Part of Oshima's outlaw series. It is a film about love, infatuation, dreams of something else and murder. The plot revolves around a man's love for a woman and how he copes with her rejection, linked to the legacy of the numerous efforts he made to woo her.
Whilst it may have the plot of a romcom this is anything but...
Quickly after the credits this hits the high road to hell, with a descent into darkness quicker than a body jumping off a ten storey building. Our hero makes a pact with Faust that establishes the central core of the film, but as it proceeds it takes a twist here, and then another twist there to finally head into the white noise voids of nihilism.
Combining 60's camera chic, beautiful groovy Japanese women the hero constantly tries to buy his fun. Along the way he meets a series of traumatised beauties as he embarks upon his quest. All the women are dominated by men wanting to enter them and then control their lives, so Oshima is reflecting back onto a world where freedom was constrained by gender.
Seedy Japan oozes through the frame, along with ecstasy and utter dread. A beautiful haunting film well worth the effort to dig.
Oshima’s first feature for his production company Sozosha (Creation), Pleasures of the Flesh is a singular example of the death-drive which defines so many of his outlaw characters. Young poor part time teacher Wakizaka Atsushi (Nakamura Katsuo) is obsessed with his rich student Shoko (Kaga Mariko) who is rendered unobtainable to him by her marrying somebody else of her own class and wealth. The film starts and finishes with images of her wedding ceremony which Atsushi attends “just to see her in her wedding dress.” In between, Oshima gives us a nasty tale of murder and blackmail in which Atsushi is left with 3,000,000,000 yen (about ₤150,000) by a corrupt bureaucrat Hayami (Ozawa Shoichi) to look after while he goes to jail for 5 years. Robbed of his life’s desire, Atsushi decides to blow all the money on a self-destructive lengthy binge on women and sex, accepting his fate with open arms. Atsushi becomes here the archetypical Oshima rebel raging against the class system and misusing the very thing that perpetuates it – money. The director’s real subject here is the rottenness of money and the delusory happiness of the capitalist consumerism that was emerging in the Japan of the mid-60s after a decade of poverty, depressed wages and food shortages.
Atsushi is completely free, has money and should be able to live an easy life of debauched luxury. But his money acts as manure attracting flies as all the people he meets buzz around him looking to suck him dry. It doesn’t matter how much money he showers around it is never enough, everyone wanting more. Especially the women who he ‘buys’ starting with Shoko look-a-like Hitomi (Nogawa Yumiko), a yakuza moll who doesn’t care who pays for her hedonism as long as it isn’t her. Then there’s Shizuko (Yagi Masako), a hostess up to her eye-balls in debt and married to a wastrel loser who pimps her to Atsushi. Worst of all there’s Keiko (Shimizu Hiroko), a frigid neurotic who refuses Atsushi sex until they marry and then continues to refuse while she takes his money all the time. His last girl, the mute simpleton Mari (Higuchi Toshiko), turns out to be another yakuza moll, this time the property of a man (Watanabe Fumio) who is tracking down Atsushi having spent jail time with Hayami, Atsushi’s corrupt benefactor. Atsushi’s ‘life of hedonistic abandon’ proves to be anything but as he is trapped by wretched people out for his filthy lucre. The final nail is driven into his coffin (the film is an adaptation of a Yamada Futaro novel called ‘Pleasure Inside the Coffin’) when Shoko visits him after all his money has gone to ask him for a loan to get money to help her husband’s ailing business. Once people hear a person’s loaded they become flies circling around the manure that Oshima clearly thinks money is. In this world money corrupts everyone, even the people we love most of all. This is what Atsushi learns as the narrative comes around full circle to the place of its departure.
Visually this film is fascinating with a variety of unconventional techniques deployed to place us squarely in Atsushi’s used and abused perception of events. Restless close-ups prevail when Shoko is placed in front of the camera and there are also two hallucinatory slow-motion shots of her at her wedding as she walks away from the stage past Atsushi’s table. These book-end the film symbolically as her marriage to wealth and class is what triggers his death drive and eventually ensures his fate. In the main body of the film there are numerous fantasy sequences where Atsushi imagines Hayami coming to look for him and there’s a stunning evocation of Keiko seeming to make love to him which turns out to be her saving his life by sucking water out of his system. This is humorously followed by an abrupt divorce request! Takada Akira’s camera is rarely still and the quick rapid-fire editing is a noticeable change from the long sequence shots that dominate Night and Fog in Japan.
On the whole Pleasures of the Flesh is a fine, very interesting film, but the one thing that qualifies a complete endorsement is the film’s tameness. The cover of this DVD and the very title promise a titillating and raunchy ride through debauchery, but the fact is this is a film I could safely show my grandmother. Part of the point is that Atsushi’s erotic dreams are merely illusory and that sordid reality ensures they remain just that, but as a ‘pink eiga’ that was clearly considered controversial at the time it should be a lot more shocking than it is. Oshima had to wait until In the Realm of Senses (1976) before he could show sex and the death drive in totally uncompromised terms and he had to leave Japan altogether to make that. This film has ‘compromised’ written all over it which rather contradicts the director’s supposed radicalism. The angry anti-authoritarianism is present here in the attack on capitalist consumerism, not in the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ which (alas!) we never see…
Criterion’s presentation of this DVD is fantastic with pin sharp picture and excellent color definition. The English subtitles are accurate and very clear. No extras, but there is an essay on the film by Michael Koresky inside the cover. The full essay ranging over all five films in the Eclipse Series 21: Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties box is available on-line at Criterion’s website.