DVD Review: Toshiki Satō's Empty Room (2001), Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Japanese Sex Films
Sachiko (Nakagawa Mao), a young woman frustrated with her life of dull routine, and seeking stimulation outside the deadening monotony of housework and catering to her needy husband, befriends Kobayashi (Yûji Tajiri), a neighbor whose wife has been carrying on an affair right under his very nose. Learning of her unfaithfulness, Sachiko's husband (Takeshi Ito, the ill-fated hero of Hisayasu Satō's Love-Zero=Infinity) seeks solace in the arms of prostitutes, while his wife decides to run off with her new lover. However, it isn't long before the latter, feeling homesick, yearns to return to his wife, throwing Sachiko into despair. Graced with an outstanding script, suitably low-key performances, and an abundance of gentle humor, Empty Room is among the best titles in UK distributor Salvation's catalogue, and an ideal entry point into the unjustly neglected world of Japanese pink film.
With their salacious titles, unabashedly lewd cover art virtually indistinguishable from hardcore direct-to-video porn, and bearing advisories such as, "contains scenes of sexual violence which will offend many viewers", the marketing of pink films seems expressly calculated to ward off the very audience it should be courting. Which is a shame, because genre film lovers and cult film fans are missing out on some truly innovative and thought-provoking works. By the same token, anyone purchasing these titles out of sheer prurient interest is bound to be sorely disappointed. Meanwhile, the distributors of pinky violence and roman porno have been much more successful at garnering critical notice, and more importantly, not only at specialist websites devoted exclusively to Japanese, grindhouse and exploitation films.
My own initiation into Japanese sex films was Chusei Sone's Red Classroom (1979), his second entry in the Angel Guts series, one of many roman porno films produced by Nikkatsu, and released on DVD by Arts Magic a few years back. The experience was shattering, compelling me to write a review, now buried in the forum archives, that has since gotten 8,000 hits -- rather extraordinary for a 30-year-old emotionally taxing sexploitation film that has sharply divided critical opinion. This was followed by my first foray into pink film, Hisayasu Satō's (Caterpillar, 2005) poetically named but trashy Survey Map of a Paradise Lost (1988) -- beside which even something as blatantly offensive as Assault! Jack the Ripper (a mildly diverting tale about a pastry chef who sexually mutilates and murders dozens of women) towers like a masterpiece of cinematic art -- effectively killing my interest in the genre for the next few years.
During that time, I suffered through countless critically acclaimed but altogether mediocre Japanese dramas, romances, and comedies (Ping Pong, Su Ki Da, Strawberry Shortcakes, et al), when a chance encounter with the erotic thriller Freeze Me, by Takashi Ishii (scriptwriter of Angel Guts and director of the final installment of the series) re-awakened my interest in Japanese sex films, and in the brief space of a couple months, I feasted on a steady diet of roman porno, pinky violence and pink films -- devouring no fewer than four dozen nunsploitation, S&M, yakuza, and girl gang films, erotic ghost stories, as well as ten titles from Salvation's catalogue. Takahisa Zeze's Raigyo (1997), based on an actual story about a woman who brutally murders a perfect stranger at a Love Motel, was the most gut-wrenchingly powerful film in my experience. And astonishingly, Hisayasu Satō's Love-Zero=Infinity (1994), part Alphaville and part urban vampire movie -- though still preoccupied with the director's pet themes of alienation, an obsession with contaminated bodily fluids, and a predilection for vinyl gloves and rubbing oil -- turned out to be everything Survey Map of a Paradise Lost was not: a hugely satisfying multi-layered work that must rank as one of the finest examples of the genre. But of the all the films I watched, it was Toshiki Satō's Empty Room, scripted by Shinji Imaoka (assistant director on Love-Zero=Infinity) that had the best screenplay.
Neither radically experimental like the films of Hisayasu Satō, nor as grim as those of Mitsuru Meike or Takahisa Zeze, with a conspicuous absence of rape, bondage or torture, Empty Room is about as accessible a pink film as you're likely to find. The characters are quirky, but not merely a hodgepodge of idiosyncrasies: they are genuine human beings, with all their inherent weaknesses, insecurities and longings. The women are decidedly unglamorous -- assertive but not cruel, and the men, while not exactly model husbands, have a disarming vulnerability. Humor is also ever-present: Sachiko's husband's chronic back pain is a running gag throughout the film, and Yûji Tajiri's Kobayashi has an irresistable boyish charm.
Of course, being a sex film, Empty Room does have moments of vigorous coupling, but those scenes are integrated seamlessly into the story, and filmed in such a way that they are exceedingly unlikely to fuel males' sexual fantasies. The sex never feels cheap or gratuitous, and arises out of the strict requirements of the narrative. Like the best practitioners in this specialized field, Satō is interested in exploring the entire range of human behavior as it manifests itself in relationships between couples, with intimacy at its core. Meticulously crafted, from the note-perfect opening five-minute introduction to the bittersweet conclusion, with vividly drawn characters, and filled with unexpected details that make the ordinary events of everyday life seem extraordinary, Empty Room is quite simply one of the most deftly handled films dealing with marital infidelity that I've seen.
A word about the transfer. Just because Salvation's releases aren't as richly documented or as lovingly restored and presented as those of Mondo Macabro, Arts Magic, or Panik House, should not deter readers from acquiring some of the excellent titles in their catalogue.
Pink film (pinku eiga) -- Independently produced softcore sex films made on a shoestring budget of around $18,000 and shot in three to four days, with a running time of around 70 minutes. Over 5,000 have been made since the 1960s, but only a couple dozen are available on English-friendly DVD, mostly from the 1990s onward.
roman porno -- A line of erotic films produced by Nikkatsu. Close to 800 titles released from 1971-1988.
Pinky violence -- Produced by Nikkatsu's rival Toei, pinky violence focuses more on action and includes the girl gang and women in prison sub-genres.
Empty Room, aka Apartment Wife: Moans from Next Door (2001)
Toshiki Satō, director
Shinji Imaoka, script
Produced by Kokuei Co. Ltd.
Nakagawa Mao - Sachiko Kuroda
Yûji Tajiri - Kobayashi Ishii
Takeshi Ito - Sachiko's husband
Yumeka Sasaki - Kobayashi's wife