Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

A Snake of June (2002)

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works as a mental health nurse and lives a comfortable, if apparently sexless, existence with her husband (Yuji Kotari). A package arrives at their apartment and Rinko finds a number of photographs showing her pleasuring herself. There is a mobile phone in the package and she is soon contacted by a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to blackmail her with these images. He proceeds to lead her on several sexually charged trials, including walking around in an uncharacteristically short leather skirt, buying a sex toy, and inserting a remotely operated vibrator. This man tells her that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that she is the only thing that makes him happy. Rinko’s husband soon discovers the blackmail and attempts to track down this man who is forcing his wife to perform these acts.

Writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto is no stranger to twisted narratives and difficult subject matter. “A Snake of June” sees the auteur director taking on the erotic thriller genre and infusing it with his own particular style. The film is shot entirely with a blue tint that gives it a unique look and the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The endlessly pouring rain and torrents of water pouring into drains create an almost unbearable sense of tension, blending concepts of sex and violence through pure visual storytelling. The connection of moisture and sex is understandable, but here it is taken to an extreme that creates an oppressive atmosphere of almost hyper-sexuality. This is balanced against the asexual couple at the heart of the narrative. When we see them they are always seated apart. It also seems that Rinko’s husband has an obsession with cleanliness, perhaps referencing the sense of shame that some feel in relation to their sexual urges. Their homelife is painfully sterile, while outside the world is filthy and rain-soaked. This is further highlighted by the rain pounding on the glass window above Rinko as she bathes. She can sense that she has cut herself off from something that is calling her. The shadows of the rain pouring above certain characters, the close-ups on drains, the intercutting of a snail, all do a perfect job of creating an atmosphere that is as gripping as it is terrifying and confusing. While it may not always be apparent what the precise meaning of particular shots are, they have a subconscious and cumulative effect that is undeniable. There are shots that will linger with you long after the film has finished. The eroticism of the film is expertly done and understands that it is often far more about what is suggested than what is shown. It lingers on expectation and suggestion rather than lurid details. Tsukamoto also shows his tendency for horror with the nightmarish vision of characters looking through telescopic headgear at scenes of sexual torture. The character of Rinko is brilliantly brought to life by Asuka Kurosawa, whose story is one of self-discovery and gives a nuanced portrayal of women and sexuality. Yuji Kotari is no less important as a foil for Rinko. His constant cleaning and his anger at discovering the blackmail is important in understanding their relationship. He is almost unreadable sometimes, showing devotion to his wife but a complete lack of physicality in their relations. Both characters have back stories that are alluded to, that help the viewer understand this rather odd relationship. Shinya Tsukamoto himself rounds out the main cast, playing the villainous blackmailer.

Nothing is quite clearly defined in the film, eroticism and horror, love and sex, life and death, all of these are in conflict with one another. There is a theme running through of sex as both dark and dangerous, yet also an emancipatory force. The characters live in their cordoned off home, secure from the metaphors for sex and debauchery outside. The husband’s dedication to cleanliness seems to reference the idea of expunging sin. The death of his mother is alluded to and there is clearly something in his psychology that prevents him being physically intimate with his sexually attractive wife. Likewise, Rinko’s father was a drunken bully, which may have led to her closing herself off from male advances and seeking a similarly asexual partner. The film is divided into sections “woman” and “man”, and the trio of characters act almost as archetypal figures, with Tsukamoto being an unknown quantity, perhaps representative of death or some dark force that is controlling the lives of the man and woman. This work is Tsukamoto at his absolute best, showing a unique talent for directing. “A Snake of June” is beautifully shot and has a story that is engaging, but leaves enough unsaid for multiple interpretations.

Orgies of Edo (1969)

“Orgies of Edo” tells three stories connected with themes of sex and violence. The first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), a young woman who is tricked by a gangster into a life of prostitution. The second features a woman with strange sexual perversions. She has a fetish for rape by men who are disfigured. In flashback we learn the dark secret that lies behind her perversion. She is attended by a man who harbours unrequited feelings for her, though towards whom she has no affection. The final story begins with a sadistic lord who delights in watching his harem being gored by a herd of bulls. One of the women takes his eye, seemingly a masochist with an equally insatiable appetite for torture and pain. However, she is also carrying a secret, one that threatens to end their twisted relationship.

The film written by director Teruo Ishii with Masahiro Kakefuda is a portrayal of the most base impulses of human society, lust and violence. Each tale unfolds almost as a dark parable, although the moral of each tale can be hard to discern at first. Despite a heavy emphasis on sex and gore it would be wrong to dismiss the film as mere titillation. There are deeper themes at work. Likewise, although the women are shown as victims in almost all cases, the film is sympathetic towards them. There is a certain sense in which the film delights in the most obscene material, incest, bestiality, rape, sexual violence and sadomasochism, but the film’s almost art house opening and closing sentiments set these things in context. The opening, with grotesques coming forth from a cabinet cues the audience in to the idea that this is intended as gruesome theatre. The stories are exaggerated portrayals of the very worst kinds of behaviour. The opening credits to the film are offensively garish, with names juddering and flashing across the screen while the music blares in concert with the images. Like with other films of the exploitation genre it intends to assault you with its message and has little time for subtlety. Ishii’s voyeuristic directorial style makes the viewer complicit in the horrors, peering from above as the terrible events unfold. There are great performances in all of the stories, especially from the main cast of women. The gory special effects are a little dated, and certain plot points cross the line of unacceptable racism, but a film of this kind is almost obliged to be as offensive as possible.

