DVD Review Of Pleasures Of The Flesh

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/12


  The two most obvious influences on Nagisa Oshima’s 1965 color film, Pleasures Of The Flesh (Etsuraku), are not those first posited upon its release: soft core Japanese porno films, called pink films, nor action thrillers (usually yakuza/gangster films. No, in retrospect the clear influences seem to have been Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime And Punishment and Rod Serling’s sci fi anthology television series The Twilight Zone. The former because of its theme, and the latter because of the film’s structure an execution.

  The DVD is part of The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series, Series 21: Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties, and, as with the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura, made in the same period, this film dazzles and provokes with an interesting premise, and daring cinematography. As with all Eclipse releases, there are no extra features, save for liner notes by film critic Michael Koresky, and only the white font subtitles Criterion usually offers. The film is shown, however, in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the original one released to theaters. Previous releases often had pan and scan full frame formatting. The transfer of the film is good. Oshima, who later became internationally known for his 1976 art/porno film, In The Realm Of The Senses, shows a predilection for pushing sexual boundaries in this film. Humorously, this film could likely pass for a PG-13 rating today, whereas 45 years ago it was considered borderline pornography, a soft core genre known as pink or eiga. Nonetheless, Oshima has always unfairly been called the Jean-Luc Godard of the Orient, and that is akin to slander, given that none of the 8 or 9 films of the Frenchman’s, that I’ve seen, is as good as this first film of Oshima’s I’ve gazed. There simply is no denying that the Japanese were at the forefront of the cinematic and other world arts, for a few decades in the middle of last century. In film alone, the list of great directors and films make up a healthy sized paragraph.

  Pleasures Of The Flesh was the first independent film in Oshima’s career. After leaving the Shochiku Studio, where he had early success, he formed his own film company, produced his own films, and then distributed them via the established studios. Pleasures Of The Flesh opens in a noir fashion, after a dreamy fantasy-like scene of a young woman’s wedding, in slow motion. Then the film’s protagonist doing an exemplary job of narrative exposition in the first few minutes, accompanied with flashbacks. We learn that his name is Atsushi Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), and he had, for several years, tutored a teenage girl named Shoko (Mariko Kaga). One day, he found out that she had been molested as a child, and the molester, upon release from prison, started blackmailing the girl’s parents over her ‘shame.’ They paid, but then asked Atsushi to kill the man, to restore their daughter’s honor. They would pay him a sum, but, as he was in love with Shoko, he would have done it for free.

  He then details the murder: paying off the molester, who refuses to end the blackmail, trailing him on a train, then pushing him off, to his death. This is when the first of a number of Dumbest Possible Action tropes kick in, and had Oshima merely plotted the tale out a bit more believably and realistically, then this film could be discussed as a great one, in the real with Akira Kurosawa’s thrillers like The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low. As it is, this film is just a good thriller with some interesting twists and revelations on psychology. The first Dumbest Possible Action trope occurs when Atsushi is blackmailed by the lone witness to the murder, a petty bureaucrat named Hayami (Shoichi Ozawa). He unrealistically barges into Atsushi’s life, declares himself a corrupt official and demands that Atsushi hide 30 million of the 98 million yen he has embezzled. He declares he will soon be caught, but get only five years, and be forgotten. Then he can live the rest of his life off his ill gotten booty. In exchange for hiding and not touching the loot, he will not tell the cops of the murder Atsushi has committed. We find out that Hayami’s forecast comes true. He is caught, and Atsushi spends a few years taking care of the money. Now, given that Hayami would be the only witness, it’s possible that there is no other evidence to the crime, and Atsushi could call the bluff. But, if not, he could just as easily kill the bureaucrat, for there would be no linkage between the two men, for to do so Hayami would have to have informed a second person of his plans, which would invalidate his reasons for seeking out Atsushi. Also, he could have simply followed the man to his ministry job, and killed him after getting the money, thereby eliminating the threat and using the money. But, here is the film’s first misstep.

  Nonetheless, the rest of the film plays out well. Several years later, still guarding the money, Atsushi finds out his lady love has married another, but claims she’s unhappy. Still, she loves the high life and does not leave her husband. To spite her, Atsushi decides to go on a year long sexual spree with the 30 million, paying several women to live with him 1,000,000,000 yen a month. The first is a gangster’s moll, Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa), who gets plastic surgery and ends up cutting off her own pinky to pay a debt. The next is a married woman who prostitutes herself to help her husband and two daughters, Shizuko (Masako Yagi). Atsushi so reviles her that he gives her a house and money just so she and her husband can make each other miserable. Another, a nurse, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), even marries him so they can have sex, although none of them love him. By the end of the year, when Hayami is to be paroled, and Atsushi figures he’ll be killed, he tries buying love from a mute prostitute, Mari (Toshiko Higuchi), whose pimp is a gangster, it turns out, was hired by Hayami to keep an eye on Atsushi, for a fee. But he comes to Atsushi, impressed with his ability to seemingly make money, asking if he can find himself because Hayami is dead, having died of pneumonia in prison. This is Twilight Zone Twist #1. With all the money gone, Atsushi laughs, and admits his guilt. The pimp wants to kill him, but instead is killed by the mute prostitute. Upon returning to his old apartment, he is confronted by Shoko, who now is attracted to him because of his ‘wealth.’ She’s willing to whore herself if he’ll loan her money to prevent her husband’s business from bankruptcy. Atsushi laughs, and confesses his murder and the blackmail scheme by Hayami, but that all the money is gone. This is a Dumbest Possible Action trope that occurs once before, and a third time in the film- who in their right minds confesses murder so freely? He does not tell her that the original murder was of her molester. The next day, two cops arrest Atsushi, charging him with murder. He asks if it was for the one yesterday, giving himself away, although it was really the mute prostitute’s doing. They refuse to tell so he swallows a poison capsule, and threatens to fully swallow it if they do not tell him who told on him. They tell him it was a woman he’s known ten years. Shoko, it turns out, finks on him because he could not lend her money, therefore revealing herself as a moneygrubbing bitch, and unworthy of all his suffering to protect her. This is Twilight Zone Twist #2.

  At this, the film ends, but one wonders if, now that he has been betrayed by Shoko, if he will implicate her parents in the murder plot, and expose her ‘shame’ of molestation, as revenge? It would certainly serve her right. Although lacking any extra features, the transfer of the film is quite good, although not flawless. The film’s screenplay, by Oshima, adapted from a novel called Pleasures Inside A Coffin (Kan No Naka No Etsuraku), by Futaro Yamada, while, in the main, is innovative, has weak individual moments of dialogue and characterization. The cinematography, by Akira Takada, is quite standout, and several montage sequences- one which acts like a spoof of 1930s out on the town consumerism, and another which is an orgiastic haze, are very convincing, and the eerie music, in a score by Joji Yuasa, is also top notch. It does not lead, and only enhances what the acting and writing put in play.

  There are too many flaws, and Dumbest Possible Action tropes, for Pleasures Of The Flesh to broach greatness, but there are superb moments right next to bad. As example, while the forthrightness of the admission by Hayami is not believable, character-wise, it is one of the bleakest and most searing indictments of the human character ever put on film; and part of that burn comes from the fact that its ascription of human flaws is dead on. And in this it has a far more realistic take on human evil than Crime And Punishment. While a good portion of the film has dated, in terms of conventions of dress and sexual mores, at the gut, human level, the film is till searingly accurate, much like the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. That, plus its many positive qualities, makes this an important film, if not a great one. And that’s more than enough to recommend its being watched and, hopefully, understood.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]


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