With a title like I Am An S&M Writer, I expected some unbridled sleaze-pit. What I got was something far wittier and funnier than such a label would lead you to believe. It’s more in the vein of a black comedy of manners or an old-school bedroom farce than something like, oh, Flower and Snake.
Funny I should mention Flower and Snake, since both that and S&M Writer stem from the exact same source material: the novels of Oniroku Dan. Dan made a name for himself in Japan by writing BSDM-themed erotic fiction — some of it allegedly autobiographical, but who knows how much or to what end. A big chunk of his fame, or infamy rather, came from having his works adapted to or written specifically for the screen. For a while Nikkatsu Studios (the exploitation-picture kings of Japan) practically had a whole sub-industry devoted to churning out flicks based on his work. S&M Writer is far better than most of them simply by dint of being sincerely funny and not mean-spirited, and by telling us a story that’s more than just a run-through of someone else’s fetishes.
The writer in the title is Kurosaki, “Mr. K” (Ren Osugi, great as always), a fortyish man patterned after Dan himself, with Coke-bottle glasses and a generally mild manner. He’s been able to finance a lavish lifestyle with his work — he has a sprawling house in the country, an attractive wife, a sometimes-too-enthusiastic literary assistant, and something resembling social respectability. His work, though, is as outré as it gets: he and his assistant Kawada tie up one (willing) woman after another and dictate preposterously florid prose at each other while squinting at various body parts and trying to come up with clever new ways to describe the interactions of mucous membranes.
The one part of this literary porn studio that doesn’t fit is K’s wife, Shizuko. She finds this whole business of trussing up girls and writing dirty books to be a bother, and stages a bit of passive-aggressive rebellion by flirting with an American who’s opened a conversational-English school down the road. But things really heat up when she starts fooling around with Kawada: they bump into each other on the train, sit in a restaurant by the seaside, and then she allows him to tie his hands together and attempts to eat that way. She’s secretly turned on by this stuff, you see, and so it escalates from there. Before long Kawada is blubbering out the whole sordid affair to his boss, who’s torn between a) punching his assistant in the face or b) getting him drunk and having him provide copious notes about their choice of positions and bondage techniques.
The biggest reason all this stuff is funny is the tone. As riotous as the goings-on may be to us, the characters take it very seriously indeed — and in his own way, so does the director (Ryūichi Hiroki, of the excellent Vibrator and himself a former S&M movie director under the pseudonym Gō Ijuin). Many of the most hilarious scenes are simply filmed as static takes; Hiroki lets the actors and the material do all the heavy lifting. Eventually things do take a somber turn, as Kurosaki’s torn between using the luridness of the situation as fuel for his novel or salvaging what’s left of his marriage, and the ending is wistful and sad in a way that, oddly enough, fits the material just right.