“Orgies of Edo” is disturbing from its first moments and in a little over 90 minutes manages to cover prostitution, infidelity, rape, incest, bestiality and sadomasochism. The film lays out a brutal worldview, one in which characters do despicable things and women are subject to all manner of sexual and psychological violence. The shock tactics are highly effective and it is not a film that could be considered boring, although some may find it offensive or distasteful. It is hard to summarise the messages of the film as they are multifarious. It does touch on ideas of power in sex relations, on the male tendency to violence, and on the underlying psychological causes of sexual perversion. In a sense the film is intended to provoke strong emotions, both of disgust and empathy towards the characters. The god-like perspective of many scenes also hints at a possible anti-theistic reading, as we are forced to watch impotently as the horrors unfold. This is a world in which morality, if it exists at all, is pushed aside and humans are shown as base and atavistic organisms. While passing decades and an increasingly liberal society may have dated certain scenes (particularly the use of dwarves and a black man as shorthand for ‘difference’ in the middle story), the film works well as a shocking exploitation drama with a message.

River’s Edge (2018)

A high-school drama that deals with several serious issues. Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) is in a relationship with Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), who is cheating on her with her friend. Fellow classmate Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is being bullied by Kannonzaki, becomes friends with Haruna who feels sorry for him. Yamada is gay and therefore something of a social outcast amongst his peers. He takes Haruna to see his ‘treasure’, the skeleton of a corpse he discovered in an overgrown field beside a river. Another classmate (Sumire), who works as model and suffers from bulimia, is also aware of this body. The story follows each of these characters as their lives intersect and impact on each other through a series of increasingly dark and dangerous situations.

The film makes much in its opening scenes of the looming industrial site that belches forth smoke and discharges filth into the river. The setting highlights the complex, dirty nature of teenage life, being a metaphor for the corruption of society on the pure children who are born into the world. Director Isao Yukisada makes good use of cuts, for example between sex and scenes of vomiting or violence, to show the confused blend of emotions that characterise this period of life. There are for example highly comic transitions between a sex scene and the consumption of bananas or sausages, which function to underscore a message about the interconnectedness of these characters who at first seem to socialise only in a shallow sense. The bulimic subplot likewise offers a human counterpoint to the idea of the factory that both consumes and then vomits back pollutants. The acting is occasionally hit and miss, but Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa give fantastic performances. The ensemble cast are all given fairly hefty roles, with their own nuances and dilemmas to face. There is a little overacting, but with such a collection of actors and scenes it is easy to move past them. It is a little overlong, the second half becoming directionless, seeming more like a series of vignettes rather than a single narrative. This is easy to understand as the film is based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki and is perhaps attempting to fit too many stories into a single cohesive narrative. The film often seems like it is struggling to fit in all of the stories it wants to tell, something that is far easier in the long form, episodic nature of a manga. The film is rarely dull however, being a kaleidoscope of teen angst and genuinely shocking scenes. All the various subplots are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The film discusses death, most prominently in the characters’ reactions to the corpse and in a latter shocking scene with Haruna. This corpse is symbolic of the characters confronting death itself, with the associated nihilism and overwhelming realisation that there is really no goal at the end of life, simply a series of tragedies. Bulimia, infidelity, anger, jealousy, homosexuality, and bullying are all shown to be part of life and the audience is left to find some morality amongst a morass of sin and suffering. There is an unspoken distance between many characters, who are unable to relate to one another, despite being in desperate need of someone to help them. They are isolate, impulsive, nothing is neatly resolved. It is a fizzing, unstable collage of teenage emotions showing the darker side of human nature. River’s Edge is a solid drama that deals with a number of important themes and leaves you speculating on the characters actions long after it is over.

Antiporno (2016)

When our heroine Kyoko wakes up in a mysterious room, painted bright yellow with an adjoining red bathroom, it is not immediately apparent whether this is reality or a dream. This sense of unease continues throughout a plot that moves rapidly from sequence to sequence following its own ‘dream-logic’ that intertwines flashbacks, hallucinations, fourth-wall breaking, and heartfelt soliloquising from Kyoko. The film revolves around Kyoko (Ami Tomite), an author who paints out her characters on large canvasses before writing her novels. Kyoko spends the majority of the film in this unreal space, met by her assistant, journalist, camera woman, and the film is as much about what is going on in her head as in the real world. The plot is hard to explain without giving away the more enjoyable twists and turns of this psychological drama.

Writer and director Sion Sono creates an unsettling yet compelling world that is constantly surprising the audience. The stylish sets help create an intriguing theatre-like space along with the classical score giving the whole film the feeling of a performance. Antiporno is a reflection on soft-core pornography, and it takes its subject seriously, unpacking various issues associated with pornography in society. The characters are intended more as archetypes than with any real backstory. Ami Tomite gives a stunning performance as Kyoko, whose shifting character evokes sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. She is the only character who is given a backstory, that further adds to the impression that this whole film is taking place at least in part inside her head. Everything is beautifully shot and frames with Sono showing a mastery of his craft.

Circling the central subject of sex and pornography, the film presents a plethora of ideas. You can almost imagine that this is the result of a brainstorming exercise, and the film itself jumps from one idea to another. Some of the issues raised are the pressures put on women to fulfil two competing roles for men, that of the whore and the virgin, and how this relates to a woman’s idea of herself and her worth to society. We see the intersection of sex and violence, the emptiness at the heart of consuming pornography. Despite some difficult themes the film never feels like a morality tale. The film emphasizes the naturalness of sex and rails against the shame so often associated with it. It understands that intelligent debate on the subject, rather than moral panic, is the best way to tackle issues. I would highly recommend this film as an intelligent psycho-drama about sex, with a stunning central performance, excellent direction, and a story that forces you to consider any preconceptions you might have about sex, pornography and society.