Whatever your vice, Judge William Lee hopes you live long and prosper.
"I know you, Juliette. I know what you like. You like wickedness."
Few, if any, pornographers have the cachet of the Marquis de Sade. The aristocrat-pervert of 18th century France wrote his most infamous works while imprisoned, but his stories live on in various translated forms. Inspired by those classics of erotic literature, Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice transplants de Sade's themes to 1920s Japan. When East meets West, which culture's sense of depravity will reign supreme?
Facts of the Case
A decadent count in 1920s Japan sets up an exclusive theater to entertain his rich and powerful friends. Criminals and other lowlifes, under threat of imprisonment or worse, act out stories by the Marquis de Sade for the purpose of teaching the pleasure of vice to the audience. When the count commands a thief to rape his wife, he doesn't anticipate the two of them becoming real lovers.
Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice, also known as Akutoku no sakae in its home country, is a fine example of a particular genre of erotic cinema from Japanese movie studio Nikkatsu. When ticket sales were dropping off in the 1970s, Nikkatsu shifted its production efforts to making sex films. These weren't strictly pornographic films, but rather darkly themed stories with ample nudity and simulated sex. In many ways, Prosperities of Vice resembles a '70s era exploitation film helmed by David Lynch under the banner of Zalmon King.
Since the script makes repeated references to de Sade's novels Justine and Juliette, the movie is a bit too literary for general viewers. The count considers himself to be the Marquis de Sade in his closed world of sexual excess. His wife, rescued from a brothel, is his equivalent of a Juliette—she also plays that role in their stage shows. As scenes blend between the real world, the stage world and flashbacks, it isn't easy to distinguish the reality of the count and his wife from what may only be their fantasy life. Perhaps that hard distinction doesn't matter as much as the count's desire to live in the licentious realm of his mind.
The entire movie has a fantasy atmosphere, due to its visual style (more on that later) and the disconnected aspects of its story. The interior world of the count's theater may or may not co-exist with the outside world. It's unclear who attends the performances. When a murder occurs in the theater, there are no police investigating the incident, yet it features in the newspapers. Aside from the tension that comes from the affair between the count's wife and the thief, there isn't a strong narrative thrust for the movie. Often it feels like we're witnessing a series of loosely related events meant to parallel the life and writings of the Marquis de Sade. That might be more meaningful to viewers who are already intimate with his work.
The packaging for this Mondo Macabro DVD release states "this is the first time the film has been released outside Japan." Treated to a new transfer, the movie looks quite good for its age despite some flaws in the source material. Dust and debris is a minor annoyance; the reel change cues are visible; and the corners of the frame are rounded slightly. Individually, none of these flaws are totally distracting but together they do remind us that this is an aged film print source. On the positive side: the image is reasonably sharp most of the time, the colors look natural aside from a slightly pale tone in some scenes and the deep blacks exhibit only a tiny amount of grain. The stereo sound is adequate with clear dialogue and the moody music and sound effects having strong representation. However, there is a slight hissing sound throughout the movie.
The movie is accompanied with some nice extras that put it into context with Japanese genre cinema. "Erotic Empire" is an insightful 24-minute documentary about the emergence and history of the "pink film" in Japanese cinema. Using plenty of clips and interviews with actors and filmmakers, it provides a good overview of this sub-genre of erotic film. Film historian Jasper Sharp provides a separate introduction to Prosperities of Vice in a seven minute featurette. There are also several text screens with more information about the background of the film. In addition to this movie's trailer, there are five other trailers for Nikkatsu titles from the same era.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As his visual style makes clear, director Akio Jissoji (Ultraman, Volume 2, Ten Nights of Dreams) wasn't out to make a typical sex film. The scenes of nudity and depictions of sex aren't graphic and the artful compositions remain striking. High contrast lighting is the dominant strategy so shadows are deep. Rays of light penetrate the darkness in such a manner that there is a surreal and sometimes sinister atmosphere. Some recurring visual themes are hard to make sense of: clocks as jewelry and as restraints; steaming strawberries that pulsate from the torso of a life-size doll. These darkly beautiful images are almost reason enough to wade through the muddy narrative.
Viewers attracted by the enticing title will find Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice to be both more and less than the depraved sex film they may be expecting. The surreal imagery is worth a look, but the vague story requires a lot of patience. It is not easy to dismiss the movie though, thanks to Mondo Macabro's inclusion of a very useful documentary that sheds light on this particular film genre.
The movie fails to make its case but the court appreciates Mondo Macabro's efforts so we'll grant a pardon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
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