Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

The term Pinku Eiga, directly translated as "pink cinema", carries a heavy dose of cultural baggage. It is commonly associated with the sight of beautiful Japanese women suffering, and often subsequently enjoying, extreme bouts of sexual abuse at the hands of domineering male antagonists - violent partners, deranged kidnappers, maniacal rapists, and so forth. In spite of this assumption, which is reductive to say the least, the label is an extremely broad one and has been used to encompass almost everything containing overt erotic content and abundant displays of naked female flesh; ranging from the romantic sexploitation films of the 1960s through grotesque displays of S/M torture in the early to mid 1970s, to the hardcore video explosion in the 1980s. Even internationally acclaimed art films like Oshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and sexually charged horror pictures such as Shindo’s ONIBABA have been considered worthy of the term or at the very least borderline cases. Continuing this heterogeneous tradition, TOKYO X EROTICA (2001) is a fascinating example of the pink avant garde from the Japanese underground; it transcends the confines and limitations of hardcore pornography and mere sexploitation, and stands as a provocative, surreal, and kinky meditation on the subjects of sex, time, pornography, cinema, and most prominently - death.

For obvious reasons death is one of the most emphatic themes to be explored for the purpose of artistic expression. Not only is it one of the ultimate anxieties for atheists and religious people alike, with the dread of oblivion and the fear of judgement lingering in the minds of many, but that our time on this earth embodies an extreme conceptual contradiction. We are born with the certainty that we will die; our flesh and our minds mediate between existence and nothingness, living presence and eternal absence. No medium, however, embodies this dichotomy as fittingly as the cinema. The actual process of making a film takes part in a separate time and place to that which we inhabit whilst viewing the actual movie. We enjoy watching stories unfold, knowing that they have to end. Dead film stars are revived only to be lost again. Upon viewing performances of a deceased actor on film we cannot escape the notion that they have to die: sit through BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and Warren Oates has yet to suffer a fatal heart attack, DANGER: DIABOLIK’s Melissa Mell will succumb to throat cancer; the final cinematic ‘traces’ of Soledad Miranda found in Jess Franco cheapies foreshadows her fatal car crash. Whoever it is, we cannot escape the predestined notion that creeping death will catch up to them like a freight train. The performances are frozen in time, alive in front of us, and to further this convoluted paradox they are already dead and have yet to die. Thus, visions of life and death, presence and absence become suspended on screen; it is an eternal contradiction that mirrors the human experience in its most pared down form.

As a consequence, death is an avenue that has been explored prominently, especially in the areas of extreme and underground cinema; in which bold, daring, fantastic or just plain revolting imaginations are allowed freedom of expression. As such, death has been treated in a highly variable way. Many filmmakers exploit death in the most crass avenues imaginable, Mondo films can be considered some of the worst offenders, as they present excessive catalogues of real and faked human death for jaded, desensitized audiences. Other filmmakers force us to confront death in order to provoke and disturb us. Jorg Buttgereit’s DER TODESKING (1989), a film about suicide, is a classic example; and is exemplified during the episode in which the camera tracks over the side of a very high bridge frequented by real life suicide cases. This unsettling shot creeps over the edge of the structure and lingers in the air, forcing us to share the perspective of those who have leapt to their deaths. Other filmmakers, such as underground legend Stan Brakhage present death in order to change it, most notably in his Pittsburg autopsy film THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES (1972). Although the picture distressingly shows us real corpses, once the skins are peeled away, the bodies flayed open, and the skulls splintered and hollowed out, the camera lens captures unfamiliar shapes, reveals bizarre colour juxtapositions, and succeeds in presenting to us a new and fascinatingly transformed aesthetic. Despite being a quite difficult film, death is made more palatable.

TOKYO X EROTICA, as we will see, falls most comfortably into the latter category, because it is a pink film that obsessively tries to overcome death. The film begins as Kenji, one of the main characters, rides his scooter beneath an overpass and pauses upon seeing half a dozen dead bodies. He then spies a toy robot, and in one of the film’s many non sequitor moments bends down to pick it up. This seeming irrelevancy is interrupted, however, as the poisonous gas that has killed those laying about him enters his lungs and causes him to expire. In his waning (not wanking - there’s plenty of that later) moments he remembers what his ex girlfriend - Haruka - once asked him: "Which is longer, the time before birth or the time after death?" This question, reiterated throughout, represents the thematic crux of the film; it is this problematic pivot point - the fear of eternal oblivion - that the film attempts to overcome with increasingly elaborate cinematic means.

To begin this life affirming ‘contest’, the film flashes forward to "the time after his death." We see Haruka, the aforementioned ex girlfriend, and the narrator tells us that although Kenji has passed away, "life goes on nevertheless." Haruka, moonlighting as a prostitute, picks up a man dressed in a pink bunny rabbit outfit and they perform various sex acts - real and not simulated - in a planetarium. The film is showing us two things: firstly, that while Kenji is dead, the rest of the world is mostly unaffected and death only gains small triumphs. The second point is far more positive: if one of your ex partners dies, don’t get upset, go on out and fuck someone! However, after Haruka expertly services the man we are treated to a depressing, post coital scene shot in black and white. This is one of the key patterns of the film - force meets counter force - as the life force is overcome by post orgasm lethargy (a kind of death) and this conflict recurs throughout the film. After this, the bunny rabbit man starts to get nasty, and savagely psychoanalyses the whore. Dejected, she then walks away from him into the bedroom. After opening the door, in a moment of inspired surrealism, temporal and spatial order beaks down; her customer is impossibly waiting behind this threshold, and he proceeds to strangle her. As with the gas attack, death appears from nowhere. The fight against death must start anew.

