Judge William Lee blushes at the sight of fuzzy grey blobs.
"We're living in an age when young housewives work in brothels."
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest film studio, Impulse Pictures brings to North American DVD a series of soft-core sex films from the company's fruitful but controversial output of the 1970s and 1980s. The informative two-page liner note by Japanese cinema scholar Jasper Sharp, co-editor of the specialist Japanese film website Midnight Eye, that accompanies the disc helps put Debauchery into perspective. By 1980, audiences had had ten years to get used to the Pink films or eroductions that regularly played in movie houses. With the growing popularity of adult movies for the home video market, Nikkatsu had to up the ante to keep viewers so they ventured into S&M. Debauchery, or Ryôshoku, is a good example of just how far filmmakers could push the boundaries of soft-core erotic entertainment. Perhaps even more shocking than the on-screen depravity is how much this skin flick resembles a legitimate movie.
Ami (Ryôko Watanabe) is a content but restless housewife. Her surgeon husband, who often works late or goes away to conferences, loves her but he's not exactly a passion powerhouse. When her husband's creepy colleague tells Ami about a Tokyo prostitution club where "there are even happy wives there who are just like you," her curiosity gets the better of her. At the Madame Machiko Society Club, Ami experiences the thrill of being bought by strange men. Mostly, the clientele like to tie up and whip her. Ami finds these perverse encounters oddly satisfying but her secret life threatens to destroy her happy mainstream existence.
Debauchery is a reworking of Belle de Jour with more bondage and whipping. Where the latter left much to viewers' imaginations, the Japanese version spends considerable effort staging the filthy fantasies of its characters. That's not to say the film lacks finesse. Writer-director Hidehiro Itô creates an almost-dreamlike mood and adds unexpected touches that make scenes as thought provoking as they are titillating. When a spider crawls up Ami's body, is she paralyzed by a fear of spiders or is it a symbol of her arousal? Hidehiro Itô's extensive producing credits include Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl and collaborations with Takeshi Miike (Yakuza Demon). Though the story and characters here aren't complex, his direction of the material is more than adequate and even elevates the movie from merely pandering to base distractions.
Lacking sufficient exposure to the bondage and sadomasochism subculture, I can't speak to how accurately Debauchery depicts attitudes of persons in such a relationship. It should be obvious that this movie is a dark erotic fantasy and the domination-submission dynamic is a part of it. Ami is never shown to be in control during her sessions with the prostitution club clients, though her consent is implied (at least in the beginning). Ryôko Watanabe is an attractive presence in the lead role but she isn't required to bring more dimension to her submissive housewife character. The recurring theme of the story seems to tie women's sexual liberation to their submission. A subplot involving a domineering woman eventually leads to a correction of her power status. It isn't a leap to view the movie as misogynistic but such an objection ignores the specific fantasy scenario being played out here. The movie's attitude could be a sign of its time or maybe it's just behind the times. Suffice it to say, this is not the kind of soft-core movie that will appeal to all tastes.
As boundary pushing as the sex and nudity on display is, the movie still conforms to the peculiar censorship rules of Japanese cinema. In observance of the "no pubic hair" rule, female nudity is very deliberately photographed so that implied full nudity isn't explicitly so. The filmmakers deserve credit for filming such daring sex scenes and still getting them past the censors. However, a much more aesthetically offensive move is the optical blocking of male rears. Apparently, the sight of men's naked butts was so objectionable that they had to cover those parts with a fuzzy grey blob over the picture. The grey blob is ugly and hugely distracting but such is the price of avoiding the sight of male buttocks.
The Impulse Pictures DVD sports a very attractive 1.85:1 anamorphic picture. Colors look very nice with a slightly warm bias and appealing saturation levels. In two lengthy scenes awash in red light, the colors remained very stable and exhibited no bleeding. Image sharpness is good though fine detail suffers in wide shots. While the movie certainly looks like it came from film stock of the 1980s, the image shows almost no instances of physical imperfections like scratches, dust and optical pops. The soundtrack is presented on two-channel mono and it works just fine for the movie. Dialogue can be heard (though I relied on the English subtitles) along with the moody background music.
A Japanese trailer is the only extra included on the disc. As mentioned at the start of this review, an insert features a two-page introduction by Jasper Sharp, the go-to person for historical insight on Asian sleazy cinema.
Fans of Asian cinema that pushes the boundaries won't be disappointed by Debauchery. The movie manages to be shocking, titillating, surreal, culturally unique and historically noteworthy. Impulse Pictures' treatment of the first release in their Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection manages to make this vintage sex film seem almost classy.
Not guilty but very, very naughty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Impulse Pictures
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