Tokyo X Erotica – Takahisa Zeze
|Pros: Beautiful, quietly psychedelic and surreal and with very innovative storytelling. Exquisitely shot.Cons: Well – I have to say the not inconsiderable and pornographic sex. That is not a con in this case of course, but it could put off a lot of people.|
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! As well as a sex film, this is actually a very strange, surreal and dreamy piece of cinema. Only the Japanese could have pulled this one 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, by that standard, Tokyo X Erotica fits the bill perfectly.
The Japanese are 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, simply in reaction against the norm. Japanese censorship is also a destructive element in this area of work as, while any amount of gruesome violence seems to be ok, they are highly prudish about any anatomical details*. All this together can give Japanese work a really unpleasantly ‘dirty’ feel and the one thing you don’t see much of is sensible, artistic, level-headed looks into the erotic as an artistic element and sex as a psychological element – taking it seriously and escaping from the Japanese stereotypes. However, there is one rather underground ‘genre’ of movies that are at least trying to change that – with varying degrees of success. This is the‘pink’ or pinku film – a rather wide-ranging Japanese term covering almost any film that tackles sexual subjects. It is a curious genre (as far as it can be called such) and one that gathers quite a bit of respect and attention, which is strange for an erotica genre until you actually take a look at it. Pink films can be remarkably psychologically complex and often very dark and haunting. Something you rarely see in the west where erotica is just – well – erotica and usually devoid of anything 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 (I haven’t seen many!) and one of the few i have seen to tackle this area with what could be called real 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 huge 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 at all in general and pink films are often more about complex sexual psychology than explicit action. But, Tokyo X is one of the exceptions to that, which only makes it more curious that it should be such a haunting work. Essentially it combines both complex sexual psychology AND action (though not actually hugely explicit) – as well as a really nice 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 different kinds of sex get a look in, even a three-way. But I have to say, it is all very tastefully and artily done and about as far as it is possible to get from what you would expect from porn in the west. (Porn = boring and total absence of art by and large). Sadly, if I were to publish images to back up my claim, I would probably get into trouble with 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 a collection 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 by curious ‘interview’ sections and news reports of the latest horror – the gas attack. It is like a book worm 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 making their presence felt. 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? I have to be bold here. Not make any excuses because they are not needed. Even though it is a porn film, I have to stand up and shout “This is bloody beautiful!” It is really nicely done, beautifully and innovatively shot, extraordinarily structured, quietly psychedelic and really involving and touching/haunting. The actors do a beautiful 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, but it really is a genuinely brilliant piece of art. And people really shouldn’t be frightened away from it by the fact that it is such a sexually explicit work. It is a film that deserves consideration no matter what it is. It could teach most western erotica a thing or two, I can tell you that at least.
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.