Pleasures of the Flesh (Etsuraku) Reviews
For a movie about living extravagantly and indulging in the physical pleasures, Pleasures of the Flesh is a remarkably tame movies, especially considering it is from the same director that gave us In the Realm of the Senses.
Not that "tame" is necessarily problematic--there are lots of tame films out there. However, where Pleasure of the Flesh stumbles is in providing narrative without reason. None of these characters are particularly interesting. And, perhaps worse, none of them are sympathetic. Instead we're left with an hour and a half (per Hulu runtime) of the main character bumbling around apartments with sexual bravado (very little of which makes it to the screen).
To help remove narrative interest, he hops around from woman to woman in the weirdest, most unexplained way possible. At first it makes sense--he has an expensive arrangement with a woman. But then without warning or explanation she's no longer in the picture and he's flashing money in front of another woman. And again. Repeat. Even in it's PG-esque innocence the whole thing ends up feeling rather crass.
By the middle of the movie he's become the kind of asshole clown he murdered in the first place. The whole thing ends up feeling like a long sexual assault as he consider's the female's opinion less and less.
A film noir in its very essence 'Pleasures of the Flesh' is a beautifully shot feature that uses its increasingly nightmarish cinematography to great effect. Moments of surrealistic editing become more and more frequent as the film progresses and increase the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment, making it feel as if viewers themselves are falling alongside the protagonist. As effective as this is the film does however stumble across moments in which it feels plodding, drawing viewers out of immersion and becoming slightly boring. The sequence in which Wakizaka attempts to win Keiko's love is an example of this, and although it houses one of the most beautiful moments in the film, it can't help but feel like it took too long getting there.
Despite supposedly being a 'pink' film the onscreen sex and violence is surprisingly tame, and the lacklustre ending feels as if it doesn't have the courage to live up to the other films of the genre or the increasing sense of immolation that preceded it.
Verdict: An interesting character study that occasionally strays off course and misses the mark with its ending.
Every once in a while, I see movies that beat the Idiot Plot. The Idiot Plot, famously, is the plot that relies on no one's talking to anyone. If two of the characters just had one serious, open conversation--and often, it's any two--the plot would be resolved in minutes instead of dragging on for however long it does. And that's in-story minutes, too. However, occasionally, you get a Seriously Idiot Plot, one where everything could have been resolved by a conversation before the movie actually started. In this case, it's only a Seriously Idiot Plot if you assume that the first couple of minutes are flashback, but I think that's a safe assumption. The simple fact is, if the main character had only had a conversation with the woman he loves to tell her that he loves her, much would have gone differently. Though there is one detail on the subject that I'd like to get back to.
Atsushi Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura) worked as a tutor while he was in college. His student was Shoko (Mariko Kaga). He fell in love with her. It turns out that she was molested as a child, and her molester returns ten years later to blackmail her parents on the subject. For . . . reasons, her parents cannot call the police, so instead, they convince Atsushi to kill the man for them. Only a man (Hayami, I think, played by Sh˘ichi Ozawa) witnesses the crime. He decides that Atsushi should then be the person to hold on to millions of yen in government money that he's embezzled, because if Atsushi reveals it, or spends the money, he will go to prison. The man knows he is about to be discovered and will go to prison himself, probably for five years, but if he hides the money, he will have it upon his release. Atsushi agrees. Only when he finds out that Shoko is marrying a rich man, he falls into despair. It is a year until the embezzler gets out of prison, and Atsushi decides to spend the money in debauch for a year and then kill himself.
I'm not sure if we find this out at the beginning; what we eventually learn, however, is that Shoko's husband was rich. (Or anyway believed to be; whether he actually was or not, I leave to the film to explain, because it leaves things in doubt.) This means I strongly suspect that she married him so that she could get the money. This means that Atsushi was out of luck even if he'd talked to her, or anyway he probably was. I have seen several Japanese movies from this era, and it leads me to believe that women did not always get to choose to marry the penniless tutor who loves them; sometimes, they had to marry the owner of the cosmetic company. Heck, they couldn't even afford to elope, it seems to me. Still, Atsushi did have a decent job; he'd tutored her years before, when he was still in college. She might not have had her parents' consent, but I'm not sure they would have been completely destitute--and her parents did owe him.
None of the women in this movie seem to have any control over their own lives. One woman seems to think that her only choice in avoiding what Atsushi wants from her is suicide. One woman goes along with it because she needs to support her own husband and child. One is such a determined prostitute that, despite the enormous amount of money Atsushi is paying her to be with him, she goes out and walks the streets. I mean, I could argue that no one in this movie really seems in control of their own lives, but that doesn't seem entirely to be the point. The point is that the women have even less control than the men. There's also the issue of how Shoko's family "can't go to the police" over her molestation, that there is something about it that leaves them open to blackmail. I mean, did they sell her to her molester? I don't get it. It can't be a statute of limitations issue, because he never went to prison in the first place, and they know who he is. However, I suspect it's blaming the victim, that the girl is disgraced, not betrayed.
