Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid: Tokyo Decadence (1992) (NSFW) Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid: Tokyo Decadence (1992) (NSFW)
The latest entry in my series "Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid" about the depiction of BDSM in movies. This time, I review the almost... Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid: Tokyo Decadence (1992) (NSFW)

This month’s release of Fifty Shades of Grey gave me the idea for my review mini-series “Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid” about films that deal with the topic “BDSM” in one way or another. My first review about Quills (2000) can be found here.
Following the regular review, I will give the film a separate rating solely based on its “(super)naughty” moments in a “Perv-o-meter”, that ignores the overall quality of the film.

The plot:
Tokyo Decadence aka Topãzu (original title) is a film written and directed by the Japanese novel writer Ryû Murakami, who had already directed three movies before that, one being an adaptation of his own novel Almost Transparent Blue (1979).

Topãzu (I prefer the original title) is a look into the life of a young callgirl called Ai (Miho Nikaido), who finances her life as student of social studies that way. Ai has an unusually demure, passive personality, even for Japanese standards, that’s why she is mainly booked by customers with sadistic and dominant tendencies.
The minimalist plot of Topãzu consists mainly of a series of vignettes that depict Ai’s experiences, with each episode dedicated to one customer and different in tone than the one before, held together by a framing device showing her helpless attempts to get a grip on “real” life.
The protagonist is a bit of a “lost soul”, who is drifting through life when she is not at work, spending plenty of time indulging in her daydreams about reuniting with an art gallery owner who once dropped her after a short affair. She is also very gullible and superstitious (not an unusual trait among Japanese people), which leads her to buy a far too expensive ring adorned with a pink topaz stone (hence the original title) following the advice of a clairvoyant.
The ring becomes a story device that is propelling the plot when it gets lost in the hotel room of a customer one day and Ai desperately tries to retrieve it, not only because she invested most of her savings into that piece of jewellery, but also firmly believes in its assumed lucky powers.

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Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Ryu Murakami (not related with Haruki Murakami) and his body of work. In his books, he masterfully combines lurid plots with pointed dialogue and uncomfortable observations on human nature and society like only a few other writers can (James Ellroy, Bruce Wagner, Bret Easton Ellis…).
1976 Murakami debuted with his novel Almost Transparent Blue, a nihilistic breakdown of the dark sides of the drug-filled late 60s, which he turned into a movie in 1979. Some excursions in different genres followed, but his most successful works are located in the thriller genre, with works like In the Miso Soup from 1997, a grim serial killer tale that again examines the Japanese sex industry and Piercing from 1994, which deals with uncontrollable murderous impulses. His most famous novel is probably Audition (1997) though, which was infamously adapted for film in 1999 by director Takashi Miike, one of the few movie adaptations in history that were fully embraced by the author of the source material.
Murakami’s works are marked by a nihilistic tone made bearable by some splashes of dark humour, a great sense for dialogue and characterization and an unflinching look at the pitfalls of Japanese society.

Indeed, the man does not shy away from exposing the dark spots that are hidden under the mild-mannered demeanour of his fellow countrymen and -women, without taking himself out of the equation. There is a socio-critical subtext in each of his works and Topãzu is no exception.
But at no point the audience gets slammed over the head with a heavy-handed, index-finger swinging “message”. The film perfectly strikes the balance between reflecting the artist’s perspective and letting enough room for the viewers to form their own opinion.

Cunningly, Murakami imitates a typical narrative form (if you can call it that way) of a series of loosely connected vignettes as it is common in the soft erotic genre to lure the audience in, just to drag them down the void instead of serving the anticipated cheap thrills.
When Ai’s first encounter with a customer- a business man with connections to the Yakuza and a predilection for humiliating women in elaborate, almost ritualistic sex games- starts with a hypnotic striptease, one may still feel like being in for a ride into the “realm of senses” (although the eponymous film is no light fare either), but as the procedures the protagonist has to go through become more and more demeaning and unusual, we start to feel uncomfortable and want to look away, but we are not allowed to. During the whole movie, the camera never pans away from the happenings, making the viewer a powerless involuntary observer who cannot leave the scene anymore at this point, for some reason still glued to the screen, despite the cruel events the plot mercilessly heaps on Ai.

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The episodes differ in tone, according to the character of the customer Ai is confronted with. In the first episode, she has to deal with the aforementioned dominant manager type who even involves his equally bossy wife into the session. Another segment has an almost darkly comical tone, when Ai and a fellow callgirl nearly strangle a customer, who insisted on erotic asphyxiation, to death, while a more disturbing incident has a rich customer demanding her to play dead so he can live out his necrophiliac fantasies. The latter situation is also one of the few moments when Ai shows some initiative and refuses to participate.
Her more passive nature is demonstrated again though when she has to take over the dominant role for a change, under the guidance of an experienced dominatrix (Sayoko Amano) and is unable to identify with that role.

When Ai finally can bring up some kind of motivation to fulfil her dream, clinging to which was the only hope that made her life worthwhile, namely to reunite with her lost love, it is also only due to a drug the dominatrix gave her with the promise it would lend Ai “the power of a lion”. Naturally that does not end well.

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My verdict:
Using BDSM as a metaphor for something else in a film usually did not really end well in many cases, as the topic is already complex enough to stand for itself. In the infamous “The Night Porter” from 1974, starring Charlotte Rampling, for example, its depiction serves to portray the twisted relationship between a female holocaust survivor and her former torturer. It does get the message across, but also paints BDSM as something that is just an expression of an abusive relationship, not a controlled situation that allows the participants to let their passion go wild.
Now one could easily think that it is the same case in Tokyo Decadence, that BDSM is just symbolizing the oppression of the Japanese sex workers and as a sign of the decay of Japanese society. Yet, the film is much more subtle than that.

