Ryū Murakami's written works too often seem better in theory than practice. He positioned himself throughout his career as a combination of artist and social critic, a diagnoser of Japan's cultural ills, but fell into a trap common to such a role: it's easier to rub the audience's nose in the problem than to derive any genuine insight, let alone imagine something better. Tokyo Decadence was adapted by Murakami from one of his own short stories, and it is all one big act of nose-rubbing. If someone else had directed it, I could have blamed them for missing what point the original material might have had — but then again, maybe someone else would have seen with this material all that Murakami hasn't.

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© 1991 Japan Video Distribution Ltd.
An extended session with a client ends up including his wife.

What price love?

Tokyo Decadence deals with Ai (Miho Nikaido), a call girl who specializes in clients with kinks and fetishes. Her prim and passive personality aren't an act; she really is that reticent and quiet the rest of the time. There's some handwaving about how she visits kids for social work and knows sign language, but her entire life as we see it onscreen consists of visiting various johns and then returning home to sit alone in her apartment. So starved is she for some sign of happier days, she visits a fortune-teller and follows her silly advice to the letter, including finding a topaz ring (the Japanese title of the film is Topāzu).

Roughly the first quarter of the movie is taken up with a long sequence involving a gangster type who's rented Ai for half a day. He slicks her hair back (there's a moment of perhaps unintentional comedy when we wonder what he's going to do with all that gel he's squirting into his hand), makes her gyrate sluttishly and proclaim her sluttishness, has her crawl around the hotel room, and so forth. Then the guy's wife gets involved; apparently she's as big a freak for this sort of thing as he is. The whole sequence is, I guess, intended to announce the movie's intentions: show Ai's work without inhibition, and paint it as emblematic of a decadent society, etc.. But all it does is encapsulate so much of what's wrong with the film: it shows us when it's supposed to be telling, and tells us when it should be showing.

A plot of sorts emerges. In between Ai's various weirdo clients (one played by underground music legend Kan Mikami), we learn Ai's misery is because her boyfriend, and up-and-coming musician, ditched her and left to divide his time between England and a new lady in his life. Her low self-esteem all but guarantees she won't feel like she has talent for anything else in life — something ironically confirmed by the yakuza client, who tells her otherwise with a smile, but she's learned not to take anything such people say on face value anyway. This leads to another protracted sequence, one that occupies almost the entire final fourth of the movie, where she assembles a picnic basket and heads off to her ex's house presumably to try and woo him back, only to make a ghastly mess of it.

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© 1991 Japan Video Distribution Ltd.
Ai's pining for her ex-boyfriend leads her to embrace no end of bad substitutes for him.

The medium, the message, the misfire

An easy criticism of Tokyo Decadence is that it's the work of a didactic moralist who just wants to wallow in the very thing they're railing against. I think the movie's problem is bigger than just that: its approach allows it to say so much less about its material than Murakami thinks it does. Hence the way each sequence seems to develop towards some kind of real insight, only to back away in favor of having some front-loaded line of dialogue serve that function, or just to show deviant behavior at protracted length. The middle section of the movie where Ai forms a sort-of friendship with a dominatrix, at first over work and then over cocaine and booze, at first seems like it's leading somewhere, but it functions mostly to provide Ai with the pills that she'll unwisely take before embarking on her doomed picnic.

The idea that Murakami has to make his points this baldly or no one in his desensitized audience will get it rings hollow in the light of how he has proven, more than a few times, he doesn't have to do that. His Audition worked excellently as social commentary, in big part because the original material's noir-thriller flavor kept the focus tight; the story didn't promise more than it could actually deliver. (Takashi Miike's movie adaptation preserved that aspect to even better effect.) But stuff like Popular Hits Of The Showa Era (filmed as Karaoke Terror) had all the subtlety of stepping on a rake. Tokyo Decadence is only slightly less unsubtle, but it still has the same problem I find with so many of Murakami's other works: it thinks it has far more to say than it actually can say, and so what it ends up saying hardly seems worth the effort.

One problem with movies like this is how unaware they seem to be of a common tenet for human fetishes and obsessions: they're far more interesting to the ones who experience them than they are to the rest of us. It takes an exceptional artist to either get us to share an obsessive state of mind, or comment on it intelligently, and Murakami just doesn't seem capable of doing either one here. All we can do is look, or maybe just gawk. I kept thinking back to Luis Buñuel, that wicked director of surreal and erotic farces who understood how craven and absurd human obsessions were, and made them into the substance of one taboo-smashing film after another. What would have Buñuel done with this material? Oh, wait, he did do something with it: Belle de Jour.

I hate to critique a movie by comparing it compulsively with other films, but another movie, also from Japan, does come to mind: Banmei Takahashi's New Love In Tokyo. That movie also dealt with a professional sex worker, a dominatrix who sees in her job a way to get a measure of freedom and independence the rest of Japanese society won't give her. That movie was also snappy, bawdy, hilarious, mile-a-minute; it leaned into the inherent absurdity and goofy humor of its situations. And when it leaned back out, it brought with it some truths this movie is constitutionally incapable of delivering.

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© 1991 Japan Video Distribution Ltd.
An attempt to win back Ai's old flame ends in disaster.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.