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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001

Hunters on the mean streets


Rating: * * * *
Director: Masato Ishioka
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Showing until Dec. 7th at Box Higashi Nakano

"You oughta be in show business, baby!" That's been a pickup line of "producers" since the days of D.W. Griffith, though in Japan today the pick-up artists are likely to be young men with stylishly coiffed, tea-colored hair, tanned pretty-boy faces and dressed in dark designer mufti. They prowl places like Shibuya, Harajuku and Ikebukuro, hitting on one woman after another with a coaxing, teasing, wheedling urgency.

News photo
Hideo Nakaizumi and Miku Matsumoto in "Pain"

The men are usually selling, not themselves, but an arubaito in the AV industry, with "AV" standing for "audiovisual," but meaning porn. Called "scout men," they are the subject of "Pain," an excellent new film by Masato Ishioka, a veteran porn director himself, who spent two years researching his subjects. Though weathering serial rejections that would wither the average male ego to the size of a quark, the scout men at first shied away from Ishioka. "They didn't take me seriously," he told me after a screening. "It took a long time to win their confidence."

The time was well-spent -- "Pain" may not have the most descriptive of titles (it was once called, more appropriately, "Scout Man"), but it is clear-eyed about its subjects and their milieu. Most films about Japan's enormous sex industry either romanticize or sensationalize it. "Pain" opts instead for a documentary approach -- many of the actors are AV professionals and much of the dialogue sounds improvised -- but is more interested in moral dilemmas than social issues, while following a carefully plotted dramatic arc.

The sex trade, we come to see, can be as dulling and deadening as any other that sells souls for cash. Its workers are less victims and victimizers than human beings who have made certain choices and find themselves changed as a result. They become sharper in some ways, harder in others: They can see, but no longer feel, lust but no longer love.

The film's central characters are a young couple who have escaped from a suburban nowhere -- and their parents' opposition to their marriage -- to the big city. Mari (Miku Matsumoto), 17, and Atsushi (Hideo Nakaizumi), 20, have no money, no contacts, no prospects. Mari, who has the face of a cherub and limps, industriously calls potential employers -- and comes up empty-handed. Then she meets Kana (Yuka Fujimoto), a tall, stolid girl who is hawking party tickets to passersby. Kana initiates Mari into the game -- one of many, it turn out -- and she earns her first yen since coming to Tokyo.

Cruising the streets, Atsushi encounters Miki (Yuri Komuro), an off-duty AV actress who takes him to a love hotel -- perhaps to kill time till her next job. Through her, he is introduced to the world of scout men, one of whom, the ruggedly handsome, perpetually hustling Yoshiya (Akihito Yoshie), takes him under his wing. Yoshiya's boss is Sugishita (Shiro Shimomoto), who has a smooth line of patter and an insatiable appetite for fresh young meat. He takes a liking to Atsushi, seeing this innocent-looking but lynx-eyed kid as a natural. He is a good judge of character.

The story is about the making of two professionals -- one willing, one not. Atsushi takes to his new job like a duck to dirty water. The trick, his mentors tell him, is not to seduce his marks, but put a business proposition to them as simply, and as attractively, as possible. You wanna earn big money quick? Here's how, honey. Once he has a live one, his work has just begun -- he must then interview her, photograph her, sign her to a contract and introduce her to the video people, who will then decide whether she has what it takes to move the product.

Meanwhile, through Kana, Miki is learning about another kind of scam: enjo kosai ("paid dating") -- the art of making horny middle-age men part with maximal money for minimal sex. Miki, who has a clearer idea than Atsushi of what she is risking, resists at first, but she feels so lonely with Atsushi away all day that she finally goes along. The money rolls in and it all seems rather jolly -- with raucous drinking sessions with her friends after work -- but Kana can't help feeling empty and lost.

If this were a typical romantic drama, at this point Atsushi, that louse, would wake up and smell the coffee. In "Pain," however, it's not a matter of whether he will follow in his senpai's footsteps, but when and how. He doesn't lose Miki so much as start seeing her and all women as cash machines.

As Atsushi, Hideo Nakaizumi has not only the right look -- cute face, bedroom eyes -- but the right attitude: eager, observant, predatory. He doesn't fall so much as master what we knew all along would be his true calling.

As Mari, Miku Matsumoto is reminiscent of the young Diane Keaton: the sad-looking eyes that refuse to cry, the sweet, chubby face that can light up with girlish joy or darken with adult anger and determination. More than Atsushi, her Mari is a soul in flux -- she hates what she is becoming, but she also wants to survive, with or without her cheating lover.

There is no melodrama in her choice, but there is a definite chill. Atsushi sees himself as a salesman; Mari knows, all too well, that she is being sold -- and what the price will be.

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