Written and directed by Ryu Murakami, who also wrote Takashi Miike’s “Audition”, “TOKYO DECADENCE” (aka. “Topaz”, 1992) is a blistering social commentary about Japanese society. Looking at the Dvd cover, one might just see a truly erotic film but if you look beyond the image of Miho Nikaido in the cover, you will see something beyond Japan’s “pink” cinema. This image is sexy, voyeuristic and iconic, and portrays the Asian dominatrix in the cold, pretentious world of the business world. Murakami is a critically acclaimed author responsible for “Almost Transparent Blue” and “In the Miso Soup”. If you think this film is just your usual exploitive Japanese pink film, then you have another think coming…
Ai (Miho Nikaido) is a timid Japanese college girl who tries to make ends meet as an S & M girl for hire within a club that caters very wealthy businessmen and lavish hotel rooms. We follow Ai through her exploits as she encounters some odd and bizarre customers; there’s a shady yakuza/businessman, one drugged up guy who likes being choked, an older guy with a fetish for necrophilia, a girl named Saki who punishes her subservient client called “Turtle face” by making him drink Ai‘s urine. All these events are the basic premise, Ai buys a topaz ring as advised by a fortune teller and she gets messed up by a drug given by Saki as she tries to find the man she had an affair with.
Murakami’s “Tokyo Decadence” is a film with a scathing critical commentary of Japanese society. His compositions have a heavy reliance on symbolism and metaphors. This film was made after Japan’s skyrocketing economic bloom between the late 1980’s and the early 90’s--during a social and economic crisis. Murakami’s storytelling is good, but it will alienate a lot of viewers. His reliance to symbolism isn’t exactly easy to grasp. Suffice it to say, Murakami is criticizing his native people for the reluctance to question authority, the Japanese people’s transient goals and its standardized society. Of course, to get immediate attention, Murakami uses sex as his backdrop, disguising sex and violence as a tool to express his more idealistic goals.
Now there is a good number of kinky scenes and nudity, but if you are expecting a film that is exploitive and totally revolves around its sex scenes then you will be disappointed. Yes, there is girl-on-girl action and the film does have its share of the titillation elements--some are even a bit violent but if you focused on these factors, you will miss exactly what the film is trying to say. As I’ve mentioned, the film relies heavily on symbolism and metaphors. The topaz ring is a symbol for beauty but it is also meant to dispel sadness, anger and depression. The pill represents Ai’s reliance on other people (embodied by Saki) so she can find the courage to find closure in her life; the opposite happens as Ai becomes so drugged out and confused, barely able to stand up. A strong commentary on self reliance is expressed by Murakami.
The film’s structure also has its weaknesses, and our main character lacks some development. All we know is that Ai had an affair with a married man, and her lifestyle choice is a little baffling for the inexperienced viewer or to one unfamiliar with the film’s style. I suppose Murakami meant Ai to remain an enigma, much as any girl we see one day walking by and not see the next day. I guess it was a means to express the indifference to one another between citizens in modern Japan. Is Ai a little unstable? Who is she? Well, no one does really know anything about the other person they see in the sidewalk do they? Ai is meant more as a symbol of the common Japanese folk, than as an individual character in the film. The writer/director does get his point across so long as you look beyond the nudity and sex.
Ai played by Miho Nikaido is quite enigmatic. She is a woman who looks so simple and never really that sultry until she dons that dominatrix outfit. You might say that Nikaido is a woman with secrets and although she looks very timid and shy, there is more to her than meets the eye. Ai is a woman torn by loneliness and self-loathing, which may have contributed to her choice of lifestyle. If you look into her eyes, this is a woman with a great upbringing, and make one a very good wife. Murakami expresses the unnamed victims of an economic downturn, a time where only the elite may prosper--who indulge themselves relentlessly in Japan’s riches.
The director was obviously looking at the dark corners of his native land and I do think he partly succeeds. The film is NOT for everyone and aimed for the esoteric few familiar with this slow-moving metaphorically rich style. This film is a cult classic because of its seriousness, and delivers all its exploitive elements with a straight face. Its scenes of S&M are explicit and kinky, but those scenes aren’t really arousing and more disturbing. It’s a little too vulgar for the thinking “art house” audience and a little too mellow for those looking for truly graphic sex scenes. I guess you have to be in the right mood for this film and expect an offbeat experience--that is both bizarre and weird, worthy of guilty pleasure.
Recommended Timidly because of its mature themes [4- Stars]
Note: There is a rumor circulating that the director’s cut is over 2 hours long but this version is only circulating in Asia. The dvd says uncut and looks better than an R-rating.
The video is in enhanced anamorphic format but kept quite simple, lacks in contrast and some colors look rather murky. I think this was an intentional trick of the cinematography. The 2.0 Dolby surround Japanese Language track is clear and the English subtitles are good.
Extras: Essay by Nicholas Rucka (a must read) and interview with the director Ryu Murakami and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.