Review: Ryu Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence (1992). More Than Sex, S&M and Bondage. But That Too.

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*Ookite Kudasai: NSFW*
Ai (Nikaido Miho) is a timid college girl by day and an escort pretty much anytime she’s not in school (which seems to be like… always!). She specializes in satisfying the wealthy business men, which mostly means a lot of S&M or weirder stuff. Deep down Ai just wants to be happy. But she can’t. The man she loves married another woman and now lives in London with his son. Ai goes from one client to another, but the more she sees of this dark world of sexual perversions, the more she feels empty and alone. 

Ryu Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence (トパーズ, Topāzu) is based on the director’s own novel. It’s a beautiful film that explores a dark world that most of us probably aren’t even aware of, because most of us aren’t wealthy Japanese business men. I never really got the appeal of S&M or bondage or similar practices. Intuitively, I would say that it seems like the opposite of fun. This film however does a great job of showing its appeal. I still don’t think that I would be into it, but at least I now get why people would like that sort of thing.

toyko decadence strap on scene

When Tokyo Decadence came out it caused quite a stir for some of its sexual content. Looking at it 22 years later it’s not as hardcore as you would think, but it’s still pretty explicit by Japanese standards, where for the most part, simple nudity is still taboo. Looking past such shallow aesthetic considerations, this film actually has a point, which is what differentiates it and elevates it from similar genre fare (so called pink films, which encompasses everything from Japanese Exploitation cinema and soft core pornography).

Films dealing with sexual content and especially unconventional sexual practices are usually tough to pull off. They tend to either become exploitative and being about showing about as much skin and (un)simulated sex as they can or worse, they become annoyingly judgmental and preachy. Tokyo Decadence manages to not fall in either of those trappings or extremes. It’s a nuanced film. It shows the “right” amount of sex and it never condemns its character’s actions, even if at one point I’m pretty sure almost anyone would.

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The scene I’m referring to is the one where Ai walks in on some business men are literally torturing a poor woman. They have a professional set up, which seems to even require basic medical knowledge (to keep the woman alive) and lets you presume that they’ve done this type of thing before. It seems crazy at first that people would be capable of doing something like this, but remember we’re talking about very powerful individuals here. Even if they accidentally kill the girl, they probably can avoid prison pretty easily.

How does a person come to do such horrible things though? I think nobody starts out with such extreme fetishes. It’s a gradual process. When you’re super rich and have the possibility to have sex with anyone you want as much as you want, it’s only a matter of time before you get bored. Then maybe you try out some “soft” bondage sex, but that’s only going to excite you for so long. After that why not get into some S&M, but eventually that won’t get you hard either. Eventually, you might get into stuff that resembles more snuff than sex.

tokyo decadence mirror

Beyond that however the film is about more “conventional” aspects of human existence. Ai (which literally means love in Japanese) is a 22 year old woman. She’s trying to figure out her life. Like everyone she wants to be happy, which equals being loved. She goes to a fortune teller, she’s basically desperate to find some kind of fulfillment. In this sense the film comments on the emptiness of wealth. Japan is a well off country. Almost everyone is doing well financially speaking. But is that everything? What about spiritual wellbeing?

Money seems to be all everyone cares about. But money is just a construct. You can buy a lot of things with it, but you can’t buy love or happiness. It’s cliché to say, but it’s also true. Ai meets this very successful escort who has everything you could possibly wish to have, but she’s alone as well. She’s a drug addict and she has no friends. She doesn’t seem to love anyone and no one loves her. Where’s the family of these young women? Why did they get into this business? Did they really believe that money would make everything better?

tokyo decandence fireworks

Ai can’t get over her ex. Although not much is said about him in the film, we see that he is a rich and influential person. He’s on TV. He is famous. With this, the filmmaker almost seems to be saying that pursuing fame, money and power only gives us pleasure for so long. Ai used to be with this man. She was happy for a while, but like fame, money and power: Everything is ephemeral. These things don’t last. All she is left with is a broken heart. What’s left to do, but getting fucked up with her new escort friend?

By the end it seems that Ai is going down a very dark path of substance abuse and depression, but then the film ends on a surprising note. We see Ai in a public toilette fixing her hair and then leaving with her signature red Louis Vuitton bag. It’s as if the filmmaker is saying: Life goes on. It’s a bit of an abrupt ending, but it avoids to make the film seem like a cautionary tale. While the film does get a bit melodramatic and almost heavy-handed in showing the dark side of the sex business, it’s not without its humor.

tokyo decadence vibrator microphone scene

I love the scene where Ai’s escort friend lip syncs to a Japanese pop song, using a dildo as a pretend microphone. A lot of my enjoyment of the film also comes from the fact that it is a very immersive experience. Being set in mostly hotel rooms and Ai’s apartment, the film really puts you into the center of the action, especially if you’re watching this in your bedroom with the lights down, which I would totally recommend. Tokyo Decadence is definitely a fascinating journey, which I’m sure rewards multiple viewings.

Once again though, this is an intelligent film, which requires intelligence on the part of the viewer as well. If you’re expecting a “fun sex romp”: This is not it. If you’re expecting some sort of moral tale: It’s not that either. This film is merely painting a picture of human sexuality when given complete freedom and allowed of exploring every possible fantasy that comes to mind. Though some aspects of the filmmaking may seem a bit dated for today’s standards, this is still a very effective and beautiful film about an angsty young woman trying to find her place in this world.

8.5 out of 10

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4 comments

  1. Anna (Film Grimoire)

    Nice write-up! I’ve always meant to see this one because it sounds like a more hardcore version of Hideaki Anno’s Love & Pop, which I really liked, and which was also written by Ryu Murakami! Looks like he had a lot to say on these themes.

    • Davide Perretta

      Hey! Love & Pop sounds like my type of movie 🙂 Thanks for the rec and the nice comment!

      Edit: Wow, I just found out that it’s an adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s Topaz, which sort of makes it a sequel to Tokyo Decadence.

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