While Murakami undoubtedly criticizes the way sex workers are treated in his home country and how in particular Ai is forced into a role that does not fit her just due to her natural temperament, he is never judging the practices shown on screen. Actually, as unlikable and creepy some of the customers are, they show their most vulnerable and undisguised side when they give in to their secret desires.
In the prologue, when a costumer tells a tied up and blindfolded Ai that he can trust her, because “trust is one of the foundations of BDSM”, he subsequently betrays that trust by injecting her heroine against her will. It is an almost paradoxical demonstration of how the rules of BDSM can be “perverted”.  Another plot twist that may be perceived as a paradox is that even when Ai may be thrown into some situations that most of us would perceive as disturbing and maybe even disgusting, she never gets more abused than in the end of the movie, when she is confronted with the inhabitants of a posh suburb, who instinctively recognize her as a threat of their sheltered lifestyle. By showing that, Murakami tricked us into thinking of her preceding experiences in the nightlife of Tokyo as being less awful all of a sudden.

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Is Tokyo Decadence/Topãzu a calculating, manipulative film? I would say “Yes”, but in a good way.
As I mentioned above, Murakami seems to have done some research in the “scene” and the audience never feels as if they would get served some made-up bullshit, yet he never claims to serve us a realistic “snapshot” of the environment he is depicting, despite all the accuracy on display, nor does he take the role of an “objective observer”, despite a somewhat clinical and distanced perspective. The former is something that is hard to do and can, in the worst case it can render the movie redundant as the topic would have probably better be suited for a documentary, the latter one is a stance that has been frequently abused by filmmakers who hide behind the stance of the “detached observer” to make us feel guilty by shoving their judgemental world views down our throats in the most passive-aggressive way (looking at you, Michael Haneke).
Murakami is not shy about identifying his movie through some artistic choices as a piece of art and not an exact reflection of reality. The unwieldy structure of the film and the cold atmosphere are softened by image compositions that shine with simple elegance and some excellent editing. By adding the subplots about the topaz-ring and Ai’s Ex, the film can maintain some tension throughout its running time, even providing some sense of closure and catharsis in the last act.
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Murakami’s background as writer is tangible in the dialogue, that is lifelike enough to lend the characters some authenticity, but is interspersed with lines that have a more literary, philosophical quality to them and sometimes veer into a surreal and dreamy direction.
When the Yakuza/Salary Man guy slicks Ai’s hair back with gel so it sticks to her head like a helmet, he says: “One of the most important things of a woman is her hair. I understand why the Nazis cut off all the women’s hair.” The permanently drugged dominatrix, who is also not very passionate about her job and sees it mainly as her way to take revenge on the society that ostracized her tells Ai that “(…) it is this country that is rich. But it’s not proud of its wealth. It drives our man to masochism out of anxiety.”

“Loneliness” is one of the main themes of Tokyo Decadence. Ai is learning sign language during her social studies, as she wants to help the deaf-mute people because they “are so lonely”, not realizing that she is the most lonely person herself. Murakami points out that even in the Japanese society, that is built on the very concept of “reliance on others” and compliance, some people still slip through the cracks and end up on the lowest rung of the social ladder, only to be exploited by members of the wealthier societal classes. Not that those feel any happier.

The acting by Miho Nikaido is tremendous, it’s a fearless and very engaging performance. All the other actresses and actors are very convincing as well. Visually, the film pulls off the contradictory feat of framing the ugliness and grit of the early 90s (cinema) in a very elegant manner. Worth pointing out is also the soundtrack, a melange of irritating electric organ soundscapes, old Japanese crooner songs and old Latin American standard songs. The title theme is a haunting tune featuring an electric organ and a very prominent bassline.

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Bottom line:
Topãzu is a tricky affair. First we are lured in with the promise of a titillating erotic tale, then we get shocked by a slew of outrageous BDSM scenes, till we suddenly really care for Ai’s fate in the end.
Under a layer of depravity, misanthropy and coldness is a thought-provoking film that deserves to be seen. Director Ryu Murakami is one of those artists that look into the abyss for us, so we don’t have to and if you also believe that true humanism is only possible if we confront ourselves with this abyss once in a while, I can only recommend it.


 

Perv-o-meter:
Where to start? This movie does not pull any punches. Plenty of (female and male) nudity, of course. All kinds of consensual sexual humiliation, like playing dog, for example. Scenes featuring gagging, bondage and whipping. There is a short glimpse of a practice that involves the draining of blood like for a donation. It was also the first time I was ever confronted with the practice of “pegging” (google that yourself, I am not into explaining). Someone drinks a bowl filled with urine and so on… By the way, the film also has a lot of scenes showing drug abuse involving needles, if you feel queasy about such things.
9/10 Perv-o-meter points. This is pretty strong stuff, considering it is high-profile release and not an underground production. It is still shocking after more than twenty years.

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DetectiveDee

Detective Dee reviews movies and sometimes TV-series. He likes to indulge in the Asian cinema, exploitation flicks and the horror genre but is no stranger to Blockbuster culture either. He writes whatever he wants, but always aims to entertain.

  • belly up

    Wow! What an engaging deconstruction! Fascinating. Superior writing, Dee.

  • Thank you! looking back, I rather see the unpleasant flaws…ugh.

  • belly up

    Pfffft! No such thing. It’s perf.