Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Love in Tokyo

Director: Banmei Takahashi
Starring:  Sawa Suzuki,
Reiko Kataoko,
Nagare Hagiwara,
Sho Aikawa,
Shinji Takeda
Released: 1995
Length: 115 minutes

I don’t know what it is about an Asian Dominatrix but there is something extra sexy about an Asian woman who wears leather and whips men. In “New Love in Tokyo”, the lead character Rei (Suzuki Sawa) reminded me of the Lucy Liu character, Pearl, the sadistic Dominatrix and hitwoman for the Chinese mafia in the film “Payback”. Liu also had a great scene as a dominant female in “Charlie’s Angels” and Liu often plays a sadistic villain, such as in the movie “Kill Bill”. But Sawa is no villain in “New Love in Tokyo”. Her character Rei works as a Dominatrix but she is a fun-loving, young woman. It just so happens she loves her work and is very good at it.

In true Dominatrix fashion, Rei dresses in scanty leather outfits and she whips, body pierces, and playfully torments her businessmen clients, but never has sex with them. The movie opens with one of the best whipping scenes you’ll see portrayed outside of a FemDom Adult film. In a flashback sequence, Rei talks about why she decided to be a Dominatrix.

“I thought it might be kind of fun”.

The movie cuts to her lashing a bound male client with her single-tail whip, laughing at him the entire time.

“How’s that? How’s that? Come on, say it louder!”

We see the man’s back, marked with cuts and welts from the whip, and it is clear that this is not role-play or fantasy. Rei is literally whipping him into submission.

“There you go!”

The man screams out in pain. “Ouch!” The whip continues to strike him.

“Say it louder!” Come on, say it!”

The man cries out the word she wants to hear, “Mistress!”

Rei stops his punishment for a second as she teases him.

“Did that hurt?


Rei begins to whip him even harder,

“Say it like you mean it!”

The movie cuts to a picture of a flower as the opening credits and song fill the screen.

In 1994, director Banmei Takahashi adapted a non-fiction book on the lives of women in Tokyo’s booming sex industry into the film “New Love in Tokyo”. The film won many festival awards but may be most notable for being the first film released to Japanese theaters without optical fogging. What is optical fogging? It is the blurring out of genitalia. Based on the book of portraits by renowned photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, “New Love in Tokyo” is a light-hearted look at the lives of a group of Tokyo call girls. Araki, well known for his fascination with female nudes and sexual deviation, briefly appears in the film as himself, photographing the lead characters.

In many parts of the world, “New Love in Tokyo” was released as a sequel to Ryu Murakami's art house hit “Tokyo Decadence”. Aside from a commercial one, the reason for this might be that both films portray the lives of prostitutes. However, the approach of Takahashi's film is almost the mirror image of Murakami's. The tone throughout is one of light-heartedness, from time to time even side-stepping into comedy. The film is populated by characters who go through life with an unnatural cheeriness, as if prostitution was the most normal of career choices for a young woman, a mere job on the side. Because of Takahashi's approach, the women in the film come across as the dominant characters. The men in their lives are slaves to their own lusts and instincts. The women seem invulnerable to any obstacle the world may throw in their paths, be it a knife-wielding psycho client or venereal disease. Nobuyoshi Araki's photographs of the lead characters, which appear throughout the film, project a similar strength and self-confidence.

But it is not the “symbolic dominance” of the female characters that leads me to review “New Love in Tokyo”. It is Suzuki Sawa’s character, Rei, and the authentic portrayal of S&M sessions between a professional Dominatrix and her clients that caught my attention. During the day, Rei is a struggling actress but at night she’s a high priced Dominatrix. Her work brings her in contact with a lot of unique characters, from regular people to powerful CEOs. One day, she befriends a prostitute named Ayumi who works as a more conventional call girl out of a different but equally efficient brothel in the same office building. Ayumi is trying hard to leave her life as a call girl behind by dating men who are studying to be doctors or lawyers. Rei and Ayumi find that they have much in common and soon become inseparable.

