From the outside, Tokyo Decadence looks and smells like the 1990s version of In the Realm of the Senses. It oozes with sex and social criticism alike, employing sleaze as a delivery mechanism for its deeper message. But while Senses was bold for reasons apart from how graphic it was, Decadence is stuck somewhere between indicting its audience and catering to it. Some elements of the film have great impact, but others are just too fundamentally silly to be anything but funny — and worse, the director isn’t able to choose one over the other. The end result is equal parts hokum and brimstone.
The film was originally a novel (not yet in English) by Ryū Murakami, he of Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue. The author himself brought it to the screen, which is not always the best thing. Authors often have far too much attachment to their own material to make the sometimes ruthless decisions required to adapt it for other media. I could not tell you what tone and atmosphere the book was meant to conjure up, but the resulting movie is schizoid — like a sloppy drunk lecturing you on getting your life in order.
The underlying concept is a fairly brave one, so it’s not as if Decadence (original title: Topaz) was a bad idea from the beginning. It gives us Ai (an appropriately blank-faced Miho Nikaido), a prim woman in her 20s who under other circumstances might be graduating from college. Instead, she’s a hundred-thousand-yen-an-hour prostitute who specializes in BDSM. Her work mostly consists of showing up, following orders, being manhandled by men of great wealth and bankrupt spirits, and spending the rest of her time in what amounts to a quietly sad daze. She’s not so much a damage case as a moon-eyed romantic at heart: what she really wants is to reconnect with her former boyfriend, now a jet-setting musician who lives overseas. It’s her customers who are the real tragedies. She’s just an onlooker, like someone craning their neck at the scene of a car accident.
The most effective stuff is early on. One of her major client’s a man twenty years her senior — snorting coke off CD jewel boxes, guzzling beer, spending all this money on Ai so that he can take some of his frustrated desires and give them form. He pays her to stand in front of a window and grind “like a horny businesswoman” for three hours (the results of which form the movie’s poster art). Trying to get what he wants only frustrates him further. Later, they talk a little. His main insight into himself is that he’s horny; Ai’s big understanding of herself is “I’ve discovered I have no talent whatsoever,” with all the certainty of someone who has found a kind of refuge. They even have a threesome with the guy’s girlfriend, which ends with a clever camera angle that makes it looks like he’s copulating rather mechanically with both of them at once.
Most of the sexual material is shot in a frigid, clinically detached style that makes a point: the movie’s pleasures of the flesh are at core so cheerless and dank that you’d need to have an extremely selective attention span to watch any of it for kicks. But there are times when the movie breaks form, badly. Another wacko customer (played by, of all people, underground music star Kan Mikami), invites Ai out to a classy dinner and then tries to stage a bizarre rape scenario up in his hotel room. The whole way this scene is filmed and acted is ruinous. If it was meant to be funny, it would have worked as low-key black comedy, but Mikami and Murakami deliver what amounts to Adam Sander-level hamming. Another scene with a client who appears to have died actually does aim for black comedy, but that very tone is so at odds with the larger intentions of the film that it doesn’t click anyway.
Other things also come off as mannered for their own sake, and work against the larger design. A scene late in the film has Ai and another woman doing drugs and engaging in the kind of self-consciously arty decadence that looks great in front of a camera and absolutely nowhere else. And the end of the film is messy, to put it mildly: Ai tries to go back to her boyfriend’s place, but gets stoned, attracts the wrong kind of attention from the neighbors, freaks out, tries to break into the house, gets arrested, gets bailed out in a deus ex machina, has sad visions, and on and on until I felt like the movie could have ended twenty minutes earlier and lost nothing.
Murakami writes about Japan’s lost soul as if it were a wound inflicted on him personally. Maybe it is. In countless essays, novels and short stories, he sees a nation that is materially rich, but it’s (as one character here puts it) “wealth without pride”. That lack of pride, judging from this film, means money spent on buying empty pleasures instead of building things that last — and who wouldn’t feel a personal wound from having to live in such a nation? But criticisms like this are best delivered in a modulated, incremental way. Nagisa Oshima had Senses but also had many other social-realist movies to his credit; Mikio Naruse (another director who sympathized with the plight of modern Japanese women) did it through movies like When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Decadence bites off far more than it can chew, or even taste properly.