Aroused by Gymnopedies (Japan, 2016) (NYAFF 2017)
Aroused by Gymnopedies is an entry in the Roman Porno reboot series which also includes Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno (2016), Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (2016), and Hideo Nakata’s White Lily (2016). This time, it’s the turn of Isao Yukisada. Yukisada, known for his soulful dramatic works like the blockbuster romance Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004) and queer drama Pink and Gray (2016).
The film follows Shinji (Itsuji Itao), a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation was once sterling until his star came crashing down to the point where he ends up making quickie porno films. But when Anri (Izumi Okamura), his lead actress quits, the production stalls indefinitely and Shinji wanders from one supposedly misjudged sexual encounter to the next, pleading for money along the way to get his life back on track. His actions border on repulsive, sleeping with students, nurses, even his leading actress, for any sign of relief or denial of his current existence. And just when he cannot sink any lower, he relies on his ex-wife to prostitute herself for money to lend to him. But is the money really for the stalled film project, or is it for something else?
First off, the synopsis does make the film seem as sleazy as one would expect. But Yukisada and his screenwriter, Anne Horizumi, aim for a more sensitive and somber tone. For a long while, the tone does seem to be quite jarring in comparison to the prurient feel of the film, particularly when the piano piece(s) by Erik Satie (referenced in the title) play over the sex scenes. But when the film reaches its final act, Yukisada’s sensitive direction makes perfect sense to what preceded it while the music hits hard thematically and emotionally in the film’s conclusion by becoming an ode to love and loneliness.
The jarring feel also applies to the lead character. Played brilliantly by Itao (who is known for comedic roles), the majority of the audience will be repulsed by him. But Yukisada and Horizumi gradually hint the audience with some much-needed backstory, making the audience question what they just witnessed. Without attempting to excuse or change the lead character, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji empathetic (if not sympathetic), despite his heartless actions.
Aroused by Gymnopedies could be a bit of a depressing slog, but Yukisada and Horizumi thankfully sprinkle much-needed humour to the proceedings, especially a set piece involving a film retrospective gone wrong that finds the majority of the characters in conflict with each other. The musical score, which comprises a lot of jazz, is a pleasing throwback to the classic examples of its genre and it adds ample comic zing.
The female characters are all surprisingly independent and self-sufficient, particularly when compared to the counterparts of the 1970s and 80s Roman Porno entries. Whether this is a reflection of the times or a result of the involvement of co-writer Anne Horizumi, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Case in point, during a climactic sex scene where it seems to involve Shinji, rich student Yuka (Sumire Ashina) decides he is actually no longer needed. A scene like this would never happen back in the 1970s or 80s.
As for the film’s flaws, Shinji’s actions may be too repulsive for some to take. And the deliberate pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers while those expecting exploitation and titillation will definitely come out disappointed. Overall, though, Aroused by Gymnopedies is a strange, yet compelling mix of softcore sex and sensitive emotion, which pays off in a rewarding fashion for those who are patient enough for its unorthodox ambitions.
Aroused by Gymnopedies is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Friday July 14 at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.