It's a Japanese pink film and a meditation upon death, inspired by the 1995 Sarin poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed thirteen people. You'll also see it called the "Aum gas attack", with Sarin being the name of the gas and Aum being the name of the terrorist organisation.
Clearly this isn't an ordinary skin flick.
The reason is that it's a Takahisa Zeze film. He's one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Pink, not to be confused with the "Seven Lucky Gods" from the next generation of pink directors. Zeze sees the two groups as completely different. The Four Heavenly Kings made angrier films that were politically and socially aware. To quote his interview at Midnight Eye:
"AV had so much power, and were using lots of cutesy "idol"-style actresses, so for the films we made from 86-89 we had lots of requests to use these type of actresses. This year we felt that the pink film was very much in danger of extinction, so that was what made me think, if they're disappearing anyway, then we can get to do what we want. That's how we got to be so hated by the "ojisan"!"
"We often used to get together and talk about having our own independent screenings, so on Saturday afternoons we used to meet in a coffee shop in Shinjuku, to make plans. The Athenee Francaise were running independent arthouse screenings and they showed our works in a special event called Shin Nihon Sakashugi Retsuden. [...] We didn't intend to make "art films", but we were talking about heading in that direction. One thing for sure, was that we were a group of people, so we were creating a movement. It's similar to Jean-Luc Godard and the directors of the French New Wave, or Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu with Wakamatsu Productions. We knew that we needed a few of us to make a movement."
"In the 90s in Japan as a whole there was a feeling of crisis. First there was the economic slump, then the Kobe earthquake, the gas attack on the Tokyo subway, several murder cases involving young people and so on. There was a sense of crisis. I and maybe also the other directors were trying to fight something. There was the sense that there was an enemy that had to be fought against. That was a very strong motivation for all of us, this wish to look for topics that allowed us to relate to all these problems happening around us."
"The last few years this has changed a bit. Japan is calming down. At the same time pink films have also continued to be around and nobody talks about crisis anymore. If you look at the films of the younger generation of pink film directors, the 'shichifukujin', they don't have this sense of struggle. They make films that relate to themselves and to a very tiny world that surrounds them. They don't try to present a new vision of society or ask questions relating to broad topics, but work on a more personal level. The framework is getting smaller. [...] There's this lukewarm feeling. Young people lack urgency and seem to have forgotten what happened at the end of the millennium."
Obviously this is the early 2000s, before Fukushima and the 2008 financial crisis. Talking about his attitude to pink films:
"I try to show relationships, I make films about love. It's not just about the act of having sex, but what leads up to it and what comes after. What are the feelings of the people before, while they do it and after they did it? It's this development that interests me. I don't care very much about rape, because it's very one-sided and doesn't allow for this kind of development."
The Four Heavenly Kings drifted away from pink in the 21st century. Kazuhiro Sano is now just an actor. Hirayasu Sato took a seven-year break from the business, but has directed a few movies more recently. Toshiki Sato and Takahisa Zeze kept directing, but started making mainstream films too. "Their motivation had a lot to do with political activism. They made films out of anger, and there just isn't a market for it now." Zeze though will swap to and fro. He likes making pink films because he has the artistic freedom that comes with a guaranteed audience and hardly any money. However he's also made mainstream films in all kinds of genres, e.g. SF, horror, comedy and straight dramatic adaptations of novels.
My favourite habit of his is his personal titles. A Zeze film will have the release title that everyone knows, but sometimes it'll also have a "Zeze's title" that he finds more evocative.
- 1. Extracurricular Activity: Rape! = Go to Haneda and You Will See Kids Dressed like Pirates Ready to Attack
- 2. Molester's Train: Mischievous Wives = My Train Is Supposed to be Going North But It's Going South
- 3. Widow: Bliss on the Seventh Day of Mourning = The Monk Farted
- 4. Amazon Garden: Uniform Lesbians = My Existence Is a Phenomenon Based on the Hypothesis of Blue Light Generated by Organic Currency
Tokyo X Erotica is less political than some of Zeze's earlier films. It's similar to No Man's Land, in being a fragmented narrative of different characters (having sex). It jumps at whim around a twenty year period, from 1982 to 2002 (which was, at the time of release, the near future). No Man's Land though was set against the Gulf War. Tokyo X Erotica on the other hand is about death. It's philosophical, not political. We begin with a young man called Kenji dying among gas and corpses in the Tokyo underground. This isn't exciting or even dramatic, though. Instead it's the launching pad for a movie-length rumination upon the meaning of death.
"Which is longer: the time before you're born or the after you die?"
Every so often the film drops out of narrative mode and just goes into documentary interviews. We get talking head discussions with the film's actors as they answer this question and others. I loved this, actually. You can feel the reality of people talking about something that affects them personally, instead of just reading a script.
Anyway, the late Kenji used to have a girlfriend called Haruka. When we meet her, she's performing lewd acts for a man in a rabbit costume. She appears to be working as a prostitute, although this latest client is a bit of a weirdo. His preference appears to be just watching and masturbating, although he also likes having fingers shoved up his anus. This is obviously a scene of sex and nudity, but it also lives up to that philosophy I quoted earlier. It feels emotionally real. These aren't idealised images for an audience to wank to, but instead two strange and possibly broken people interacting in ways you won't expect.
When this scene ends, we jump off to a different time, place and cast for more sex-based character exploration. I'm pretty sure that dude was a yakuza, for instance, and I hadn't expect that response to an instruction to lick up his own semen. The rabbit suit crops up again, as does (less obviously) the motif of a ringing telephone. This happens four times in the movie and every time, the characters' reactions are different and saying something new about them.
And they die. That's what the film's talking about, after all. Often this involves a man killing a woman, which might perhaps look misognystic if you hadn't realised that a Zeze film contains themes.
There are also shinigami. Just in case you hadn't noticed all the characters, the narration and even the documentary sequences all focusing on this theme, Zeze has put living personifications of death in his movie. If Death (scythe, black cloak, skull face) were Japanese, he'd be a shinigami. However there's still a layer of ambiguity... people claim to be shinigami, or to have dreamed about them. Maybe everyone's delusional? However the shinigami we see all profess the same distinctive philosophy of life before killing someone in an attention-grabbing fashion, although not before having sex with them.
To be honest, I'd have trouble imagining this as porn. I don't think it would be well suited to the task. It's too philosophical and anti-fantasy, with strange but convincing relationships that might include something as mundane as a man who can't perform. Furthermore the theme of death is not only foregrounded and discussed to such an extent that it's become text rather than subtext, but it also combines uniquely with the fact that this is a pink film. Sex and death. A water pistol that either dispenses death or semen. There's nothing more immediate than an orgasm, but nothing bigger than how long the universe will have existed without you being alive in it. I found it fascinating.
"Among the stars up there, some died long ago but we see their light still twinkling."