(Tokyo Decadence, Japan - 1992)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Miho Nikaido, Hiroshi Mikami, Masahiko Shimada, Sayoko Maekawa
Genre: Drama
Director: Ryu Murakami
Screenplay: Peter Fernandez, Ryu Murakami
Cinematography: Tadashi Aoki
Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Runtime: 135 minutes

It's easy to focus commentary on this movie around the Ai (Miho Nikaido) because she is in every scene, but I see her as a tool to criticize the decline of Japan. The movie, in its own way, shows capitalism ruining the country. More and more, the artists are working elsewhere, and what's left is the salaryman. He works all day and is paid well, but it drains him because it's not fulfilling. He seems like a normal guy, but underneath the nice clothes lies a person almost nobody knows. This is the person who calls the high priced call girl agency that Ai works for to get his bizarre form of sexual gratification. I'd say pleasure, but for the most part we wonder if it's ever pleasurable for either of them.

Ai is shy, very quiet even when she tries to talk loud, sad, and submissive. At least one of her clients sees her as hope for Japan because she's not a salaryman like he is, but really she's much worse off. They get to wake up in the morning and go to work, never thinking of her again aside from maybe some fantasies, but the mental scars her depraved clients give her can't be slept off. There are really only two similarities between the two, both earn a lot of money and neither have any pride. They salarymen think she could work a real job if she wanted to though. However, in her view she's talentless and succumbing to someone else's orders is all she's qualified to do. If she would have had some self-confidence she probably wouldn't have went wrong with her choice of occupation. I think she could have been easily pleased, even happy. Instead, she's just a desperate lost soul looking for somebody, anybody to help her find her way.

Ai isn't the type that wants or expects much from life. Despite the type of work she does, and she gets paid well because her clients are the kinkiest, she's a romantic. Part of the plot involves her longing to be with the one client that actually treated her well. She likes to work with kids, but we figure she didn't have the confidence to get a full time job in that field and her line of work makes it hard for her to have a family of her own.

Ryu Murakami is recognized in Japan as one of the most important figures of Japanese modern literature, and supposedly one of the top 10 people that could change the country. His novels generally question the values of modern Japanese society. He often shows the bleakest part of humanity, and isn't afraid to go deep into the wild side. His first novel Almost Transparent Blue (1976, film in 1980), about a group of hopeless young Japanese, won the prestigious Akutagawa award. It shocked and amazed the audience with its mixture of ultra-violence and sexuality, but is also very poetic when it's not describing gang bangs. Coin Lockers Babies (1980), about the nightmarish lives of two babies that were raised in an orphanage after being dumped in a coin lockers, is considered by Japanese reviewers as his best and strongest work. He can also write softer tales with no sex and violence like Kyoko, the journey of a young Japanese woman searching for an old American friend and touching the heart of the people she meets on her way. This novel is actually the adaptation of the movie he directed in 1995. Takashi Miike's "Audition" is the most famous adaptation of a Murakami work.

Murakami employs a very minimal visual style here. There's purposely no flash to this movie, and no eroticism to the plentiful sex scenes. The movie boasts original music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who came to prominence with his great score and surprisingly show stealing acting in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. He's a big musical star in Japan, but outisde he's most famous for his award winning score for Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Sakamoto really had little to do here because there's very little sound in the movie that doesn't come from the characters, and they aren't exactly overly talkative either. The lighting was, at times, very memorable. The camera, without any inventive technique, is incredibly effective though at capturing the subtlety of Nikaido. I believe Murakami's style was effective for this material because the film is incredibly tense and unflinching. Ai starts to dislike this life more and more, and her fear and self-loathing send her spiraling downward. Reality is shown very frankly, but when she tries to escape through drugs and fantasy, we get the music and heightened production like tracking shots and quicker edits.

Nikaido, who is slightly known as the wife of filmmaker Hal Hartley, isn't likely to earn a lot of respect for this role since she's rarely wearing much clothing and usually being sexually tortured in some way. I admire someone who lays it on the line though, and she was naked both physically and emotionally throughout the film. I was impressed by the subtleties of her mournful performance. She conveys her emotions just enough so that we feel them, but her client doesn't. Without a word, we can see her fear, sadness, etc. By no means is she on that level as a whole, but at times she was reminiscent of Isabelle Huppert.

My biggest problem with the movie was the last segment. I felt the film was quite effective up until this point, but then it has a long and confusing departure that seems to just detract. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred, but although it was effective sometimes, I can't say with any certainty that I fully understood the ending of the film or some of the prior symbolism. Also, away from the "underworld," I felt Murakami eased up too much.

Anyone considering prostitution as a viable option should see this film, which could not present the occupation any more bleakly. Although there's no one scene that eclipses the gang rape of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit To Brooklyn, that nightlong act was edited down to a few minutes. This movie plays like that would have if we were forced to endure it in real time. It's not one to watch for entertainment value, but it succeeds abundantly in showing the call girl profession as a total nightmare that has you living in constant fear. The client that demands trust proceeds to inject a needle into your thigh. When you think a client actually might not be offensive, he drinks your piss from a bowl. Rarely is anything so effecting, so piercing, as this film. I can watch the goriest scenes without being effected, but this is one of the few that have ever made me cringe. It did so because it was so real.




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