Kidnap. Bondage. Sexual violence. Rape. Not exactly the most savory subjects for a film series, but producer and distributor Art Port has been able touch on these topics for the past twelve years and seven installments that its Perfect Education series has been around. What’s more, it has done so mainly by using these saucier topics as launching points to discuss loneliness, alienation, isolation, trust, faith, and, yes, love in some of the most unlikely ways. For example, the first film in the series,1999’s A Perfect Education, is effectively one part exploitative pinku film and part screwball comedy, a very far-fetched story that parodied sexual power and control in modern Japanese society. Helmed by then-famous TV director Ben Wada with a screenplay by the prolific Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, 1964), starring character actor Naoto Takenaka, best known as the bewigged Aoki in Shall we Dance? (1996), as the film’s antagonist, and including a bit part by Tetsuo The Iron Man (1989) director Shinya Tsukamoto, A Perfect Education remains the series’ zenith in terms of star power.
Based on a series of novels by Michiko Matsuda, Perfect Education: 40 Days of Love is the second film in the series and director Yoichi Nishiyama’s debut feature. The film also features Takenaka albeit in a “special guest” appearance completely unrelated to his in the first film. In this installment, he is a psychologist named Akai who is propositioned by Haruka (Rie Fukami), a woman who is seeking a “papa” (of the “sugar” variety, presumably) but whom Akai diagnoses with depression. Concerned about her state, Akai takes her in to help her and it’s revealed that Haruka is suffering dissociative amnesia. She appears to have suffered some sort of trauma in her past that she associates with a UFO that she continuously struggles to locate, so Akai attempts hypnosis therapy in hopes of understanding the exact cause of Haruka’s disorder.
The audiences finds that this first ten minutes of the film is actually the wraparound to the main story which Haruka relates while under hypnosis: during one of her UFO hunting moments, she is abducted by middle-aged loner Sumikawa (Yasuhito Hida). Much like the first film, Perfect Education: 40 Days of Love can be separated into two parts. In the first, the abducted Haruka effectively becomes something not unlike a pet to Sumikawa, who intends to ‘train’ her to become docile and dependent on him (the Japanese title of the series, kanzen naru shiiku, literally means ‘perfectly trained’). Before he goes to work everyday, Sumikawa leaves Haruka half naked and tied up to the bed in his small studio apartment with only a television to keep her company, after which he comes home to feed and bathe her and let her take care of her toilet needs. Daily, Sumikawa charts Haruka’s weight, recorded on polaroids that he takes of her everyday, for the reason of, as he relates, “I like girls a little plump.” In essence, he is trying to make Haruka his perfect vision of a lover. This treatment of Haruka as a pet is unsettling especially considering Fukami is topless in most of these scenes and, at the time of filming, was just of age. Fukami’s performance is not bad, but it’s obvious that she was chosen for her age and looks. In short, she is not much of an actress especially considering the lack of emotion in the extreme situations that her character is put in. Certainly she is outclassed by Hida who does a great job in his role as Sumikawa, a creepy and sad man whose emotions are not incorrect even though the actions produced from them are. The film goes the wise route of not portraying Sumikawa as a caricature, a frothing, psychopathic wacko typical in films of this kind. Rather, Sumikawa is just an average man whose past is filled with emptiness and loneliness. He himself is somewhat like Haruka, searching for that thing that will never materialize which is, in his case, a perfect lover.
Haruka herself slowly seems to realize the connection that she and Sumikawa share and, in a Stockholm Syndrome-like spin, she genuinely begins to fall in love with him. She takes to calling him “Dad”, a creepy move but one which Sumikawa favors over the distant “Sumikawa-san.” Slowly, this dysfunctional pair of a family start making plans for a future, cleaning up and improve the conditions of the apartment. This may appear to the audience as the most far-fetched part of the movie, but the situation never turns into a complete fantasy. “You’ve gone too far from the beginning,” Haruka tells Sumikawa in one scene that acknowledges that, no matter how much of her heart he has gained, the specter of the crime that he’s committed will always hover over their relationship.
Tonally, with its mish-mash of exploitative thrills and arthouse sensibilities, Perfect Education: 40 Days of Love is not unlike another film distributed by Art Port in its native Japan, Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). But, herein also lies one of the weaknesses of the film. For general audiences, the film may come off as too unbelievable and unpleasant and fans of arthouse cinema might find that the destination is not worth the ride. However, for those those who can deal with the film’s languid direction, lukewarm performances, and strong subject matter, Perfect Education: 40 Days of Love might raise some pointed observations about relationships and the hell that we put ourselves and others through to start and maintain them.