Following this, the film’s positive message begins to reassert itself. Near Haruka’s corpse we see her image played on a family home movie. Haruka has been resurrected by the medium of video, and, by implication, cinema. However, the very means of replaying the image of a dead person (dead character, that is) reminds us that she is yet to be strangled by the bunny man. The narrator recognizes this notion, saying "And so Haruka died. Or rather, we should use the future tense. And so Haruka will die." The film then uses another strategy to overcome the death of Haruka. It flashes back to 1995, "The time she is alive". Cinema is used as time machine, it is ammunition ifor the fight against death. The film covers the void (after death) by showing fragments of her earlier lived experience. We are then taken further back in time, as the movie rigorously explores its ideas through a teenage threesome in 1989. After this the film flashes forward to a viciously amusing rope bondage scene between a yakuza type and his girlfriend, the highlight of which being when the man rope burns her fanny. Moving further forward, unexpectedly presented with scenes of the dead former lovers Kenji and Haruka, reunited and alive in 2002! Although it initially seems like a bizarre narrative rupture, it is more likely that the director has taken the liberty to start his story anew, albeit using the same characters. Soon afterward, in a bizarre scene the self proclaimed King of Death buggers a catatonic Kenji and frightens Haruka by showing her photographs of how she will die. Haruka then asks Death the question that is vital to the film’s thesis: "Is it my choice to live before I die?" Death responds by answering in the affirmative, and tells her that this is the one thing he doesn’t have control over. As such, Death cannot truly be defeated and the only solace is to live, and to enjoy living before he has the power to take you.

TOKYO X EROTCA is by no means a perfect film, and as we will see its chief flaw is a dire one. In her landmark essay on erotic literature, 'The Pornographic Imagination', Susan Sontag makes the association between pornography and death. Citing works such as the classic 'Story of O' (written by the pseudonymous 'Pauline Reage'), Sontag observes that one of this literary 'genre's' key concerns is the separation of the human and the sexual 'personalities'. This eradication of the personality - in favour of an existence as a purely sexual being - is a form of death, i.e. losing one's status as a subject. George Bataille's 'Story of the Eye - an influence on Shinya Tsukamoto's excellent SNAKE OF JUNE - pushes the concept even further. The transgressive sexual obsession of the narrator and his companions leads to an outrageous murder, in which his 'girlfriend', Simone, strangles and straddles a priest: "Simone squeezed, a dreadful shudder ran through that mute, fully immobilized body, and the cock stood on end. I took it into my hands and had no trouble fitting it into Simone's vulva, while she continued to squeeze the throat. "The utterly intoxicated girl kept wrenching the big cock in and out with her buttocks, atop the body whose muscles were cracking in our formidable strangleholds. "At last, she squeezed so resolutely that an even more violent thrill shot through her victim, and she felt come shooting inside her cunt. Now she let go, collapsing backwards in a tempest of joy." Bataille infuses his story with a ferocious sense of transgression and a fetishistic attention to detail; the first person narration rubs our face into extreme sexual atrocities and is the the work of a truly perverse imagination. Sontag points out that the modern author's function is to translate the human voice into literature, and this 'voice' can deal with all forms of conscious, including extreme ones. As such, the modern artist "is a freelance explorer of spiritual dangers"; s/he plunges into the back of their minds and brings something extreme back. Naturally, the pornographic writer follows this rule, too (however, there are many 'good taste' erotic novels, such as Ian McEwan's 'Comfort of Strangers', in which the perverse sexual ideas are resigned to the mystery, something that we encounter upon discovery, briefly at the end).

In TOKYO X EROTCA, the didactic, life-affirming messages come across as highly unconvincing. Zeze foolishly comes up with increasingly contrived techniques in an attempt to constantly overcome death, when true pornography thrives on death. And instead of displaying to us a great deal of proximity to shocking, socially unacceptable situations, we are merely presented with a cold, distant visual style, pretty much devoid of expression, which mediates between the viewer and some very tame sequences of sexual tableau. It is strange, given erotic cinema's close associations with death, that there remain few accomplished translations of the pornographic imagination. There are a few successes, however, and viewers may like to check out Oshima's IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, Cronenberg's CRASH, Claire Denis' superlative TROUBLE EVERY DAY, and Bunuel's Surrealist L'AGE D'OR and UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Eclectic DVD present the film in a razor sharp, sparkling transfer, displaying the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The disc has no extras whatsoever, but the quality of the transfer is exemplary. UK based Salvation are also releasing the film very soon.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Takahisa Zeze

Japanese language with English subtitles
Japan / 2001 / 80 minutes


An Eclectic DVD release

All Region / NTSC / original 1.33:1 aspect ratio / Dolby mono



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