Together they experience many ups and downs in their personal and professional lives but continue to support each other throughout “New Love in Tokyo” doesn’t pull any punches in graphically showing the S&M activities of Rei and the sexual activities of Ayumi’s line of work. It’s not a sex movie, however. The nudity, though pervasive, is secondary to the story of the lives of the two women. Although society would define these women by their jobs, they don’t define themselves in that way. Rei and Ayumi have lives, hopes, and dreams that are completely separate from their jobs in the sex industry.

“New Love in Tokyo” received a lot of critical acclaim and commercial success when it was released. The praise was certainly warranted, as it is an excellently made film and can be at times both touching and funny. The film takes an almost documentary format, showing the lives of the girls in complete detail whether the events are interesting or not. On this front, I found much of the film to be tedious and painfully slow. However, it is the well done scenes of Rei as a Dominatrix that makes this movie worth watching. The sweet looking Rei is a cruel Mistress who is very skilled when it comes to dominating men. As the movie goes along, it becomes clear that Rei understands the psychology of Female Domination.

My favorite scene takes place later in the film when she is visited by an arrogant male who wants to experiment with S&M. Rei enters the room wearing leather. The man casually addresses her.
“You’re the one in charge. How do you do?”
Rei stares him down, “Is that any way to speak to me?”
The client, smoking a cigarette, does not comprehend submission. “What way? What’s with your attitude? I’m a customer.”
He walks around the room, touching the various restraints and toys. “I’m just tired of regular sex with regular women … I feel there is a psychological undercurrent to S&M.”
Rei just stares him over contemplating how she will deal with this man who thinks female domination is just a game.  The client continues his lecture,
“… to put it boldly, it (Female Domination) takes on the appearance of sex, and yet it’s a kind of philosophy, or a kind of religion.”
Rei tells him, “If that’s what you want, I’ll be your Sartre, or even your Jesus … now, take off your clothes.”
“Aren’t you going to take your clothes off as well?”
“I’ll do things my way!”
Rei places him in restraints, she blindfolds him and she forcefully pushes him to the floor. The man begins to panic.
“Hey, this isn’t what I ordered. Take these things off. Remove these shackles at once!”
Rei gags him, “This is what you need.”
She dims the lights and the film goes to black and white. All he can hear is a dripping faucet as Rei leaves him bound, alone in the dark, blindfolded and gagged.
Rei leaves him there for hours, as she relaxes in the lounge area, drinks water, reads a magazine, talks to the other girls at the agency. She even listens in on one of the girls who is whipping a CEO as he is bound to a spinning Catherine’s Wheel, which is in itself an interesting scene as the CEO repents for laying off his employees while the young girl whips him.
Rei is committed to making her bound client suffer in his sensory deprivation condition. She even lets the girls of the agency know she is available to see other clients because her current client is going to be left alone for quite awhile. Rei uses the time to study a script for her acting class, while her client remains bound in the dark on the cold floor, only able to hear the sound of the dripping faucet.
After hours have passed, Rei quietly goes back into the domination room and sits in a chair as she watches her client begin to break down psychologically.

