Ai (Nikaido) is a timid young woman in Tokyo who works as a call girl for an agency that caters to a niche group of customers: The S&M type. By day, Ai spends her time sitting in the park, shopping and playing in the arcade. At night, Ai visits expensive hotels where she plays the dominatrix or the submissive partner, all the while trying to make ends meet within a world of wealthy Tokyo penthouses. Is this horror, or something more?
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from this film. I was expecting something along the lines of a J-Horror film from the early 90's, but that was before I did any research into what TOKYO DECADENCE was about. A horror film? Nope, despite being written and directed by Ryű Murakami, the same dude who wrote AUDITION. What I found was something that wasn't horror at all, but a film that was more about the loneliness and coldness of life.
Murakami crafted something of a love story with TOKYO DECADENCE (the Japanese name being TOPÂZU or TOPAZ), mixed in with S&M scenes involving Ai that aren't explicit, but you do get the sense of what's transpiring. It's not porn by any sense, even though various 'instruments' are involved. Rather, the main plot involves Ai trying to track down a client that she's fallen in love with (who she finds out later has gone and married someone else), with the sex scenes serving the purpose of establishing Ai's loneliness and yearning for something more out of life, satisfying her clients with a look of sadness on her face all the while. Ai's hope for a better life is characterized in a topaz ring a fortune teller advised her to buy for good luck (hence the original Japanese title), and the distress Ai experiences when she loses the ring and the steps she takes towards finding it again in amongst the sex scenes just screams 'symbolism'.
The look of the film is another big plus for driving the themes home. The loneliness of Ai is mirrored in the environment, with everything being lit in a harsh manner that gives everything a pale look (save for the bright neon exteriors of the hotels, but there's that idea of superficiality). The Tokyo that Ai inhabits comes across as empty, cold and depressing. Aside from the people she interacts with, few others are seen, and those she meets are almost without exception out to satisfy their own selfish desires.
If there was one thing negative I would have to say about the film is that it's not for everyone, seeing as the sex, while not explicit, tends to be on the degrading side, and seems to take centre stage in lieu of the story. Sure, some folks are into that (whatever turns your crank), but it might make some folks uneasy at the fact. Then again, isn't that what art is supposed to do? The other thing would be that it's another one of those cerebral types of Art House films that for those of you not in the mood for thinking might not watch. To each his own, I suppose. Also, this is still the 112 US cut, whereas the original Japanese cut is 135 minutes, which includes more sex (including rape) and drug use.
Overall, the film is provocative in its themes and visuals, which will obviously polarize everyone who watches it. That's not to say it's a bad movie. It's a film that will appeal to those looking to explore a love story mixed in with a healthy helping of sex fetishes. Everyone else will probably let this one go.
Video: Originally released in a so-so fullscreen DVD by First Run Features, this new DVD from Cinema Epoch is better in some ways, but is still lacking. This 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is free of the dust and dirt from the original DVD released back in 2003, but still has a TV quality about it. The darker scenes are nice and sharp, and contrast the lighter scenes nicely. The film still has some grain to it, overall.
Audio: Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese Stereo with optional English subtitles, this is a clean audio track, overall. Dialogue can be hard to hear at times, as it sounds a little thin in places. Other sounds, such as effects like footsteps on the sidewalk, and the great score by Academy Award winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, sound excellent.
Not the most stacked set of extras. For starters, there's an 8 minute segment entitled Interview, which consists of a promo clip for the film and quotes praising the film from critics who liked it, followed by interviews with the film´s director and score composer, then finally some footage of the film's wrap-up party. Pretty in-depth stuff, eh?
Next is a photo gallery consisting of 26 images containing stills, lobby cards and posters. Ho hum. The real meat is reserved for a text essay by Nicholas Rucka, who shares his thoughts on the film (and the DVD cover). An interesting read, but if you want to read, buy a book instead.
Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included (in Japanese with English subtitles), along with a promo gallery for other DVDs from Cinema Epoch.
One of those hard films to judge, TOKYO DECADENCE is one that you can't get excited about because of the sex, but at the same time you can't get excited about the message, either. It's not trash, as it does explore something beneath the surface of the pretty pictures, but some folks will probably not stick around to get that far. The DVD isn't the definitive version by a long shot, but it's a step in the right direction for those looking to add the film to their collection.