Japan Cuts 2014 Review: LOVE'S WHIRLPOOL Offers Potent Mix of Eroticism, Comedy, And Melancholy

Miura Daisuke (Boys on the Run) adapts his own award-winning 2005 play Love's Whirlpool into his latest film of the same name, and it is quite a remarkable and wonderfully acted film where sex is the main subject and the driving force behind what happens. However, despite this singular focus, deeper layers are laid bare in this quite literally revealing tale of Japan's fuzoku (sex industry), and how people use this as an escape from superficial and rather empty existences in order to indulge their deepest and darkest desires.

The film's theatrical origins remain rather obvious, as the action is restricted mostly to a living room and a bedroom of an apartment in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. However, the fine acting by the cast - as well as the fairly explicit sex that copiously occurs - help to make this restricted setting feel quite dynamic. Love's Whirlpool offers a very stimulating mix of eroticism, comedy, social critique, and melancholy that makes for quite a memorable experience.

We are introduced to a number of characters that form a representative cross section of contemporary Japanese society. In keeping with the strictly enforced anonymous nature of the sex club depicted in the film, none of these characters are named, save for two of them at the conclusion. We begin with a shy, moody young man (Ikematsu Sosuke), who in Japanese parlance is known as a "NEET" ("not in education, employment or training") - basically Japan's version of a slacker - who empties his bank account and grabs his crotch in anticipation of the raunchy pleasures of the night to come. He carefully follows the rather convoluted directions to the place. 

Once there, he meets the other people - four men and four women, including himself - he will spend the next few hours with, all of them there for the same purpose of pursuing anonymous, and hopefully guilt-free, sex. The other guys are: a "freeter" or freelance worker (Arai Hirofumi), who fancies himself a tough guy; a straitlaced salaryman (Takito Kenichi); and an overweight factory worker (Komakine Ryusuke). The women who will be their partners for the night are: a perkily cute office lady (Mitsuya Yoko); a coolly elegant and judgmental kindergarten teacher (Nakamura Eriko); a cynical, hard-edged woman (Akazawa Seri) with tattoos and multiple piercings who's apparently a regular; and a mousy, shy, bespectacled college student (Kadowaki Mugi) nervously experiencing this for the first time.

The night's action is presided over by the club manager (Tanaka Tetsushi) and his assistant/bartender/errand man (Kubozuka Yosuke), who lays down the ground rules. The night's session will last from midnight to precisely 5 a.m. (A clock recurs throughout the film to mark this time passage.) Everyone must shower before initially engaging in sex and in between changing partners. Women have the right to refuse any sex requests, and must never feel forced or coerced. When leaving in the morning, men and women are made to leave separately to prevent stalking incidents. And of course, condoms must be used during sexual encounters. Small and larger sizes are available, but the assistant warns the men not to flatter themselves by going immediately for the larger size; they must try the smaller ones first, to prevent them from slipping off and causing accidental insemination. Drinks, snacks, and sex toys will be made available throughout the night.

Once all these preliminaries are out of the way, the manager and his assistant leave them - by now wearing only bathrobes - to begin their night of sex. Much of the film humor is mined from the initial awkwardness that the people exhibit toward each other. It's very similar to strangers meeting at a cocktail party; they begin with banal pleasantries and diffident introductions. They ask each other if they've ever been there before, talk about how difficult it was to find the place, and so on. The women also begin a discussion amongst themselves about how fat they feel and about different workout methods and diets. One particularly funny exchange happens when as the salaryman is talking to the kindergarten teacher, he stands up and his bathrobe falls off, exposing himself, making her laugh. "Was that funny?" the salaryman says. "Yes, I saw everything," the kindergarten teacher says. "I'm glad you enjoyed it," the salaryman answers.

Eventually the freelance worker and the office lady become the first to take the plunge and go down to the bedroom, which has multiple beds, and where all the sex in the film occurs. The sounds of the sex and the moans of the women are clearly audible upstairs as the others continue talking. But soon they all work out their pairings and go down to the bedroom, where multiple partners copulate in full view of each other. The sex is visually discreet at first, but as the night goes on and more details about the characters are revealed during the course of the film, the encounters become gradually more revealing, both physically and emotionally. This culminates in the film's most striking shot, with the camera circling over all four pairs of couples copulating simultaneously on their beds.

In between sex sessions, the participants return upstairs to rest before going at it again, and reveal their particular perversions and sex fantasies, which they hide behind the respectable facades of their everyday lives. The elegant-seeming kindergarten teacher turns out to have some rather pedophilic fantasies, imagining herself having sex with the grown-up version of one of her students.

However, all is not idyllic orgiastic fun; some cruelty, mostly based on standards of physical attractiveness, intrudes upon the proceedings, as the participants feel freer to drop their pretenses of politeness and speak their minds fully. For example, three of the women avoid having sex with the overweight factory worker, leaving him to the tattooed woman, who apparently is far less exacting in her standards. Also, some of the others remark about the bad smell of the office lady's vagina.

Miura Daisuke has crafted a well-written and well-acted film, which is often intensely erotic, but also doesn't neglect the rest of the entire gamut of human emotion. The most poignant moments of the film involve the NEET and the college student, who appear to experience an attraction that may have potential of existing outside the bedroom and into the real world. Miura cites TV drama, mostly of the soap opera variety, as a major influence, and indeed Miura uses some rather overworn tropes here. For example, there is the awkward virgin getting his first bit of sexual experience. Also, the shy college student reveals herself to be an animal in the sack, screaming "I love cock!" during her first sexual encounter of the night. However, Miura presents these in a way which doesn't feel hackneyed, but rather fresh portrayals that get much deeper than their initial status as personality and social types, and becomes real, flesh and blood characters.

Miura also excels in depicting how the pursuit of sexual thrills for many is often rooted in dissatisfaction with other areas of their life, as well as a feeling of emptiness. This is most effectively rendered at the film's conclusion, when the curtains of the apartment are suddenly raised, leaving the sex party participants blinking their eyes against the harsh light of reality, and the abrupt end of their fulfilled, yet fleeting fantasies.

So, instead of seeing the current release Sex Tape - which by all accounts looks like another one of Hollywood's lame attempts at cheap titillation - experience Love's Whirlpool, which is definitely the real deal, offering great thrills, both erotic and comedic, as well as genuine emotion.

Love's Whirlpool screens July 18, 8:30pm at Japan Society. For more information, visit Japan Society's website.
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