He starts to whimper and Rei is there to get deeper into this head.
“Scary, isn’t it? Isn’t it lonesome? What can save you now? Your knowledge? Your strength? ”
The man’s body shakes as he is overcome by his helpless state of being.
“That’s right, now you understand. I’m the only one who can save you. And you have no choice but to obey me. Understand?”
Rei walks over to him and removes his gag. The man sobs slightly. Rei slaps him hard across his face while he is still blindfolded, unable to see her.
“I said reply.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Now you’ll attend to everything I say, won’t you?”
The man sobs but refuses to answer.
“So you still can’t let go of your ego?”
Rei grabs a whip and strikes him repeatedly across his chest.
The man yells out, “I understand, I understand, I’ll listen to everything you say.”
Rei continues to whip him hard. “We must also fix the way you speak to me.” Rei whips him harder with dozens of blows as he cries out …
“Help! Forgive me! Forgive me, Mistress!”
Rei stops the brutal beating, removes his shackles and turns up the lights. The movie returns to color. The broken man removes his blindfold and beholds his cruel Mistress. He cries tears of submission and with deep emotion he calls out “Mistress!”
He crawls over to her, lays prostrate before her throne as he sobs uncontrollably. Rei removes her shoes and pets him with her feet. “You’ll make a good slave.”
Yes, Rei is a natural as a Dominatrix but she is not one dimensional. She dreams of becoming an actress and belongs to an experimental theater group. A lot of the movie is about her friendship with Ayumi, who is saving her money so that she can eventually marry her boyfriend who does not know of her vocation. When not working, Ayumi and Rei go out on the town where they joyfully flirt with men in bars and have fun.
The first half of the film introduces various clients and their often bizarre fetishes, like the intimidating, businessman (Nagare Hagiwara) who's into extreme forms of submission and humiliation, like having Rei shove a lit candle up his ass, or the middle-aged man who likes Ayumi to pretend she's underage so that like a stern parent he can scold her shameful behavior while enjoying a blow-job. The filmmakers adapted real stories of working prostitutes into this film, therefore many of the sex scenes have an authenticity that is rare in films today.
Part of the fascination is the process itself, watching just how sex workers go about their business, how the brothels are run with the same Japanese business efficiency as its convenience stores, ramen shops, and full-service gas stations. The brothel might have eight separate phone lines to accommodate its many aliases but its receptionist is unfailingly polite, even when the asked-for hooker is "on menstrual leave." The secret codes and procedures the women use to protect themselves is fascinating, while other details are quite hilarious. For example, one women apparently specializing in urinating and defecating on her clients complains bitterly that, after having "saved it up" for two days she "just flushed 25,000 yen (about $275) worth of gold down the toilet."

Lacking the generally prudish nature of their American counterparts, Japanese film critics and audiences embraced “New Love in Tokyo” without hesitation, regarding it as a perfectly legitimate film that ranked 9th on Kinema Jumpo's list of the year's Top Ten domestic films, while Kataoka and Suzuki especially were given numerous Best New Actress awards.

Be that as it may, as a movie based on pure plot and drama, I wouldn’t recommend it, but I so much enjoyed Suzuki Sawa’s portrayal of a Dominatrix and I was most fascinated by the film’s educational portrayal of the Japanese sex industry.

For example, “New Love in Tokyo” takes place in and around the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Known for its shopping districts and entertainment, the area has a bustling nightlife that is popular with young adults but it is also has a thriving sex industry. The brothels there commonly use love hotels, which are a Japanese type of hotel used for prostitution as well as a place where couples can get a little privacy, not to mention spice up their love life. Love hotels often feature elaborate themed rooms.

In the film you will hear the term (actually read the subtitle) “soapland”. Although prostitution is illegal in Japan, certain bath-houses, formerly known as Turkish Baths, flourished by exploiting a loophole in the law. They were a “meeting place” for sexual encounters between men and women. However, after a complaint from a Turkish Ambassador, the eminently respectable Japanese Turkish Bath Operators Association (a legal trade organization for a technically illegal business) held a contest to come up with a new name, resulting in the now legendary euphemism of “Soapland”. Soaplands are plentiful in Japan, especially in the Shibuya district area where the film takes place.

Shibuya Station is the third-busiest railway station in Tokyo. The familiar intersection in front of Shibuya Station (Hachiko Exit), which features a four-way stop to allow pedestrians to cross in any direction, can be seen in dozens of films, including 2003's “Lost in Translation” which starred Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

In doing research on this film, I also learned that during that opening whipping scene, when the young man screams out to Rei, the direct translation of his scream is “My Queen” or “Your Majesty.” The translator felt that “Mistress” was a more internationally understandable translation. I kind of prefer “Queen”, especially in the sensory deprivation scene where the man is broken down and reduced to Rei’s slave. If you substitute “Queen” for “Mistress” the scene takes on a more spiritual meaning. Rei taught this man that his knowledge and his strength were no match for her sexual power and her female authority.

New Love in Tokyo” is one of those movies that I loved in parts and I disliked in parts. I was tempted on many occasions to use the fast forward button to get through the many tedious portions of the film. But my fondness for the Rei character and my appreciation of the sophisticated tone of the movie leads me to recommend it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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