Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Asia Society: Pleasures of the Flesh

How far did thirty million yen go in 1960’s Japan? Evidently, it was good for about a year’s worth of unrestrained hedonism. Despite such wild indulgence, nobody is really happy in Nagisa Oshima’s Pleasures of the Flesh (trailer here), which kicks off the Asia Society’s new film series, Japanese Cinema 1960s this Friday—and take note: admission is free.

Atsushi Wakizaka is a highly problematic anti-hero. A poor graduate student, he has developed a sexual fixation on Shoko, the teenaged student he tutors. She looks innocent but harbors dark secrets. Raped as a young girl, her assailant has reappeared to extort money from her family. At their behest, Wakizaka delivers the pay-off. In proper film noir fashion, when it is clear the odious creep intends to continuing bleeding them, the tutor pitches him off a speeding train. Unfortunately, there was a witness, but in Flesh, everyone is compromised.

Hayami Toshihiko is a government bureaucrat about to be exposed as an embezzler. If Wakizaka will hold his ill-gotten thirty million while he does his anticipated sentence, Toshihiko will maintain his silence. Wakizaka agrees, since it is relatively benign demand as far as blackmail goes. However, when the object of his affection marries another, he resolves the blow the cash on a year-long vice bender, killing himself just before Toshihiko’s scheduled release. With his grasp on reality increasingly questionable, Wakizaka engages in a series of profoundly unhealthy long-term assignations with any woman who vaguely resemble Shoko, thoroughly debasing them and himself.

Flesh has been dubbed Oshima’s foray into Pink Eiga, a category of naughty Japanese films with idiosyncratic cult and academic followings. Though its content is certainly mature, that seems like something of an exaggeration (though I claim no expertise in the genre). Rather, stylistically it feels much more in keeping with the so-called Japanese New Wave, which Oshima was often associated with, despite his protestations. Indeed, with its eerie off-camera dialogue and subtle blending of objective reality through Wakizaka’s fever dreams, Oshima keeps viewers off-balance throughout. One can also definitely see a kinship to films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (which Flesh pre-dates by a year).

Regardless of subject matter, Flesh is definitely the work of an auteur, compellingly mixing unsettling thriller elements into a portrait of self-destructive angst. It is truly a director’s film, but Katsuo Nakamura is creepily effective as the woeful lecher. Given Wakizaka’s misogyny, it is hardly a great showcase for actresses, but at least Hiroko Shimizu conveys some strength and sensitivity as Keiko, the one woman of character he finds himself involved with.

While not exactly explicit per se, it is always perfectly clear how Wakizaka relates to women. Yet, it is all rendered quite artfully. A fairly bold selection to start the Asia Society’s new 1960s Japanese Cinema series, Flesh is a work of strange, hallucinatory power from a major Japanese filmmaker, well worth seeing on the big screen (for free) at this Friday (11/5).