The irony, of course, is that no one takes actual pleasure from flesh in this movie. Atsushi almost seems to be using it as a punishment. He has one year (parole apparently not being a possibility in this story), and he is spending it trying to make himself forget love. The way he chooses to do this is by burying himself in women, drowning in them. Only he doesn't really know any women except Shoko. The woman he takes on vacation (I missed most of the names, and neither IMDb nor Wikipedia has a plot summary, but I think it is Keiko, played by Hiroko Shimizu) appeared to me to be just some woman he picked up off the street. I'm pretty sure she let herself be picked up because she needed the money, which seems to be all any of the women in the story care about. Of course, if you don't have any real control over your life, money becomes a lot more important. Far more important than pleasure.
Most of this occurs within the first 15 minutes! And of course, Atsushi is bound to regret his reckless plan.
"Pleasures of the Flesh" is more accessible than other Nagisa Oshima works of the period -- it's in widescreen color and, despite some abstract electronic bits (similar to Antonioni's "Red Desert," released the same year?), the score is more traditional and even includes vocal songs. There is some dreamy use of double images and a few slow-motion passages, but the filmmaking is otherwise quite mainstream.
What's lacking here are the usual resonances with Japan's contemporary culture. Instead of the timely youth-rebellion content of earlier Oshima movies, "Pleasures of the Flesh" is more of a standard film noir. Not so distinctly personal. And don't be misled by the lurid title: There is little sexual content to enjoy here.
I don't know if Oshima's direction had quite gotten to the point it had in just the next few films he would make - i.e. Violence at Noon, Sing a Song of Sex, and the best of them Japanese Summer: Double Suicide - where he could make a compelling plot with a wild and idiosyncratic vision with the camera (the man simply shoots wide-shots and close-ups like no one else, somehow with him people are farther away and when close you can see the whites of their eyes). Here, he's got a solid premise, and some fine acting from his lead and a couple of supporting players, but has too much explanation of things going on and not enough, frankly, titilation. We see the character hand off money, lots of it, recklessly (which is good to see) for the women he acquires, the most interesting being a wife who is sleeping with him so he can support his husband and children (when he confronts Ashima it's really quite a tense scene, mostly for how seemingly nice or mean he could be in the same breath).
But at the same time we only see a little of how he really soaks up this 'pleasure' (albeit maybe the the title of the book this is based on, Pleasures in a Coffin, could have been an indicator for the film-noir-ish nihilism on display). A lot of the film is spent with the character lamenting his lost love, a once pupil of his who married someone else (and was part of the cause of this whole thing to begin with), and being a self-destructive ass around those he makes love to; one memorable scene has him on a beach in a situation with a woman where no one comes out well, and yet brings a marriage. You know, the kind of marriage that actually has a 'divorce-by' date included.
The cinematography in color brings out (oddly enough) the melancholy state of things, and the paranoia that builds in the third act is convincing and palpable. If only there was a little more focus, or just a stronger sense of the degradation of the character past the carelessness of the money (maybe more dangerous-type scenes like a gangster threatening one of his women with acid to the face), it could have been something special. As it is, Pleasures of the Flesh is more like a 'nice' (I hate to use that word but it is) indicator of the darker recessed the filmmaker would go into just in a year or so.
"Pleasures of the Flesh" gets off to a great start but calms down, paralleling Wakizaka's interest in living a life of quiet domesticity over sleeping with as many women as possible. Still, the movie is perverse enough to merit interest, along with excellent photography and a particularly ironic ending. As bad as he may appear on the surface, Wakizaka also hallucinates Shoko and Hayami from time to time which proves the existence of a guilty conscience. But Shoko is the only purely good person in this world which explains Wakizaka's obsession with her.
(Originally reviewed in the blog section on April 5, 2009.)
Oshima loves sexual repression and sexual obsession. This film is about both, but not in a visceral way like some of his later films, but the internal suspense in Atsushi's mind, as well as his change in character is great stuff, and the ending is absolutely appropriate, if tragic.
When a corrupt official witnesses Akira Hamada committing a murder on a train, he blackmails the man into caring for his 30 million in embezzled funds while he serves a five year prison stint; if the money isn't in tact when he gets out, the jig is up. But Hamada has plans of his own; he's been jilted by the love of his life, and, obsessing over it, begins to pay women huge sums of money to be his sexual slave, and the four that agree over the course of a year (a singer, a wife, a virgin, and a mute prostitute) come to represent the stages of a sexual awakening. When the money begins to run out, Oshima has a few ironic twists in store, and nobody come out unscathed.
There's little to suggest that this should be considered a famous "pink" film, the kind of Japanese soft-core feature with lots of sex and nudity; of course the movie is about sex, domination, and revenge, and it's a lush production (in full, beautiful color), but the sex is never shown, there's no nudity, and the women, ciphers for Hamada's hatred and betrayal by his unrequited lover, become more greed and loneliness than purely sexual beings. Oshima would get more graphic in a few years with "In the Realm of Senses", but this sexual psycho-drama is equally devastating, and playful.