Ai is a prostitute. We follow her through several encounters with her clients, ranging from a shady and sadistic businessman/mobster, a coked-up guy into asphyxiation, an older businessman who wants her to pretend to be dead, and, along with a dominatrix called Saki, a subservient man called "Turtle Face", who crawls around the hotel room before eventually being "punished" which results in his drinking Ai's urine. That's pretty much the set-up, plus Ai buys an expensive ring because of a superstitious warning from a fortune teller and she gets messed up on drugs supplied to her by Mistress Saki and tries to track down a man she had an affair with.
Tokyo Decadence (1992) is based on the novel Topaz by the critically praised author Ryu
Murakami, who also served as the films director. There is little doubt that Murakami is a fine author with esteemed novels like Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies, and In the Miso Soup. Decadence was the fourth film he directed. All of his previous films were also adapted from his novels so he was in familiar territory. Unfortunately, I think he may have a slightly more literary mind than a cinematic one.
While Murakami's compositions are really good, his storytelling, at least here, relies heavily on some symbolism and simply constructed scenes that are unwieldy and flat. We follow Ai, our cinematic cipher, in sequences where her expression ranges from one demure sad face to the other. In a novel we might have some sort of interior monologue, perhaps a bit of backstory, those general kinds of elaboration; however, in the film, we get no insight whatsoever. Ai's lifestyle choice is puzzling and as a viewer we are left to wonder just why such a slight, shy, and clearly ashamed young girl would engage in such a seedy business. The film becomes as aimless as Ai herself. Is she crazy? Is she stupid? Is she the product of some wounded past or a degrading culture? You never know. Knowing how Murakami writes (I'm actually a fan of his novels), one supposes she is meant to be less a person but an overall symbol of some Japanese cultural malaise. Whatever the case, it is a pretty dull exercise because you get the point pretty quickly- Boy, this sex business is pretty gritty and those involved must be in some emotionally vacuous, haunted state in order to endure it- then you've, say, an hour and twenty more minutes to have the point hammered home.
Murakami was clearly aiming for a look into the darker corners of Japanese society but the end result is a bit of a dud. The film has earned a deserved reputation for its seediness, from the S&M, to the drugs, and the explicit nature in its sexual (though not very erotic, more disturbing) hijinks. Still, Decadence is probably too vulgar and shallow for the cerebral art house crowd and too plodding, unsexy, and not graphic enough for S&M freaks. For those with more offbeat tastes (admittedly, I'm one of them), it is weird and extreme enough for a night of guilty entertainment, but beyond that it has little to offer in terms of insight.
The DVD: The rumor mill (and we all know how reliable that is) has long said that the full cut of this film is over two hours long. The only release of that cut that I've heard of, again rumored not confirmed, was a long OOP Chinese VCD. Both First Run Features and Image Entertainment previously released the film with the same extended, but apparently not uncut, cut. Cinema Epoch does the same, better than the truncated ‟R‟ but still short of that legendary, perhaps nothing but a fan dream, director's cut.
Picture: The DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen. Most of the film takes place at night in dimly lit interiors. Color tones are warm and slightly muddy. I think there is some intentional softness to the cinematography, but fact remains this otherwise clean print/transfer appears too soft. Contrast is fairly well-balanced. Unfortunately, being such a blackness drenched film, it really needs a step up in presentation as this transfer just falls short when it comes to more minute detailing.
Sound: Boasting 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language, with optional English subtitles, the track is relatively okay, especially the score. Bearing a few weakly mixed dialogue parts, the source track is actually one that could do with some 5.1 remastering. Subtitles were well-timed and appeared to be well-translated.
Extras: The disc includes the following extras, trailer, still gallery, an essay by Nicolas Rucka, and an interview (8:00) which is really a back-patting clip package with press accolades, then some footage from a screening hosted by the cast an Murakami, and some worthless wrap party stuff.
Conclusion: Well, Tokyo Decadence continues to be one of those films that has troubles, in terms of both content and presentation, getting a definitive DVD release. Still, Cinema Epoch does the best job so far and I guess that counts for something. The most I can give this release is the blanket suggestion of a rental. Even it was uncut and all gussied up, it is not the sort of film for all tastes, so I'd suggest the unfamiliar definitely give the film a rent before purchasing it.