Dir. by Nagisa Oshima - 1 hr. 31 min.
Film still, from Criterion Site
by Clayton Hollifield
First off, you've got to know that a Japanese film from the mid-1960s is probably not going to live up to a title like "Pleasures of the Flesh." There may be a parallel universe where a film with this title and from these circumstances is going to yield a Dionysian orgy of Earthly pleasures, but in the universe we're all sharing? Please. You know this has got to be more morality tale than Fellini film. Surely enough, that's exactly what we have here, and it's a decent one, at that.
Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) is a sweaty, nervous tutor to a young girl, Shoko (Mariko Kaga). A criminal returns to blackmail Shoko's parents, and Atsushi is asked to deal with the matter. He does so, although Shoko is never to know about this, and the police seem never the wiser. One person does figure it out, Hayami (Shoichi Ozawa), a bent politician, who uses his knowledge to blackmail Atsushi into watching some of Hayami's embezzled loot until he can get out of jail and reclaim it himself, five years later. Eventually, Shoko gets married to a cosmetics magnate, and feeling betrayed, Atsushi loses the plot, deciding to blow through the thirty million yen in a year of decadence, at the conclusion of which he will kill himself.
At the core of the morality play is the question of what keeps a man from turning into a monster? Atsushi, as a tutor, is fairly timid and meek, but the character's evolution over the film suggests that the only thing keeping ordinary folk from going nutso is the opportunity and resources to do so. Once Atsushi decides to spend the money, consequences be damned, he essentially begins to hire women that vaguely resemble Shoko, paying out the sum of one million yen a month to take his hatred of her out on their bodies. Don't get excited, there's not much visual evidence of this. And he also starts feeling entitled to take his hatred out on everyone else around him. He's cruel to the women (there are a series of them, each relationship ending somewhat catastrophically), he's mean to others around him, and begins to throw his weight around. On the other hand, the people around him are very willing to give him whatever he wants because he's splashing cash around like there's no tomorrow (which, in the context of the story, there really isn't). So normal people don't really come off any better than he does, and he's a grade-A asshole by about half an hour into the film!
Probably the most interesting part of the film is when each of the women inevitably reveal themselves to be something other than a living, breathing, Shoko-shaped love doll for Atsushi to pound his hate out on/in. Atsushi seems to be a lost cause pretty quickly, but his projection of another personality onto another woman can only last so long before the charade falls apart. One woman ends up being owned by the yakuza, another has a destitute husband and small children, a third is a virgin who tries to walk into the ocean to avoid being raped by Atsushi, only to agree to a sham marriage with him, a fourth is a mute child-like streetwalker who can't really avoid being who she is. When Atsushi can't keep up the image in his mind, things fall apart.
"Pleasures of the Flesh" was not a bad film, it was just disappointingly chaste in it's portrayal of a man on the run boning his way through a fortune on his way to a date with destiny. For a film that has "flesh" in the title to be a largely cerebral enterprise is cruel irony. On the other hand, it was a decent story told well (visually, there are some interesting things going on here, like director Nagisa Oshima's repeated motif of having characters on opposite ends of extremely wide shots, a visual metaphor for Atsushi's disconnect from reality, and the lack of emotional connection any of the women in the film feel for him, even when being paid handsomely to fake it), and it makes me curious about Oshima's other films. There were a few genuinely surprising moments, including a series of twists at the conclusion, that raise the question I always have when I see a film from someone I don't know anything about: is this as good as it gets, an average representation of what he's capable of, or is there a better work lurking out there in his filmography? As always, more research is needed.
2.5 / 5 - Streaming