Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sweet Temptation: Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)

Thanks to some easy Googling, I can pinpoint the exact date I saw Nagisa Oshima's Pleasures of the Flesh (Etsuraku) (1965). It was a April 24th, 2009 and including my friend, I must have been one of only fifteen people in the theater in the enormous Egyptian Theater. I had no clue what to expect aside from what I have read about Oshima and from the brief description of the film in the American Cinematheque calender. And what I read about Oshima was always the same thing: he's the Japanese Godard (which is a very inaccurate assessment).

When I stepped out of the theater after watching the double feature of this and Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Muri-shinju: Nihon no natsu) (1967), I was surprised enormously by both pictures, particularly PotF. I tried to watch as much Oshima as I could and read every bit of text I could find on his films, but every where I read, PotF is treated as minor Oshima. David Desser in his book Eros Plus Massacre calls it "an interesting failure" while Maureen Turim's The Films of Nagisa Oshima rarely touches upon the film, even in context of his whole career. With what little I can find about the film or what others may say, it's become one of the films I consider an underrated masterpieces.

Pleasures of the Flesh (Etsuraku) (1965) Dir. Nagisa Oshima

The Throws of Pleasures:

Shochiku in the late-fifties and early-sixties were concerned with the rising popularity of television over the movies. In an attempt to try to attract new audiences and stay ahead of the game, not only did they adopt the CinemaScope format and new experiments in sound, they enlisted young directors with expansive creative freedom as a risky way to bring in audiences. Shochiku directors like Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda thrived and created brilliant films that were usually commercial failures. Oshima's short reign ended with the politically controversial Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri) (1960) which resorted him to making one independent feature, a samurai film for Toei and television documentaries for a few years.

He finally returned to Shochiku five years later with PofF, a loose adaptation of Futaro Yamada's Pleasure in the Coffin (a much more pulpier title). Oshima ended up creating the rare film that can be so tough on it's main subject, but never borders on cruelty or nihilism. The only other director who can pull that off successfully is fellow Japanese New Waver, Shohei Imamura.

Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) teaches the young and beautiful Shoko (the beautiful Mariko Kaga off the films of Masahiro Shinoda), the daughter of a more finacially secure family. When a man from the past who has previously raped Shoko comes back blackmailing her family saying he'll speak about what happened, Shoko's family asks Atsushi to murder the man out of respect for Shoko and for some money. The man is tossed off a train by Atsushi and in return, expects her parents to toss Shoko into his arms. Instead they marry her off to a far more successful business man. To complicate matters, a government official shows up at Atsushi's door with a newspaper about the murder of the Atshushi's murder. He offers to keep his mouth shut in exchange for taking care of a suitcase full of money he embezzled from the Japan's agriculture department while he serves a few years in jail.

Instead of effecting change over his situation or moving on with his life, Atsushi sulks and moans over his failure in his ramshackle den. He feels that he Shoko is rightfully his because he loves her and that she should love him back. It's not love he feels, but a perversion of the idea of love. Does he really love Shoko? Any time Shoko is in the film, he never goes on about who she is, but the idea of what she is to him and her physical beauty. And it kills him he can never touch her (adding a nice irony to the title). In a moment of surrealist fantasy, he sees Shoko in his shack regretting her marriage. What does he do when she shows up?

He finally admits his feeling for her.
Then gazes at her pink lips.
And looks into her eyes.

And again her physical beauty moves him again to say they can never be together before she mournfully says "I rather die than return to my husband". So he poses the idea of committing lovers suicide, but not before enjoying life with his suitcase full of money. By the time he grabs his suitcase, she's disappeared and it dons on him it was just a sick fantasy, but he still has his suitcase full of money and he has no real desire to live anymore, so he decides to use his money.


It makes sense that a man who can't actually love would spend the money. He's concerned with fleeting passions and obsession and doesn't understand what a real relationship, marriage or love constitutes. The mistake is expecting women to like him just because he's a nice guy and that he feels like he deserves it. The act of someone truly unselfish is someone who can live with being nice and caring without expecting anything in return. He went through crazy extremes to murder a rapist for her parents expecting much in return when all he got was money and nothing else. These unrealized problems he has all come out when he decides to spend his money to not just have drinks with bar girls at shoddy clubs, but for them to stay with him and act as a substitute for Shoko. And each of the girls represent a different facets of society women can be.

The first is the money loving bar girl who lives for capitalist excess and quick pleasures who he pays one million yen per month to stay with him. She's a well intentioned girl but unfortunately a product of post-war financial boom Japan:

The second girl has mother-lie qualities attract him. She wears traditional kimonos and is more interested in sending money to support her unemployed husband and kids. The fact that she does something so unselfishly pushes Atsushi to his phychical and sexually violent side:

A virgin nurse who is unconditionally caring toward Atsushi just without the compromise of having to have sex:

And a beautiful, mute prostitute who desires nothing but sex from those who can give it to her:

Each one he turns into a victim. He assumes that by paying them, all their problems will be solved and that in turn he'll be happy, but by keeping them locked up and abused, he ruins each one in a way. The money was no crutch to his problem and he still hasn't learned how to correct any of his weaknesses.

In the end, he spends all his money without the fear of retaliation from the government man who he finds out dies in prison. But what happens to him? In the ultimate bit of irony, when he returns to his shack, he discovers the real Shoko waiting for him almost mirroring a scene almost like the fantasy scene from earlier. She offers her body in return for money to help her and her financially failing husband. When he admits to her everything he's done and all the money he wasted away, she doesn't feel pity for him. She's sickened and runs off. The next day the police wait for him and when he attempts to kill himself with a suicide pill, the police tell him Shoko ratted him out. He spits the pill out and accepts his fate, but did he ever really want to die? It would've been a cowards death and for once he does the right thing, but at that point it's too late. Not before the police take him away, he remembers quick flashes of his idealized Shoko.


One of Oshima's key trademarks is his inconsistent style. It's rare if one film looks or feels like the other. Violence at Noon (Hakuchu no torima) (1966) couldn't be any different from Night and Fog in Japan, and PotF is very different from those too. Here he proves himself to be a supreme visual stylist with some amazing compositions and moments. In a moment that could have came out of mid-fifties Nicholas Ray, we get layering images of what makes the first girl he pays for happy:

Expensive perfume.
Luxurious make-up.
Fast cars.
Good food.

All pleasures she eventually realizes as being temporary. And Oshima frames the image to accentuate the empty rooms of modern living spaces. Not only are their lives empty, but Atsushi's fast living doesn't allow him to be at one place for too long. He never gets to settle in like a real couple.

It still offers an excellent sense of beauty and it captures beautifully what Tokyo might have looked like in the mid-sixties through expressionistic eyes. Even flesh isn't what it appears to be. During a scene where Atsushi is having sex with the mute prostitute, we see multiple layers of mouths until a beautiful looking girl is made to seem odd and a little horrifying; something is hiding under her beautiful facade.

PotF has been overshadowed by Oshima's other out-right masterpieces, but it offers so much on it's own and has luckily been brought to attention thanks to Criterion's Eclipse set on sixties Oshima. He would follow it up with films that admittedly are more concentrated and relied less on genre, but PotF is one of my great pleasures of Oshima's oeuvre and a film I catch myself revisiting often.


  1. Congrats on your new blog! Very interesting and inteligent writing and analysis.. Bookmarked! :)


  2. Yeah, great post Mark, it's a fascinating read. I must admit I'm not well versed on Oshima - he's not the most accessible of the post WW2 Japanese directors - admittedly I've only seen his international-break out films - In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but this post has whetted my appetite. Those stills are quite beautiful and well chosen.