Tokyo X Erotica – Takahisa Zeze

21 Dec

Tokyo X Erotica – Takahisa Zeze

Nationality: Japan


Pros: Beautiful, quietly psychedelic and surreal and with very innovative storytelling.  Exquisitely shot. Cons: Can you cope with porn as art?
When reviewing Stacy, I said somewhere that in Japan there is no legal statute to prevent the dodgiest forms of art sometimes being interesting as there seems to be in the west.  If anything, Tokyo X only emphasises that more.  The Japanese have an aesthetic that can take anything onto a new and unexpected level – even what is basically a porn flick.  Why am I now taking a porn flick seriously?  Simple!  This is a very strange, surreal and dreamy piece of cinema.  Only the Japanese could have pulled this off – and the result is not really like anything we are used to.  This site is not just dedicated to the creatively weird in film making – it specifically seeks out the strange and the unusual, the unexpected or the out of place.  Things that challenge all your expectations or your perceptions of what makes an interesting work.  And Tokyo X Erotica certainly does that.

The Japanese can be very bad at sex in films, generally speaking.  They are still very coy about the subject and seem unable to escape from either a cloying, unexploratory chastity or a kind of Miike-style back-flip into the most extreme fantasy they can think of in reaction.  Japanese censorship is also a destructive element in this area of work as, while any amount of gruesome violence is just fine, they are highly prudish about any anatomical details*.  All this together can give Japanese work an unpleasantly ‘dirty’ feel – a murkey unease with the topic and a reluctance to explore beyond  the basics.  Sensible, artistic, level-headed looks into the erotic as an artistic element and sex as a psychological element seems quite thin on the ground.  However, on the fringes of Japanese ‘pink’ or pinku films, some people at least are trying to change that.  Pinku is a curious genre (as far as it can be called such) and one that gathers quite a bit of respect and attention because they can be psychologically complex and often very dark and haunting.  Something you rarely see in the west where erotica is just – well – erotica and often devoid of much beyond the skin it is shoving at you.  As though serious art and arousal are mutually exclusive.

Tokyo X is one of the most interesting Pink films that I have seen and one of the few to tackle this area with real artistic success.  How many other porn films can you think of that start with a scene in a road tunnel following a gas attack?  In how many porn films can a stupid green water pistol kill?  How many other porn films make use of Postmodernist narrative techniques?  In how many other porn films do you suddenly encounter the god of death dressed in a pink bunny suit?

* – Want a depressing example?  An American book called Death Scenes was released in Japan in 1996.  It sounds a depressing book (though mustn’t judge without seeing it!) of graphic images of murder and suicide victims. The censorship boards didn’t like it and objected sharply – but why?  Well yes, some of those maimed and mutilated bodies were naked!!!!

Tokyo X is very much a porn film in foundation – let’s get that quite clear so that there may be no unpleasant surprises for those panicked by such things.  The terms ‘pink’ and ‘porn’ don’t really correlate well but Tokyo X is definitely rooted in that framework.  Essentially it combines porn action with complex sexual psychology and art movie surrealism with sparse and dreamy aesthetic to create something really quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.  Its structure is dictated by a series of pornographic tableau or episodes, acting like bridge piers around which the narrative is slung.  In classic porn movie fashion, various kinds of sex get a look in, even a three-way.  Well-shot and fairly human in approach – safely removed from the meat market.  Sadly, if I were to publish images to back up my claim, I would probably get into trouble with the primative webhosting regulations, so you will have to discover that for yourselves by watching it.

So much for the bridge piers. But what makes the film interesting is the overarching narrative that links all this together.  I say narrative rather than story, because this is anything but a comfortable linear plot.  The Japanese are masters at blending the episodic with the overarching – creating things that are episodic and a single story at one and the same time.  And in this case, in true postmodern fashion, a very delicate and enigmatic web is spun, starting with two deaths and then slowly building up material in flashbacks to surround them and the surreal blending of past and present, living and dead, earth and afterlife, reality and supernatural.  Interspersed with curious ‘interview’ sections and news reports about this latest gas terrorism horror.  It is like a bookworm eating its way through a novel, not reading through a straight span but somehow burrowing through it, layer after layer, until it is all consumed.  The result is very diffuse and unformed, like a dream and, in my opinion, it works perfectly.  It is not nonsense, as many say.  It is not narrativeless and meaningless – instead it is a very quietly unusual way of telling a story – a very Japanese way.  It might need more than one viewing to really get to grips with what is going on.  Like a dream also, the surrealism is not overt, but more in the sense of the atmosphere, with only a few startling moments of genuine strangeness suddenly coming through and hitting you hard.

The story coils through the lives of a handful of young people from Tokyo, filled with the haunting sadness of modern life in the city.  Sometimes painful and violent, sometimes really touching, sometimes downright unnerving.  The green water pistol especially drifts through things as a classic Japanese idée fix ­– sometimes as an agent of birth (filled with semen and used for insemination) and sometimes of death (surreal murder and suicide).  This is the atmosphere of Tokyo – you ride through the city in the rain, glimpsing half-seen beauties and horrors amid the endlessly opening streets.  Faces that might just be familiar – coming and going.  The inability of ever really touching another person, just as you can never really touch the characters in this film as they drift through their city isolation, even as they fuck.  A pop-art sheen fills the world – a slowly drifting haze, concealing pain and tragedy.  You are no longer sure if you are asleep or awake. You believe in ghosts and believe that there are worlds beyond the familiar.  Overhead the stars are shining, some already dead long ago but still glowing for us . . .

And you know what?  There is no way that I am making ‘excuses’ for this film – because they are not needed. Forget the crap you hear about ‘porn’ being meaningless and empty – I have to stand up and shout “This is bloody beautiful!”  It is really nicely done, innovatively shot, extraordinarily structured, quietly psychedelic, involving and very touching/haunting.  The actors do a good job of bringing this to life without looking awkward – which is quite an achievement considering some of the material. It may be a bit heavy handed and dirge-like on occasion, and sometimes feels its low budget like many many interesting films, but this really is a genuinely brilliant piece of art.  It is a film that deserves consideration no matter what it is and a film that could teach a lot of western erotica a thing or two as well.

Bottom line – I am glad this film exists.  It provides a benchmark for a new kind of erotica – uninhibited, psychologically aware and artistically exploratory.  And it also stands as a strange and dreamy symphony of modern love in all its bitterness and glory.

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