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Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2000


Flogging a flagging Muse into shape

Do sexual kinks reflect national character? One wonders after contemplating a row of Japanese S&M videos, whose boxes feature young females trussed and tied like so many living macrame sculptures. Whatever one may think of the practice, one must admit that the results are intriguing, particularly for a former Eagle Scout. How, one wonders, did Mr. S learn to tie those knots on Ms. M? An apprenticeship? A manual? A software program?

Whatever, it's hard to imagine the average American S&Mer going to the trouble. Instead of carefully crisscrossing lengths of pristine white rope to get exactly the right effect, she would just haul out the whips and start cracking away. The obvious parallel is the Japanese department store clerks who wrap even bargain-bin purchases ever so artistically, while their American counterparts are more likely to cram them into a bag and slap on a piece of tape (and often you're lucky to get the tape).

Ryuichi Hiroki's new film, "Futei no Kisetsu (I Am an S&M Writer)," is a seriocomic essay on the S&M life, as lived by the writing sensei who grind out S&M novels for those walk-down porno shops patronized by crowds of ordinary-looking, if furtively silent, men.

Based on an autobiographical novel by real-life S&M writer Kihachi Dan, "Futei no Kisetsu" (literally, "Season of Infidelity") is set 20 years ago, before the video revolution changed the porn business forever.

This, as it happens, is also the time Hiroki got into the movie business as an assistant director of "pink eiga" -- the soft-porn genre that once accounted for nearly half of all films made here and launched the career of many Boomer directors. Hiroki later went on to make "800 Two-Lap Runner," a gay-themed seishun eiga (youth movie) that was screened at the Berlin Film Festival and selected in the Kinema Junpo critics' poll as the seventh-best Japanese film of 1994.

As in "800," Hiroki is more concerned with exploring his characters' psychology than turning up the sexual heat -- S&Mers looking for a hot movie would be better off renting a video of "Volcano." He also pays homage to Golden Age masters, notably Yasujiro Ozu, with mixed results. Unlike the masters he emulates, who integrated their stylistic markers (such as Ozu's long cuts empty of anything resembling narrative or even movement) into an aesthetic whole, Hiroki is more inclined to patch samples of Golden Age favorites into his film, where they stand out as samples.

"Futei," however, is conceived less as a stylistic showcase for the director than as a vehicle for Ren Osugi, a veteran character actor who has appeared in some of the best Japanese films of the past decade and helped make them so, including "Hana-Bi," "Avec Mon Marie" and "Monday." He is so ubiquitous that, if someone were ever to make a Japanese version of "Being John Malkovich," with its famous hydra-headed poster, Osugi would be the logical first choice.

Playing an S&M writer dealing with a deteriorating marriage and career, he strives for a mixture of comedy and pathos, but often looks as though he is simply striving -- or rather straining. The problem lies less with Osugi than with Yoko Hoshi, who plays his slinky young wife, but regards him, for much of the film, with thinly veiled contempt or, even worse, blithe indifference. For all the heat these two generate, he might be an annoying roomer with odd sexual preferences, whom she tolerates because he pays the rent on time.

The story illustrates the often-made observation that old men who take young wives will, sooner or later, wear horns. Kurasaki (Osugi) is a bespectacled, kimono-wearing novelist who once dreamt of Art, but has since become a slave to Mammon, churning out S&M porno that may have paid for a big Japanese-style house near the sea, but has emptied him of anything resembling creativity. To flog his exhausted Muse, he hires a cheerfully obliging young woman named Kyoko (Eri Yamazaki) to embody his various S&M fantasies, while an eager-to-please young editor named Kawada (Jun Murakami) writes them down and mans the ropes . . .

His wife Shizuko (Hoshi), a vision of slender beauty in a kimono, frostily disapproves of these goings-on, despite Kurasaki's protests that he only wants to keep her in the fashion to which she has become accustomed. She gets revenge by hiring her own sex toy -- a tall, blond eikaiwa teacher with incredibly well-cut abs. As her absences become longer and her infidelities more blatant, Kurasaki becomes wildly jealous.

Then comes the hardest blow of all: Kawada, his trusty, loyal assistant, confesses to a rendezvous with Shizuko that began with an innocent flirtation but led to his reluctant (or so he swears) seduction. While Kawada is banging his head on the tatami in abject apology, Kurasaki is feeling the stirrings of black rage, insane love -- and a terrific idea for a new novel, with Shizuko as the heroine.

This is a great set-up for a sex comedy, with the hapless writer as the butt. Hiroki and scriptwriter Hitoshi Ishikawa exploit it with gags that evoke the occasional smile, chortle or guffaw, but they are more interested in making wistfully ironic art than risibly farcical entertainment.

I walked out of the theater wishing that Preston Sturges had been born Japanese.

"Futei no Kisetsu" is the late show at Theater Shinjuku.

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