Director: Takahisa Zeze
Screenplay: Takahisa Zeze
Cast: Yumeka Sasaki (as Haruka); Yûji Ishikawa (as Kenjo)
Synopsis: In past, present and future surrounding the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, a man Kenjo (Ishikawa) and a woman Haruka (Yumeka) exist both in life and even after their deaths at various different periods in three different time frames. A couple who break up, the man will die by being present at the gas attack at the wrong time and the women by Death himself in a pink bunny costume a few years later. Surrounding these events are masochistic sex with a gangster, a group of people celebrating in 1989 which leads to a sexual encounter between two women and Death, and the central couple reuniting as new people after their deaths in the 2000s confronting Death then, all interlinked by real documentary interviews with the public and the actors themselves musing on life and death.
Japanese pinku films are a fascinating genre in erotica. Whilst they can be merely softcore sex films, they can jump between genres, and because of the censorship that still exists in Japan which prohibits real sex being depicted without pixilation even in pornography, the genre has been allowed to thrive for decades. Also because of how its set up as an industry - as discussed in the vital tome on the subject Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (2008) by Tom Mes - it's a hot bed for new talent who have become celebrated directors out of it (like Kiyoshi Kurosawa), and for politics and experimentation. With the boldest examples, as long as there were sex scenes and nudity, you could have openly political films, emotional dramas or absurd and inventive stories. Tokyo x Erotica admittedly, from one of the Four Devils of the 1990s pinku resurgence Takahisa Zeze, (who was joined by Kazuhiro Sano, Hisayasu Sato and Toshiki Sato as the other three), does feel like an ungainly creation, like a man sawn in half and attached to a different set of hips in being a softcore (but very explicit) sex film and being a dream-like drama about relationships and the notion of death. As Behind the Pink Curtain ends up emphasising with the later films up to the 2000s, a divide becomes evident between the growing audience for artistically bold pink films, who reaped them with praise and awards, and the patrons of an actual pinku film theatre, a fissure in this found in Tokyo x Erotica and somewhat frustrating as it is memorable as a result.
It's a bold move to tackle the 1995 saris gas attack in an erotic film like this, certainly not the only Japanese work with erotic sub currents to tackle serious subject matter the polar opposite of sensuality on face value. Far from a well schooled expert on the incident, it's however a grim incident which still has art tackling the subject explicitly or metaphorically in this decade, one which needed to be tackled carefully so not to become insulting or trivialising. Zeze does not trivialise it or do anything that would seem problematic, as instead it's a background influence that plays part of the film being a time capsule of the decade before the Millennium, also referencing the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in passing glance as part of this. It juggles this with moments of lightness and carnality which manage never to contradict each other in the end. In the midst of these references, Death is a literal figure, more than happy to have sex with men and women, even managing to convince two female friends into a sweaty, sexually explicit and intense threesome, whilst offering platitudes to mortals to live before he if their maker. It's strange that he's sometimes in a pink bunny costume, changes actor, and once appears dressed as Superman in a public street killing someone with a toy water pistol, but it doesn't detract from how explicitly serious the themes are about mortality. The real interviews do undercut the pornographic atmosphere with some surprisingly poignant thoughts, a couple with child off the streets to the main actress expressing deep rumblings on the subject of the movie.
If anything it's the main narrative of the central couple which feels weak if only because, having to juggle so much in only seventy seven minutes, the film is stuck in a nebulous place without fully embracing its clear desire to be a more unconventional, strange film and a serious statement on real life, more difficult to organise because of its lengthy sex scenes in-between the drama. The sex itself is surprisingly transgressive, a tension in them that's a virtue to the film, both in the flippant reversals of convention like Death preferring a woman's finger in his rectum rather than the other way around, or how a passionate sex scene between a gangster and his moll, before their interactions in their scenes turn sour and violent, is a S&M power play where he will tie her up, having sex with her by an open window overlooking what looks like a school field during an event, but he will gladly bark like a dog for her and have a water pistol full of semen shot into his face without complaint. It's instead the dramatic plot, having to also move back-and-forth between time, that's weaker in its attempts to be openly profound when instead, rather than trying to overreach in intellectual depth, this physical sexuality could've easily carried its themes more subtly.
The version viewed for this review of Tokyo x Erotica had a blurry haze to the colours and burnt-on subtitles that made the film even more dreamlike, but Tokyo x Erotica is visibly a low budget film, made with an advantage of its down-to-earth and raw aesthetic as a result of being shot on the streets, somewhat successful in its gamble to switch between time periods because of how nondescript the environments and clothing of the actors is. Zeze's clear interest in letting scenes play out as long as possible for drama, even in as short of a film like this is, is also applaudable, allowing a lot of interest in the characters as a result.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
While the fluctuation in chronology is important for the film's story, and the ending breaks from reality completely as the central couple reverses their fate, most of Tokyo x Erotica is an erotic drama with a slow, methodical pace that never really develops into a more unconventional film but merely one with some experimentation. Baring the odd props - the bunny suit, a yellow water pistol full of semen a woman fires at her lover's face and then into herself, the Superman costume - this is very much a sober, straight forward drama about death with a few moments of deliberate avant-garde tendencies.
A fascinating work, evidence of pinku cinema's experimental tendencies but I confess my first Takahisa Zeze film is an uneven experience in terms of having to negate being both softcore porn and having greater depth. A part of me suspects there might be more rewarding films from the Four Devils era of pinku films but Tokyo x Erotica is slightly underwhelming.