Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Nagisa Oshima's film is an adaptation of a novel called Pleasures In the Coffin, which probably gets closer to the truth of the story. In the film, the protagonist Atsushi identifies his "coffin" as a suitcase filled with 30,000,000 yen. It's been entrusted to him by a bureaucrat from the Agriculture Ministry, who embezzled it. He expects to be caught and expects to do time. Like the heroine of Hugo Haas's One Girl's Confession, he figures that any money he's kept after he does his time is his to keep. He leaves his loot with Atsushi, whom he trusts because he has something on him. He saw Atsushi kill a man on a train.

Atsushi works in an ad agency and as a private tutor. His favorite student, the object of his romantic fantasies, is Shoko. As a girl, she was molested. The man Atsushi killed was the molester. Shoko's parents put him up to it as a matter of the girl's honor. Atsushi dreams of marrying Shoko, but she marries a corporate executive instead. Frustrated, and with one year left on the embezzler's jail term, Atsushi boldly decides to spend the 30 million in order to stick it to everybody. Once the suitcase is empty, it'll become his metaphorical coffin; he plans to kill himself when the money's gone, before the embezzler can do worse to him.

Atsushi is as free as a man could possibly be -- isn't he?

Oshima has set us up for a fantasy of freedom and sensuality, and the case copy for this first film in Criterion Eclipse's Oshima's Outlaw Sixties collection only encourages the expectation. What we actually get is a grimly feverish satire that destroys and rebuilds the fantasy several times over. The most hopeless fantasy, it turns out, is the idea of cutting loose from all ties to the past and sharing that freedom with others. Atsushi seeks out loose women to spite Shoko, but none of them are as loose or free as he hopes. Hitomi uses his money to bribe a yakuza boyfriend who still demands sex and threatens her with a bottle of acid. Shizuko hands his money over to her husband and children and later hints at blackmail after Atsushi has told her too much about his past. After beating up her husband and paying his hospital bill, Atsushi instantly tries to hook up with Keiko, a virginal young doctor first seen slapping an older male colleague who was groping her. Keiko has issues and anxieties of her own that make her a hopeless partner for our hero. He finally falls for Mari, a prostitute described as "mute and a little crazy," but she also has a gangster boyfriend who beats up Atsushi until he realizes how much the man will pay for Mari. This goon is ultimately impressed by Atsushi's cool manner and easy way with money, and thinks that Atsushi may be just the guy to help him nab a 30,000,000 yen stash that he heard about in prison....

Scenes from the Hitomi episode, with Mariko Naga as Hitomi

On top of all this, Atsushi can't let go of his yearning for Shoko. We first see him fantasizing about her playing runaway bride with him, only to see the fantasy dissolve before our eyes. He hallucinates Shoko throughout the picture; sometimes she's a ghostlike figure lurking near the action, and sometimes he mistakes his other paramours for her. The embezzler also haunts him increasingly as his release date nears. Atsushi's resolution to die doesn't leave him unafraid of the old guy's vengeance, and that's his trouble in a nutshell. Sure, he does get to experience some pleasures of the flesh (but not so many as you'd think) but for someone with money to burn and nothing, presumably, to lose, he hardly ever seems to have a good time. The moral of the story may be that he's ultimately incapable of doing so -- psychologically or emotionally, at least. Whether he survives or not, the film leaves you wondering whether he's ever known how to live.

Katsuo Nakamura and Toshiko Higuchi before and after their ordeal in the surf.

Etsuraku, as Oshima calls it, get the Outlaw Sixties collection to a strong start. The direction the story takes took me by surprise and made the film more than the genre exercise it's advertised to be. Katsuo Nakamura's brooding performance as Atsushi really sells the concept, and he's supported by an impressive and attractive group of actresses. The film's low budget sometimes sticks out, but Oshima, cinematographer Akira Takada and art director Taro Imayasu do some fine work with sets and locations, from a white-on-white hotel suite to a turbulent beach where Nakamura and Toshiku Higuchi as Keiko take a grueling walk through the waves. The film goes by in a brisk, jump cut-assisted 91 minutes that makes poor Atsushi's year go by all too quickly but feels just right to this viewer. It makes me feel like I made the right move getting Outlaw Sixties, which means four more Oshima films to review in the coming weeks. Of course, the fact that you couldn't help but get it at a discount from Barnes & Noble this month didn't hurt, either, but for those still wondering or wavering about this set, Pleasures of the Flesh is a strong sign that it'll prove a good investment for wild-world-of-cinema tourists.


Alex DeLarge said...

Great review! I love this film! Oshima's Eclispe set is my favorite purchase so far this year, and at 50% off from B&N you can't go wrong.

The opening wedding scene is like a Lynchian illusion while the cinematography must have inspired Wong-kar Wai and his cohort Christopher Doyle. Also plays like a Godard B-movie homage.

As much as I loved this film, VIOLENCE AT NOON has some of the best editing comparable to Kurosawa's RASHOMON.

dfordoom said...

I'm not sure what to think of Nagisa Ôshima as a director. I hated In the Realm of the Senses but Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence wasn't too bad.

Samuel Wilson said...

Alex: The Eclipse liner notes make much of the young Oshima as a Japanese Godard, but I get more of a Japanese Antonioni vibe sometimes. You're dead-on about that wedding sequence, by the way.

d, I've seen neither of those Oshimas, but I have seen Empire of Passion, the milder follow-up to Realm and liked it.