Judge William Lee joined a BDSM club thinking it had something to do with Hellboy.
"Trust is the key to S&M play. Trust me. I won't hurt you."
Writer-director Ryu Murakami's Tokyo Decadence (also known by the title Topâzu) is a social critique of Japanese business culture dressed up in leather and PVC.
Facts of the Case
Ai (Miho Nakaido, Going Under) is a timid young woman in Tokyo who works as a call girl for an agency that caters to S&M customers. Her days are spent sitting in the park, shopping and playing arcade video games. At night, Ai visits expensive hotels where she plays the dominatrix or submissive—whichever gets the client off. These kinky meetings range from the humorously weird to the creepily depraved but they all involve varying degrees of bondage and humiliation.
The cover to this DVD says it is a "cult classic" and, although I was unaware of the movie before now, I can understand how it may have caused a stir when it was initially released in 1992. Even by the standards of today's jaded viewer, some scenes are quite shocking. It is not a hardcore sex film, but Tokyo Decadence makes no bones about its subject matter: adults in fetish clothes involved in sadomasochistic activities. While the camerawork remains tactful and artistic—what is seen on screen is never explicit—the direction leaves no doubt as to what the characters are doing. Admirers of the movie should note, however, that this release from Cinema Epoch is not the 135-minute cut that is reported on IMDb, despite the claim on the packaging that it is the "original uncut version."
At the center of the film is Miho Nakaido's enigmatic performance as Ai. Here is a character so broadly drawn that she is something of a mystery, yet her small mannerisms suggest such a specific and fragile personality that it's easy to feel sympathetic toward her. Very little of her history is spelled out for viewers. We learn that she enjoys working with children and she knows sign language. Ai doesn't display much enthusiasm for her work, but she also shows much resilience given the punishment she endures when servicing her clients. There is the sense that Ai's motivation is equal parts survival (she believes that she has no real talent) and self-loathing (she is very competent dishing out and receiving punishment).
The mysterious pain that drives Ai is what makes her so interesting. Consequently, it is a letdown when a piece of her history emerges: her former lover is an internationally renowned composer, now married and a father. Surely, there's more to Ai than simply a broken heart? In the third act of the movie, Ai goes to a wealthy residential neighborhood in search of her ex-lover. Unfortunately she is suffering the side effects of a drug her friend has given her and she wanders through the streets as a drunken mess. The painfully protracted final act really frustrated my sympathy for Ai. At once, I was both sad for, and tired of, her predicament. I didn't really expect a happy ending to this story, but after seeing Ai humiliated by others for much of the movie, it angered me to see her cause her own unhappiness.
The sex scenes (it's arguable whether that's an accurate description) do contain some potent erotic energy. But it comes not from an atmosphere of sensuality, but rather from the anxious imbalance of power and control. Whereas the bondage play in Secretary was about those characters attempting to make an intimate connection with each other, the scenes depicted in Tokyo Decadence are quite the opposite. Here, the characters seem to prefer dissociation from each other and from the sex act itself. They may get off from the experience but they are emotionally numb.
This view of Tokyo is comprised of empty streets in the early morning hours and penthouse suites situated far above the crowds of humanity. Rendered in blue steel and glass, barely lit by small pools of light, it feels like a lonely place for lost souls with dead dreams. The look is essential for maintaining the mood for this kinky drama and it is unfortunately that it is delivered here in a substandard transfer. The picture varies from soft to blurry. The colors are slightly washed out and shadow areas are murky. The mono audio mix adequately presents the minimalist soundtrack with some atmospheric music.
Although Cinema Epoch has merely reiterated the U.S. cut of the movie, there are a couple of nice extras on this disc. The stills gallery includes a few posters and promotional materials. The essay by film critic Nicholas Rucka is an informative introduction to the movie. On the disappointing side, there is an eight-minute featurette (the first four minutes are clips from the movie) that doesn't provide much insight on the film. We see the cast and crew at the wrap party, the director is briefly interviewed, and in a separate interview we hear from composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor). The Japanese trailer is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nicholas Rucka's essay, presented as a series of frames with text, talks about the Japanese socio-economic situation in relation to this story's creation. Rucka's familiarity with the director's work lets him see this story as a continuation of his criticism of modern Japanese society. It does put a new spin on the events of the movie to see Ai not as a single individual but rather as a symbol for an entire class of people who were let down by their loyalty to a certain work ethic. It makes sense that a fetishistic movie can be better appreciated if we dissociate the protagonist from her humanity: it's not a story about Ai being repeatedly humiliated; it's an allegory for all workers being humiliated. At any rate, the essay works quite well as an introduction to the movie.
Whether you see it as a sex movie with undertones of social commentary or a social allegory spiced up with perverse sex, Tokyo Decadence is hard to turn away from for a good two-thirds of its running time. The change of scenery and direction doesn't feel right with what has gone before it. The disappointing picture transfer doesn't help matters either.
This disc is guilty. Cinema Epoch, get down on all fours and prepare to take your punishment.
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