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MOVIE REVIEW : Modern Japan Reflected in 'Tokyo Decadence' : Ryu Murakami's film of the life of a young prostitute is a classic example of the universal revealed in the particular.

April 30, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ryu Murakami's luminous "Tokyo Decadence" (at the Nuart at midnight on Fridays indefinitely), a film of power and astonishment, as serious as it is kinky, probes the daily existence of Ai (Miho Nikaido), a demure, 22-year-old call girl, to discover what her life reveals about contemporary Japan.

Murakami, who juxtaposes degradation with moments of unexpected humor and tenderness, manages to be clinical without being graphic, thus avoiding pornography; but then he's more interested in Ai's soul than her body, for all that he reveals of it, in the first place. Imagine Robert Bresson, France's austere poet of the spirit, making a film about a contemporary prostitute, and you get some idea of what this film is like.

Ai's life is lived almost entirely in expensive but impersonal hotel rooms, apartments and restaurants in Tokyo's skyscraper canyons. She works for a call service where there are literally no holds barred; anything goes as long as the client is willing to pay for it. When Ai flees a confessed necrophiliac who's come close to strangling her, her employer, with polite firmness, tells her not to leave a session again.

It would seem that the service's clientele is composed entirely of drugged-out sadists and masochists, whose prolonged fantasy sessions are presented with matter-of-fact realism. In leaving us without any doubt about what goes on--or, most importantly, why it does--Murakami makes us wonder just how long Ai, for all her innate dignity, can survive without becoming hopelessly degraded. She is armed only with a fortuneteller's laughable advice: Place a telephone directory under the TV, don't go to museums in the eastern part of the city and always wear a ring with a pink stone. Worse yet, she has fallen in love with a TV newscaster, apparently a onetime client, and pines for him.

"Tokyo Decadence" is a classic instance of perceiving the universal in the particular, even if Murakami, as he has stated, wants us first of all to see that for the Japanese, sex and drugs is as much a matter of ritual as is the traditional tea ceremony. Yet surely Japanese men are not alone in working out their anger toward liberated women in fantasy sex.

There's the man who tells Ai that, in being willing to submit to being bound and gagged, she's the only hope for Japan at a time when, in his view, Japanese women are concerned only with marrying for money. Then there's the man compelled to fantasize that all Japanese career women are starved for sex.

Ai's crucial encounter, however, is not with a man but with Saki (Sayako Amano), a beautiful dominatrix who has amassed a fortune yet is driven to epic-scale drug excesses, much like Harvey Keitel in "Bad Lieutenant." "Japan is wealthy, but it's wealth without pride," she observes. "That's why so many men are masochists."

Ai takes her leave of Saki armed with a "magic pill," probably a powerful hallucinogen, which propels her into an amazing odyssey of self-discovery with which the film concludes and which recalls Richard Gere's quest for redemption at the end of "American Gigolo." Pitched ambiguously between fantasy and reality, this long and beautifully sustained bravura sequence, which involves a crucial meeting with a gaudily demented onetime opera singer (Chie Sema) is far more daring than any of Murakami's depictions of sex.

"Tokyo Decadence" (Times-rated Mature for sex and some nudity) is likely to stay with you long after the theater lights come up.

'Tokyo Decadence'

Miho Nikaido: Ai

Sayako Amano: Saki

Chie Sema: Crazy woman

A Northern Arts Entertainment release of Melsat Co. Ltd. presentation of a JVD Co. Ltd./Cinemabrain/Ryu Murakami Office production. Writer-director Ryu Murakami. Producers Yoshitaka Suzuki, Tadanobu Hirao, Yosuke Nagata. Executive producer Eiten Taga. Cinematographer Tadashi Aoki. Editor Kazuki Katashima. Costumes Sebian. Music supervisor Ryu Murakami. Sound Masaru Usui. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Times-rated Mature (sex and some nudity).

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