Yokubou (Desire) Review

Yokubou – the title translates as “Desire” – is a strange, somewhat distant but compelling study of the competing and sometimes conflicting demands of sex and love. It it seems reminiscent of a number of Western films - The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Last Tango In Paris, Betty Blue, Coming Home - then that’s largely due to the nature of the subject; can anyone make a film about sexual desire which isn’t influenced in some way by Bertolucci? But the insistent, cascading imagery goes a long way towards giving the film an individual identity.

Ruiko (Itaya) is a school librarian who lives alone but enjoys regular sex with a married man. One day, by chance, she meets her old school friend Asao who is about to be married to an ageing and despotic psychology professor. Ruiko and Asao renew their friendship and this brings them back together with their shared friend Masami, who had been Asao’s boyfriend at school. Ruiko, tired of being a mistress, is attracted to Masami but is aware of a secret he has kept from everyone else – a car accident when he was a teenager left him completely impotent.

Director Tetsuo Shinohara is very good on textures, creating a kind of tactile eroticism which is somewhat reminiscent of Walerian Borowczyk - surfaces become fetishised whether the veins of a leaf or the cover of a book. He also throws in some more obvious imagery – notably trees blowing in the wind – but you can sense an unifying intent behind the images. He wants to make an erotic film as opposed to merely a sexual one and consequently, sex and the tantalising possibility of sex must be omnipresent. If he can’t quite match Borowczyk in this – or Philip Kaufman – then he’s got enough talent for visuals to suggest that he is a major filmmaker. Certainly, he also demonstrated his talents in the only other film of his which I’ve seen, the rather wonderful Heaven’s Bookstore, a film which teased viewers with narrative trickery and satisfied them with stunning visual storytelling.

There is, of course, a more obvious erotic thread running through the film in the shape of the graphic sex scenes. These are often filmed in something of a frenzy, suggesting an impressionistic portrait of the nature of the act and an insight into the characters of the lovers. None of them, interestingly, is remotely as sexy as scenes such as the moment when Ruiko walks slowly through the Professor’s library, her feet nuzzling the wooden floor. But nor are they embarrassing or unintentionally funny. You feel the passion and the desperation, largely thanks to the stunning performance of Yuka Itaya, an actress with the talent and looks to become a big star

Indeed, the quality of the performances is universally impressive and the film sets a very high technical standard. It’s only fair to give great credit to Shogo Ueno’s cinematography which is lush without being chocolate-box pretty and performs some wonders with limited light sources. I also liked the plaintive score by Yoshihiro Ike – a bit Classic FM at times but often a suitably poignant accompaniment.

Only two problems let the film down. Firstly, the running time. 133 minutes is far too long for this kind of thing, no matter how sensationally beautiful it looks, and you get the sense of epic importance being imposed on an essentially intimate story. Secondly, the plot is pretty dire, relying on several romantic novella standby points. Asao is trapped in a fatally loveless marriage to a tyrannical older man. Ruiko is having a doomed affair with a married man. Given this, Masami’s crucial accident is hardly surprising, nor is Asao’s decision to dump him while he’s still recovering. We wait for his inevitable impotence when trying to have sex with Ruiko, just as we wait for the inevitable tragedy at the end. It’s all very basic melodrama and it is to Shinohara’s credit that he manages to pull the film off anyway. He does ring a few changes, thankfully, and the very downbeat ending is laudable, if a little too self-consciously neat.

The Disc

This Japanese R2 release of the film from Emotion Pictures is generally very impressive. The picture quality is fairly good throughout with the anamorphic 1.85:1 image coming across quite well. Colours are full and there’s plenty of detail. Sometimes, the level of grain is a little excessive and artifacting becomes a problem in places. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also very good, although only the soundtrack and occasional ambient effects make use of the surround channels.

There are some extras but all are in Japanese without English subtitles. There is a ten minute interview with the director , a theatrical trailer and what looks like a TV spot. As I couldn't understand these, I haven't given them a rating.

The main feature is accompanied by English subtitles.

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