostitutes, who are herded into a therapeutic institution and shepherded through crises, many of them syphilis-related, by kindly administrator Izumi (So Yamamura, in his first work with Naruse). The toughest nut for the establishment to crack is the rebellious, flamboyant Yukawa (Mitsuko Miura, later the conventional sister in LIGHTNING), who clings to self-justifications that the film intends to beat out of her. Though WHITE BEAST improves on the repetitive, overly signposted drama of its predecessor THE ANGRY STREET, its script, which Naruse co-wrote with Motosada Nishiki, leaves something to be desired. In addition to its tendentious social mission, the film seems more interested in devising a series of lurid incidents – a protracted catfight, flagrant attempts at seduction, syphilis-induced insanity – than in establishing a point of view on the characters. Yukawa, the film’s dramatic center, suffers particularly from this focus on the sensational, as her strategies to defeat the system are so exaggerated and sexualized that they don’t register as characterization.
Of course, exaggeration and caricature are tools that Naruse commonly uses; and if the lurid proceedings throw the film off balance, they don’t strand the director in uncongenial territory. Gradually WHITE BEAST accumulates memorable moments: an unnerving scene of a distraught Yukawa smashing panes of glass with her bare hands; the unexpectedly bleak and anti-dramatic conclusion of a subplot involving one of the prostitutes (Chieko Nakakita, in the first of 22 performances for Naruse) and the man she had promised to marry before the war; the account of a minor character’s tortured offscreen death from syphilis (“At the end, she yelled out ‘Banzai’ and got quiet”); the stricken Yukawa lying in bed with a surrealist vision of rippling water and an unidentified child; a final long shot of Yukawa silhouetted against an ambiguous sunrise. But the film’s problematic aspects never abate, even as it piles up points. One bizarre scene transition, in which the institution’s doctor (Kimiko Iino) blatantly reverses a promise of secrecy with the bland benevolence of a Buñuel authority figure, makes one wonder whether Naruse was taking potshots at the film’s propagandistic mandate. But no clear pattern of subversion emerges.