[Our thanks to Chris Bourne for the following review.]
Yuki Tanada's 2004 erotic comedy/drama Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) is part of this year's Japan Cuts section "Best of Unreleased Naughties." This means, of course, the best unreleased (in US) Japanese films of the 2000s, but Electric Button is naughty in a very different way.
Tanada's film has been described as a distinctly female perspective on the Japanese genre of pinku eiga ("pink film"), which is a brand of soft-core sex film, but this isn't quite accurate. Yes, there is copious sex in the film, but it isn't as explicit or programmatic as in regular pinku eiga, the conventions of which usually demand five sex scenes per hour at roughly ten-to-fifteen minute intervals.
Electric Button is closer to another genre of Japanese sex film called roman porno, which was similar to pink film but had a more literary, artistic bent and felt less formulaic than many pink films. Tanada, a female director, offers a startling inversion of the normally male-oriented perspective of these films, and calls attention to aspects that would normally not be closely questioned or examined.
The film's protagonist and first-person narrator (a common pink film/roman porno convention, and appropriate to Electric Button's literary milieu) is Tadokoro (Tasuku Nagaoka), a meek university student who is recruited to join an unusual literary group on campus called "Electric Button." This group is devoted to studying and writing erotic literature, and they meet in an apartment festooned with erotic toys, novels, manga, and pornography. The name of the group is their cheeky reference to female genitalia. As one would imagine, the group consists mostly of a motley bunch of randy guys, including a workout fanatic, a white Westerner, and most oddly, a retired grandfather (the great veteran actor Akira Emoto), who is also a student.
Electric Button's lone female member is Mayama (Noriko Eguchi), an established and published erotica writer who regularly churns out stories under a male pseudonym. She sits quietly as the guys welcome Tadokoro into their group, and as Tadokoro tries to impress them with his expert knowledge of female anatomy. But Mayama immediately, and accurately, identifies his true sexual status: "But aren't you a virgin?" she asks Tadokoro. And while he tries to deny it, his secret is out. Tadokoro leaves the meeting mortified, but the next day is approached by Mayama, requesting his assistance. One thing leads to another, as they say, and soon Tadokoro finds himself summoned for regular sex sessions with Mayama. But there is an agenda: Tadokoro discovers that Mayama is using their sexual encounters as fodder for a novel she is writing. Rather than a literary muse, Tadokoro is more like a guinea pig for Mayama's sexual experiments, which soon expand to include hired call girls and S&M torture artists. Tadokoro's initial excitement turns to dismay as he becomes increasingly humiliated and aware that actual romantic feelings seem to only be on his side of the equation.
The drama and humor of Electric Button is mostly mined from the gender reversal Tanada performs on her sexual-awakening scenario. She casts Tadokoro in what would usually be the female role of the film's central relationship. He is the shy, virginal character who is initiated into the world of sex by the considerably more experienced, and presumably older, Mayama. Tadokoro even draws blood the first time he has sex with Mayama in a clever parody of a girl's first-time bloodletting. Mayama is a seemingly cold, manipulative user, unapologetically fabricating real-life scenarios for her fiction, assuming the more masculine role in her relationships, and disguising herself as a man for her readers.
Tanada's twisting of genre conventions heightens both the provocative eroticism of her tale and the volatile emotions on display.
Tanada shoots Electric Button in the low-budget, functional style of erotic films, and this efficiency of form serves as effective and dramatically powerful shorthand. Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) is an impressive debut film, and Tanada continued her explorations of young people's sexuality, again featuring strong female characters, with Ain't No Tomorrows (2008), which screened at last year's Japan Cuts. Another recent Tanada feature, One Million Yen Girl (2008), also screens at this year's festival.
Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) screens on July 7, 6:30pm at Japan Society. More info and tickets here!
More from Chris Bourne at The Bourne Cinema Conspiracy.
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