During the Sixties there surfaced in Japan a whole slew of films which expressed dismay for how that country’s newly-won material prosperity came at the expense of a great many other things the Japanese barely seemed aware they were losing. Some of those films were allegorical (the monster movie Matango), some were phantasmagorical (Jigoku), some political (The Bad Sleep Well). Pleasures of the Flesh combines all three, and then some.
When Nagisa Oshima created Flesh, as the first project for his independent production company Sozo-sha, it was nominally billed as a “pink film” — that peculiar Japanese subgenre which often contains as much hard-core emotional violence as it does soft-core sexual imagery. But it borrows just as much from Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers, film noir, and melodrama about doomed love; in the end it’s a movie that is the product of no one genre.
It’s a common criticism of mine to say that a movie has enough plot for any two or three movies. Flesh is like that: it’s quite densely plotted for a movie that only runs about ninety minutes, but it’s not convoluted for the sake of convolution. It opens with the young, hapless Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura, he who was Hoichi-the-Earless in Kwaidan), a tutor who’s hopeless infatuated with one of his young students, Shoko (Mariko Kaga). He learns, to his horror, that Shoko was molested by an acquaintance of the family when she was a young girl, and that the wealthy family has kept this close to the chest. If word gets out, Shoko will have no chances of ever being married, and the family’s reputation will be scorched earth.
Shoko’s parents sense, quite correctly, that Atsushi is willing to do quite literally anything for his girl. They make him an offer: Find and get rid of the molester, and they will compensate him well for his trouble. He’s just young and naïve enough to think it’s a good idea, and just old enough to figure out how to do it without getting caught. Hitchcock’s shade looms large not only over the story but Atsushi himself: he pulls a Stranger on a Train and throws the rapist out the window of a commuter car when no one’s looking. Problem solved … but then he discovers this was little more than a ruse for Shoko’s family to distance themselves from him, since she eventually ditches him and marries another man.
Like I said, plot enough for any one movie. There’s more. Atsushi is then approached by a seedy little man who saw him commit the murder, and is only too happy to go to the cops with what he knows. This fellow is a low-level bureaucrat, about to be arrested for embezzling millions of yen in public funds. He won’t do that much time in prison for this charge, so his plan is to blackmail Atsushi into holding the money for him while he serves out his sentence. Numbed, Atsushi accepts, but the sheer amount of money in that suitcase eventually wears down his resistance, and he formulates a plan: he’s going to blow all that cash over the course of a year, having all the fun he was never able to have before — and then kill himself when he’s finally broke.
The money is able to buy Atsushi a lot of things — hotel rooms, nights out on the town, the company of women. What it can’t buy him is mental distance between him and Shoko. He remains obsessed with her, and each woman he buys off for the sake of companionship reminds him of her all the more bitterly. Oshima accomplishes this in ways that are both subtle and blunt. Among the most striking is an early scene with Atsushi and a gangster girl, where (in one unbroken take) he goes back and forth between the real woman in the room with him and Shoko’s shade standing on the ledge outside.
Each woman turns out to be a dead end. The gangster girl comes with all the associated baggage of the other lowlifes who want her for their own. Another woman is already married; Atsushi pays her as a way to feel like she’s doing something to support her family, since her husband’s uniformly worthless. A third is a nurse who gets involved with Atsushi out of cynical boredom, only to discover that Atsushi’s nihilism is far worse than any disaffectation she could show. Only the fourth — a mute girl, a near-idiot whom Atsushi has to rent on a monthly basis from her existing pimp — gives Atsushi anything like comfort. Even then it’s only a proxy for the real thing which he can never have, and by the time he and Shoko come face-to-face once more he realizes his original obsession with her was as delusional as anything else in his life.
All of this is set against a glittering, kaleidoscopic panorama of urban Japan in the Sixties, a world of sleek hotel rooms, grungy dives, flashy nightclubs, neon-lit back alleys, and rabbit-hutch apartments. Everything has a price but never a cost, and the one way people have any reliable form of contact with each other is through money — or, failing that, through sex as currency. Oshima detests the soullessness of this human traffic, not just in the form of people buying and selling each other but in them allowing the same to be done to themselves. It’s Atsushi who sells himself out first, by allowing himself to be purchased as a killer for the sake of avenging Shoko’s honor. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to buy out others to avenge his own wounded pride — only to find out dignity has no pricetag, which means it is effectively either priceless or worthless.
For all the decadence and eroticism on display, Flesh makes us feel clinically detached from the action even as we are drawn into it. Oshima uses a great many shots where the full width of a room is spread out and flattened across the CinemaScope screen; it makes us feel like we’re peering at the action through a one-way mirror that spans an entire wall. A scene on a beach — one of the most simple but spectacularly-photographed moments in the film — feels like it should be uplifting (who doesn’t feel elevated by sun, surf and sand?), but it’s put together in such a way that it instead evokes despair and crushing solitude. Even more startling are the moments where Oshima allows something to happen just out of frame, and then provides us with a jolt by nothing more than the most minimal movement of the camera.
What drew me to Flesh first was not just Oshima’s involvement, but the source material. The film is one of the few pieces of work from one of Japan’s most popular postwar novelists, Fūtaro Yamada, which is available to non-Japanese. The only other as of this writing is the ninjas-and-sorcery fantasy The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (adapted as Shinobi and Basilisk), the supernatural-samurai epic Makai Tensho (and the ninja-splatter flick Ninja Wars, but the less said about that the better). Seeing this movie makes me long all the more to read his non-historical literary work in English, since from what I can see Flesh is as unlike any of those other stories as this film is unlike Oshima’s others.
Flesh draws at least as much on noir as it does the pink film,
the melodrama, or any number of other genres it could be associated with.
Come to think of it, Oshima has never made the same movie twice anyway, and I suspect that is part of what makes him such a frustrating (but also rewarding) filmmaker to talk about. He doesn’t have a single formal visual style; Flesh doesn’t resemble, say, In the Realm of the Senses in any significant way. What his films do seem to have is common is the singular obsession to dig fingernails into Japan’s self-imposed façades and tear them off, again and again.