Caution: This review discusses an explicit DVD explicitly. Reader discretion is advised.
New Love in Tokyo (Ai no shinsekai, or "Love in a New World," 1994)** would make a great double-bill paired with Kenji Mizoguchi's late-period classic Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956). Mizoguchi's film was a funny, sad, but mainly unjudgmental examination of the daily life of prostitutes in mid-'50s Japan, in Tokyo's Yoshiwara Ward. New Love in Tokyo, made not quite 40 years later brings us up to date on the trade in a modern Tokyo (Shibuya this time) just as the country's phenomenal economic bubble was bursting and just shy of the cellphone revolution - here all the prostitutes are still using pagers. Though it loses steam toward the end this is, surprisingly, a very good movie accomplishing many of the same things Mizoguchi's film did decades before.
Based on a non-fiction photo-book with anecdotes told by 64 women working in Tokyo's sex industry, the movie zeroes in mainly on two women: Rei (Sawa Suzuki), a dominatrix, and Ayumi (Reiko Kataoka), a more conventional call girl working out of a different but equally efficient brothel in the same office building. The first half of the film introduces various clients and their often bizarre fetishes, like the intimidating, business-like yakuza (Nagare Hagiwara) who's into extreme forms of submission and humiliation, like having Rie 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.
Though Suzuki and Kataoka are alluringly naked much of the time, these scenes are more fascinating than arousing because their clients' fetishes are so peculiar when not downright silly, at least for viewers bemused by such offbeat turn-ons. And yet because the filmmakers adapt stories by working prostitutes about their real-life experiences, such scenes have a verisimilitude rare in films today. A movie as sexually explicit as this could never be made (or released widely) in America, and in the western world perhaps only Atom Egoyan, the Armenian filmmaker working in Canada, has successfully tackled similar material with such intelligence. More importantly, while the film acknowledges the dangers (murder) and other pitfalls (V.D. and AIDS) of such occupations, it's surprisingly light-hearted with an unexpected sense of fun. It neither glamorizes nor sentimentalizes these women, and steadfastly avoids turning the material into a cautionary melodrama. And though the film finds humor in the girls' clients and their more extreme behavior, the film by no means condemns them, either.
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 ("Cat Call," etc.), 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: 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."
Rei and Ayumi's private lives also make for interesting viewing. Rei belongs to an amateur (but ambitious) acting company putting on a not very good play about romance and video games, while Ayumi enjoys an ordinary domestic life with boyfriends too consumed with innocuous activities like jigsaw puzzles to question what their girlfriend does for a living. Indeed, they're so oblivious to her they have no idea just how much living she does compared to them. The two women make oodles of money - Ayumi deposits tens of thousands of dollars worth of yen into her account, telling her boyfriends that it's engagement gift money from her parents. The pair hang out at fashionable gay karaoke bars singing Pink Lady songs or spend their free time playing naïve rich kids, flirting with them just enough so that they'll race them around Tokyo in their Porsches and buy them expensive champagne. Yet, somehow, Rei and Ayumi never come off as reprehensible airheads. They're working girls who've work hard and have earned the right to enjoy their time off.
The film was notable as the first Japanese movie to feature uncensored (e.g., fogged-over) full-frontal female nudity, though most of it comes in the form of dozens of black and white images by famed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki.
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 if adult 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.
Video & Audio
Though originally released in Japan by Toei, New Love in Tokyo was apparently licensed to AnimEigo through foreign rights distributor Toho International. In any case the 16:9 enhanced presentation (approximating the original "VistaVision size," or 1.85:1 release) is excellent, near flawless. The color and clarity are great, and the optional subtitles reflect AnimEigo's usual multi-colored, heavily annotated style, which included complete translations of all the credits, a nice bit of extra effort on their part.
Limited supplements include a 16:9 enhanced trailer that is complete with text and narration; an image gallery, and program notes that emphasize cultural explanations rather than background on the movie itself.
Unexpectedly lighthearted and entertainingly informative, New Love in Tokyo is a real find, hardly the cheap sexploitation film one would assume it to be at first glance, but rather an impressively adult film about women whose profession they at least find curiously empowering.
**The title card also bears a French title, Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.