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In the company of men
A UK region 0 DVD review of TOKYO DECADENCE / TOPAZU by Slarek
 

If you've ever thought that being a movie actor seems like a rather fun way to make a living, a viewing of Tokyo Decadence [Topâzu] will soon put you right. I'll admit that I occasionally found myself pulled out of the story because I kept thinking about what actress Nikaido Miho (now married to American indie director Hal Hartley) was going through, and what she seemed prepared to do for her art. That little revelation, coupled with a title (well, an English title anyway) that is in no way ambiguous about the film's content, should serve as your first warning.

Nikaido plays Ai, a prostitute who works for a female-run agency in Tokyo. Jobs appear to be assigned to the girls partly on the basis of who is available when the call comes in, but you get the impression that the reason Ai lands some of the more unpleasant clients has less to do with any chosen area of specialisation than her meekly submissive nature. The opening scene, for example, has an almost naked Ai tied to a gynaecological chair, blindfolded, gaged, and then injected with an unspecified substance in her inner thigh. She puts up a brief struggle, but a warning about breaking needles soon prompts her to just lie there and take it. If you don't catch the line about S&M, then you'd easily assume that she was being tortured.

Ai is not happy in her work and the early scenes show all too clearly why. Her clients are Japanese males of the old school, salarymen and yakuza (it's sometimes hard to tell one from the other) who derive sexual pleasure from her suffering and humiliation. This is particularly evident in her second client, who greases her hair flat ("Now I understand why the Nazis cut off women's hair" he tells her), slaps her buttocks and shoves his hand between her legs, then has her perform a slow striptease in front of the full-length window of his tower block apartment, repeatedly ordering her to start again when she doesn't do it exactly as he wants. As night falls and she reaches a state of near exhaustion, it becomes clear that this has gone on for hours. And it's not over yet, not by a long shot.

Increasingly there is the suggestion that Ai has chosen this lifestyle not for desperate financial gain but as a form of self-punishment, an externalisation of the emotional pain she suffers because the man she loves – now a well known TV star – has married someone else. Hope is a somewhat abstract concept for her, symbolised by a Topaz ring she buys on the advice of a fortune teller, a possession whose symbolic significance is emphasised by the original Japanese title, but whose key narrative function is to cause Ai distress when she loses it, and to give her and us an almost Faustian glimpse of the darkest side of her trade when she attempts to retrieve it.

With its minimalist approach to story, Tokyo Decadence is more a portrait of a lifestyle, and even then only one particular aspect of it. As Ai travels from one client to the next to unwillingly engage in a range of sexual acts that many will instantly categorise as perverse, the response of the viewer is likely to depend in part on their own opinion about what separates depravity from erotica, and I am fully aware of what even making that statement might say about mine. Certainly I found myself oddly curious about what Ai might encounter next, and in the sometimes peculiar position of being disturbed and intrigued by the very same imagery.

Whether Ai is new to this life or an old hand is uncertain, but increasingly there is the sense that her time to break free is overdue, seen in her terrified reaction to the uncertain horrors being inflicted on the girl in an apartment she returns to, in her refusal to play the part of a dead girl in one client's necrophilia fantasy, and in her temporary friendship with dominatrix Saki, whose seeming enthusiasm for the job appears to stem largely from a chemical intake that would floor an elephant. It's Saki and specifically a drug she gives Ai that both prompts and sabotages Ai's final, semi-surreal trip to find closure on her past relationship. Despite the humiliation she suffers on a daily basis at work, she is still ill-prepared for what the outside world can dish out.

Whether Tokyo Decadence is sleazy and monotonous exploitation or a bold and disturbing journey into the darker side of human sexual desire will be for the individual viewer to decide, and despite some initial uncertainty, I'm going with the latter. It's not a comfortable ride, nor should it be, but increasingly there is a genuine sense of purpose to director Murakami Ryû's unflinching and ultimately sobering approach. If you're easily offended or believe that sex is a lovely and pure thing that should only be shown as a physical expression of the love between two partners, then good luck to you, but do yourself a big favour and give this film a miss. For those of us who believe that to truly understand what makes us good means also exploring our dark side, then Tokyo Decadence is a film that will take your hand and help you peer into the abyss.

It should be noted that this is the 112 minute cut of the film repared for the US market to avoid an X rating, not the 135 minute Japanese original. Full details of the cut material can be found on the IMDb page here.

sound and vision

At it's best, usually in daylight exteriors or night scenes with high contrast lighting, the picture quality doesn't look too bad, with reasonable colour and detail, and the black levels are almost always strong. But this is a film that takes place mostly at night and in sometimes dimly lit rooms, and here the news is not good. This is a non-anamorphic NTSC to PAL transfer that looks very much as if it's been sourced from tape (the sort of blip you only get on analogue video tape appears briefly in one later sequence). Darker scenes have poor shadow detail and there are some seriously visible compression artefacts that occasionally break up into the sort of banding you'll find on internet MPEG files.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is adequate but there's little to judge it by, with dialogue sometimes minimal and sparse use made of Ryuchi Sakamoto's score.

extra features

None.

summary

Risky cinema of this sort is always going to walk a thin line between art and exploitation, but it's a balancing act that Tokyo Decadence, in my humble opinion, just about pulls off. Not much of an advert for Tokyo's sex industries, it would come cautiously recommended were it not for the DVD, whose lack of extras and below par transfer do not justify the asking price.

Tokyo Decadence
Topâzu

Japan 1992
112 mins
director
Murakami Ryû
starring
Nikaido Miho
Amano Sayoko
Kano Tenmei
Mikami Kan
Shimada Masahiko
Kusama Yayoi

DVD details
region 0 UK
video
1.70:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
Japanese / English
subtitles .
English
extras
none
distributor
Arrow
release date
11 June 2007
review posted
1 July 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews