Love’s Whirlpool (Japan, 2014)

Adapted for the screen by director Daisuke Miura from his award-winning 2005 stage play, Love’s Whirlpool presents a revealing take on Tokyo’s sex industry and the various social types that constitute its patrons. A surprise indie hit in Japan, where it played theatrically for several months, this explicit drama is not cliché free but has sufficient psychological depth to ensure that its erotically charged scenario encompasses the boredom, desperation and disappointment that are as characteristic of clandestine pleasure seeking as the momentary fulfillment of desire.

The after hours establishment that provides the main location for the film’s couplings is a two-level luxury apartment in the nightlife district of Roppongi whose manager (Tetsushi Tanaka) offers his clients a convenient sex party environment from midnight to 5am. As events occur over just one night, Miura offers a clientele that serves as a social microcosm: a shy college student (Mugi Kadowaki); an unemployed young man (Sosuke Ikematsu); a businessman with a family (Kenichi Takito); a portly factory worker (Ryusuke Komakine); a cocky tough guy (Hirofumi Arai); an office worker (Yoko Mitsuya); a kindergarten teacher (Eriko Nakamura); and a straight-talking regular (Seri Akazawa) whose familiarity with the establishment extends to being able to send the bartender (Yosuke Kubozuka) out to buy more snacks when the ones provided are not to her satisfaction. The manager explains the house rules –showers must be taken prior to sex, condoms must be used and the wishes of the women must be respected – then leaves the group to make awkward conversation before pairing themselves off.

The enhanced social anxiety that is created by an eroticisized environment means that the ice is broken by the clients asking one another whether it’s their first visit or to comment on how hard it was to find the place. All will venture to the apartment’s lower level for frenzied trysts on adjoining beds that are complemented by increasingly elaborate camera moves, but tensions arise as they cannot see one another as equals despite their mutual needs. Body politics entail that the overweight man and the regular have sex three times as the others do not find them desirable, while the tough guy’s everyman charm turns out to be nothing more than a personable front when he has an argument with the bartender for not ensuring partners who meet his standards. Such pettiness almost cut shorts the night at 3am, at which point the late arrival of a couple (Tokio Emoto and Yu Nobue) seems to re-energize the proceedings, only for this pair to reveal their own set of insecurities. Meanwhile, the bartender fulfills his duties with the air of someone who has seen these situations play out many time before, keeping the apartment stocked with refreshments and providing sex toys while dealing with personal matters on his cellphone.

Miura deconstructs the personalities of his characters through their sexual attitudes and impulses, but stops short of any cathartic moments or epiphanies to emphasize the limitations of such controlled hedonism. There are, however, emotional arcs in the characters of the student and the unemployed young man, whose before and after experiences serve to bookend the film: she is first seen talking to the manager, who is concerned that she has the kind of reserved personality that may be better suited to speed dating and he is introduced at the cashpoint where he withdraws his remaining funds to pay for the night. He quickly develops feelings for her even as she eagerly takes up with most of the other men and exhibits animalistic tendencies, while a closing scene that briefly reunites the pair in a nondescript coffee shop illustrates the problem with moving from temporary euphoria to real human connection. In some ways, these are standard entry point characters, but the student is at least more complex than the stock quiet girl in search of liberation as she is ultimately able to compartmentalize experience to avoid a noticeable shift in her social identity.

The theatrical material is smoothly transferred to the screen with the sleek design of the apartment providing a stylish yet appropriately impersonal space for the drama to unfold. Miura’s greatest asset, however, is his cast who deliver brave performances as a group of strangers who run the emotional spectrum from anticipation to ecstasy to varying degrees of satisfaction, embracing adult fantasy only to be plunged back to normalcy when hit with the morning light. With its candid discourse on sexual behavior, cutting sense of humor and non-judgmental approach to promiscuity, Love’s Whirlpool proves that sometimes it is best to leave little to the imagination when probing the frustrations that lie behind the cultivated facades of today’s urbanites.