Monday, 24 October 2011

TOKYO DECADENCE (1992)

 
Writer, director and producer Ryu Murakami was the warped
mastermind behind Takashi Miiki's Audition (1999). That one fact is probably all you need be aware of to form a fairly accurate idea about what to expect from his 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was adapted from the director's own novel. In its original 135 minute Japanese cut, the film was entitled Topaz; the present title comes from the 112 minute U.S. cut, which removes some of the more explicit sexual content in order to avoid an 'X' certificate. The film tells the story of Ai Sakakibara (Miho Nikaido, wife of indie director Hal Hartley), a call-girl with a female-run Tokyo escort agency that supplies girls to high-powered businessmen with a taste for sexual sadism. Using a similarly low-key approach to his own material as was evidenced by Miiki in his treatment of Audition, Murakami gradually builds up a grimly depressing character portrait based around one lost and lonely abused soul.

Submissive and emotionally numb to the point of catatonia (qualities which make her much sought after by the agency's abusive white collar clients), Ai stumbles from one degrading sexual exploit to another in a succession of identical arid rooms lining the featureless corridors of an expensive, high-class multi-story Tokyo hotel.

Her first encounter sets the tone for the rest of the film: a well-dressed tycoon makes her stand at his central hotel room's large window overlooking the concrete high-rise cityscape — and masturbate ... for several hours! Next, he makes her crawl around on her hands and knees with a vibrator lodged inside her while he makes out with his girlfriend on the couch. Finally, Ai has to join-in their lovemaking while the tycoon has sex with the other woman.
Ai submits to all this (and the whole episode takes up at least twenty minutes of the film) with a detached resignation and a dead look in her sad eyes. Far from this being the result of Ai becoming hardened over time to the kind of degrading acts she is regularly called on to perform, it gradually emerges that her emotionless facade is an attempt to numb herself to lingering feelings for a previous client with whom she has previously fallen hopelessly in love. Ai's meek character and superstitious nature, as well as her tendency towards a dreamy romanticism, lead her to follow the (somewhat random) instructions of a fortune-teller to the very letter, obsessive-compulsive style: placing a telephone directory underneath her television set, avoiding museums in the eastern sector of the city and investing huge emotional significance in a piece of pink precious stone which the fortune teller instructs her to have made into a ring. Filmed with a detached documentary blandness (although most of the apparent 'grittiness' of the imagery has probably more to do with the poor transfer used for the disc, than anything else) the film reserves all its 'colour' for the cameo parade of vile clients and their unwholesome sexual peccadilloes: there's a bizarre auto-asphyxiation addict who enjoys being strangled in the act of coitus; a wine connoisseur who wants to strangle Ai as part of his particular necrophilia  fantasy; and a submissive businessman called 'Turtlehead', and his dominatrix mistress who forces him to drink Ai's urine from a gold plated bowl! Between these episodes, Ai returns to her cheap apartment and sits brooding in silence on her lost love: the degradations of her job are becoming the externalised expression of her own inner pain and turmoil.

Inevitably, the film stands or falls on the performance of its lead actor, and, here, Miho Nikaido gives more of herself than should normally be expected of any performer in a movie. Although the film observes the usual Japanese taboo concerning displaying pubic hair on screen, Nikaido still takes part in some pretty extreme and protracted sexual scenes that go further than most soft-core exploits. While the Takishi Miiki connection is an obvious reference point (and any potential audience this film might have will probably come from that sector of Asian cinema fandom that enjoys Miiki's offbeat approach), there is also a marked air of Lynchian strangeness surrounding the film. A succession of oddball characterisations and a protagonist whose gradually fracturing identity leads her further into a nightmarish illogical world are well-worn Lynchian motifs; and a scene in which the dominatrix, Saki, takes Ai back to her plush, subtly-lit minimalist apartment and ends up performing an impromptu mime to an old record (with an electric dildo substituting as a microphone!) recalls many similar scenes from the Lynch filmography.


The final half-hour of the film abandons any comprehensible narrative altogether in favour of a series of encounters with a strange singer (who claims to have been a rival for Ai's absent lover's affections) and a pill-fuelled trek through the suburban areas of Tokyo city, during which Ai appears to suffer some sort of personality breakdown. The abstract (and somewhat incoherent) ending and a generally detached, Antonioni-esque approach throughout, places this effort more in the art-house camp than the exploitation bracket and there is a wonderfully diverse score by the great Ryuichi Sakamoto, that ranges from austere synthesised classical pastiche to psychedelic jazz wig-outs that sound like they've come on loan from a '70's Jess Franco flick.

One is left with more than just a slight feeling of befuddlement at the end of it all; the second half of the film, and particularly the last twenty minutes, has a radically different feel to the sex-drenched nihilism of most of the rest of the work. There is something of an improvisational quality to the final scenes that leaves the impression that there was no clear intent behind the project to begin with; yet Miho Nikaido's committed performance cannot help but entrance the viewer with its stark simplicity and honesty.

The DVD from ArrowDrome is a re-release of the previous Arrow Films disc which still features the same poor artefact-ridden transfer, but this time in an anamorphic format. Again, it still appears to be a NTSC-PAL conversion job which means the image is soft and sometimes blurry; darker scenes in particular look quite bad.

Company: ArrowDrome/Format: DVD/Region: 2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1/Original Release Date: 1992/Genre: Asian Cinema
Director: Ryu Murakami/Cast: Miho Nikaido, Sayoko Amano

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