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Friday, Jan. 19, 2001

'PHATMAN'/'S&M'

Pleasure, pain and Arizona


January is an absolutely dire month for films, and this year's lingering holiday blockbuster constipation is even worse than usual. The pickings are slim, but you could try "Phatman: Theory of the Leisure Class," which is a rare film indeed -- an American indie flick that is opening in Japan but not the States. It's easy to see why: It's never clear whether this whacked-out view of hicksville Arizona is parody or tragedy.

"Phatman" is one of those films which disappears over the horizon of irony, leaving you wondering whether you're the jerk for laughing or for not laughing. Does director Gabriel Niccolo Bologna have a secret weakness for white trash culture, or is he -- like so many of his indie peers -- sneering at the coupon clippers and cowboys?

Imagine the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" remade by Todd Solondz on Ritalin, and you'll have some idea of the confounding nature of this small-town tale of murder, burgers, and bad TV. Tuesday Knight plays Callie Wright, a femme banal who's cheating on her husband with biker Barlow Jones, and cheating on him with dyke bartender Julie (Athena Stensland). Callie's greatest desire is to be the smiling co-host on a kitschy TV shopping network, which isn't gonna happen unless she ditches her hubby and two kids.

When a sudden daylight murder spree ends with both of Callie's kids dead, perpetrator unknown, good ol' boy detective John McMillan (Michael Massee) zooms in on Callie as the chief suspect. Memories of the 1994 Susan Smith scandal (the South Carolina mom who drowned her own kids while trying to paint herself as the victim of an attack) will surely spring to mind.

"Phatman" darts about, always on the verge of landing some telling blow on the superficiality of modern commercial culture, but in the end it remains a puzzle. Characters come and go in a haphazard way, the humor is beyond deadpan and the plot's purpose remains oblique.

Take the title: "Phatman"? He's an obese superhero character on the TV show that Callie's kids watch, but the significance of making that the film's title left me stumped. Bewildering stuff, but whether it's frustrating or fun may well depend on your mood.

Those of you looking for a bit of heat during this wintry month will want to catch the revival of 12 vintage Nikkatsu "roman porno" films by director Masaru Konuma, accompanying the release of "S&M (Sadistic Masochistic)," a documentary covering his prolific career. Filming this documentary was Konuma's former assistant director, Hideo Nakata, now enjoying his own success as director of the deliciously scary "Ring." Nakata, like many of his contemporaries, cut his teeth on Nikkatsu porn, which basically kept the J-film industry afloat from the mid-'70s till the advent of adult video.

As Konuma points out in "S&M," there was a lot of freedom to experiment, as about the only rules imposed by Nikkatsu were a low budget and a sex scene every 10 minutes. Doubt that claim? Well, check out the surreal rorikon sequence of "Hirusagari no Joji (Afternoon Affair)," with its cascading Ping Pong balls and avant-garde electronic soundtrack.

The documentary is for initiates only, as familiarity with the actresses and oeuvre of roman porno is pretty much assumed. Some of the behind-the-scenes discussions are pretty amusing, though. Ever wonder how to shoot a voyeuristic bondage scene in an illegally parked car just outside Shinjuku Station's east exit? Here you go.

Even more mind-boggling was to see actress Naomi Tani, the tigress known as the "Queen of S&M" in her heyday, looking like a deceptively normal obasan in a matronly kimono. It's good, though, to see that despite the years of hanging trussed from the rafters, "Japan's Betty Page" remains in good health and spirits, and proud of her work.

Actually, it's interesting to note the dedicated professionalism all these actresses (Naomi Tani, Saeko Kizuki, Yuri Yamashina, etc.) brought to their films. Unlike the current crop of AV gyaruzu, the roman porno actresses understood that being sexy involved more than merely "doing it" onscreen. It required a knack for projecting sexuality through the medium, of playing to the camera and the audience. Perhaps art does trump verite in this regard.

For evidence of this, check out some of the original films. Particularly recommended is "Hana to Hebi," the seminal s/m film from 1974 that launched Tani's career and established a uniquely Japanese style of bondage eros. "Hana to Hebi" evokes a rawer, more savage passion than the current crop of rope-a-dope films, in which bondage has become as formalized an art form as tea ceremony. For more conventional tastes, try the wafu eroticism of "Hirusagari no Joji," filmed on location in Kyoto and featuring the irresistible charms of Yuri Yamashina. Some of the other films ("Yumeno Kyusaku no Shojo Jigoku") are more amusing for their subtext of sexual neuroses, which is as deliberate as not.

If you're gonna watch this stuff, you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen, and if you don't have the courage to see it in public, then you shouldn't be watching it, period. At least the art-imprimatur of Eurospace screenings makes it OK for women and non-overcoat-wearing customers to attend, without risking the sticky floors and Pee-wee Hermans of the Shitamachi "pink" theaters.

"Phatman" opens in late January as the late show at Cinema Talkie-Night, Roppongi. "S&M" and the roman porno revival start from Jan. 27 at Shibuya's Eurospace.


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