This year’s New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts festival is graced by new films by two of the “Kings of Pink,” directors who made their name in “pink films,” softcore Japanese sex films. One is Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story, a sprawling 4½ hour examination of the aftermath of two murders which leaves the pink genre altogether, brimming with passion and ambition. The other is Hisayasu Sato’s Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano, which is somewhat more connected to his sex-film roots, since it is set in the porn film industry. Sato’s film is a hard-as-nails examination of this industry, based on Atsuhiko Nakamura’s nonfiction book Women Without Names, a collection of interviews with porn actresses. Accompanied by vertiginous images of Tokyo’s streetscapes, and often peering into puddles and gutters, the film is a quietly disturbing look at how personas are given and created, and how they can be simultaneously liberating and imprisoning. Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a porn Pygmalion, in which sleazy recruiters and promoters exploit women and trade them as commodities for entertainment value. The women are very much aware of this, but they manage to derive some emotional value from this work and try to navigate through this sordid world and to find some personal space and freedom within it.
Mousy office girl Junko (Norie Yasui) has long been dominated by her sexually profligate mother (Makiko Watanabe), and is a withdrawn, shy presence at her office-drone job. She finds very unlikely liberation from this restricted existence by a porn promoter whom she encounters on the street, who asks her the key question that opens her up to a new world: “Wouldn’t it be fun if you could become someone else?” This someone else, suggested by the director of her first porn shoot, is a blue-haired, sailor suit wearing otaku character named Lulu. She takes to the work very quickly, reveling in the double life she leads and her secret satisfaction that she is not the worthless person her mother thinks she is; strangers watch her, desire her, and send her fan letters. Lulu has a rival in Ayano (Mayu Sakuma), a violent woman who immediately resents Lulu’s meek demeanor and naïveté; however, Ayano eventually warms to Lulu and comes to be protective of her. The stardom Lulu has gained from being in porn also brings its dangers, most pertinently in the form of an overweight otaku (Ini Kusano) who sends Lulu her first fan letter, along with many more, and begins stalking her. Lulu’s predatory promoter takes advantage of Lulu’s willingness to do anything on screen to steer her toward ever more physically dangerous, even life threatening, video shoots. All these situations threaten to completely implode Lulu’s existence.
Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a sort of a meta-porn, a film that deconstructs the makings of this sort of film, utilizing a plot which could be that of a porn film itself. The repressed woman’s awakening to her hidden sexual nature is a perennial plot of porn and many forms of erotic art. The film is anchored by two fine and convincing performances by Yasui and Sakuma, portraying the newbie and the veteran who both find their own ways of escape from, or at least freedom within, their prisons. Sato explores it all with a hard-edged, unsentimental eye, a nonjudgmental and non-stereotypical stance that makes this a film (mostly) not for titillation, and insistent of the dignity of its characters, and by extension, the real women who work in the sex-film industry. Alternating between steely near-monochrome and lurid color (especially in a very violent and bloody scene near the conclusion), Sato’s film departs from the more extreme imagery and subject matter of his previous work (which depicted bestiality, rape, and most notoriously, self-cannibalism) to deliver an emotionally and psychologically penetrating film.
Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano screens July 11, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center website here.