Tokyo Decadence (Topaz) Review

The Film



For the duration of this review I shall be referring to the film by its original name of Topaz, as seen during the film’s opening credits, and it’s one of considerable importance when placed into the context of the lead character’s situation. Certainly Tokyo Decadence would signify the deterioration of an individual or society based around them, in this case during the excessive exploration of sex, while Topaz simply reflects that little bit of hope that one can cling on to so dearly under the stress of a seemingly inescapable environment in which they don’t feel a sense of belonging toward (see synopsis). It’s because of the sheer amount of attention and strain placed on the central character that Topaz, I feel, bares far more relevance to the overall narrative.

Taking its title from author Ryu Murakami’s 1988 short story collection entitled ‘Topaz’, which focuses on the observations of young prostitutes working in the S&M trade, Topaz - of which Murakami also directs - explores a cruel and jaded society, in which a young woman named Ai (Miho Nikaido) hopes to one day escape from her job at a popular S&M establishment and become a social worker. One day she visits a fortune teller, who advises her to purchase a pink diamond and turn it into a ring, so that she may enjoy a happy future. Persuaded by this, Ai is recommended a topaz gem by a jeweller and upon placing the new ring on her finger she indeed wishes for that good life. But good things never seem to come for Ai; she’s still sad over her break-up with her boyfriend, who has since gone on to become a television celeb, while she drifts daily from customer to customer, never quite sure what her next job offer will entail. Along the way she meets people, who, in their own way, teach her about the world around her. But Ai needs to follow her own path in life, no matter where it might lead her. As long as she has that little piece of topaz on her finger, perhaps everything will be alright in the end.


Topaz, a.k.a. Tokyo Decadence in the west, might appear to have the allure of a soft-core porn movie, but underneath it’s one of the most poignant and intricate films made on the subject of emotional detachment. Ryu Murakami’s film is a slow-burning deconstruction of one individual working in a thriving sex industry during a time of economic distress. There’s never a sense that Murakami feels the desire to truly exploit his characters for the sake of obvious means, not meant to titillate in a manner of which its posters might suggest. It is all very cynical, of course; you couldn’t accuse Ryu Murakami of being anything less than such, although he’s certainly not devoid of wry humour, as he demonstrates a couple of times throughout his scathing commentary.

Ai: “You must be very wealthy?”
Saki: “Not necessarily. It’s this country that’s wealthy, but it’s not proud of its riches. It drives its men into masochism out of anxiety. As a result, I earn my money exploiting their anxieties…and I’m proud of that.”

Primarily, Topaz focuses on the central disillusionment of a woman lost within a system filled with its own sense of perfect ideals, be that related to the entertainment and education industries or otherwise, which can chew up and spit out its inhabitants as easily as one clicks their own finger. The sad thing is that in the case of Ai she is looked upon almost as being some sort of dredge on society, and yet she has more to offer the world despite insisting that she has no other talent to get by in life, relying on the only thing that she knows will safeguard her an income. But she is a well-spirited human being, studying sign language and teaching young children as a part-time social worker. Although we don’t really get to see this side of her much - only in passing conversation and brief interludes of her studies - these are the times when she’s truly happy and alive. If there’s a moral encompass to all of this, aside from simply telling that we should hang onto hope, it’s in reaching out to help others move forward and live out their lives to the best of their abilities, which in turn will make your own all the better.

The film is an intelligent piece of work, which naturally bares the sting of a frustrated mind. Ryu Murakami often writes about characters who seek to find some kind of catharsis from their routine lives, while also addressing unhealthy social obsessions and the lack of individuality amongst the masses. In the past he’s pessimistically explored youth culture, entailing drug abuse (ecstasy manifesting itself again here) and stories of teen prostitution (later tackled in Love & Pop by director Hideaki Anno). Topaz would appear to be an amalgam of several previous forays: the vicious and sad cycle of self abuse; sexual perversion and media consumption - all of which the director depicts with almost utter contempt, making his point all the more known by drawing out scenes to considerable length, in turn seeing Topaz’s sexual content become a numbing entity. There is no glorification here. S&M and self abuse is used in a repetitive fashion, in order to illustrate humiliation, loneliness, depression and a sense of loss in a rapidly growing culture filled with plenty of moral ambiguities. Each point serves to underline the reasons as to why the central character of Ai wishes to escape her mundane life, as we watch worrying depictions of topics which have long been overshadowed by their very tabboo nature in Japan. At the same time, Murakami reaches out and shows us that those who choose to follow a more unsavoury path do so by way of trying to sooth their own pain - a sorry state of affairs which allows for some truly effective moments. In terms of lensing the picture itself, Murakami couldn’t be any more nonchalent if he tried, as his camera unceramoniously lingers on people carrying out their daily duties. Nonetheless it’s strangely mesmerising to watch Ai wander throughout her little world, with a narrative that doesn’t strictly hinge itself on dialogue to tell her tale. Not only is this because of Murakami’s self awareness in not adhering to conventional rule, whereby the camera serves as an ever-voyeuristic eye for the audience in order to help us understand Ai, but also largely thanks to Miho Nikaido’s stunning portrayal of the film’s centrepiece. Moreover, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s understated piano score does well to match the emotional tone.

And Nikaido might just be the key for most to enjoy Topaz’s lengthy run time. She imbues Ai with a charming sense of hope and innocence, despite her obviously demanding and very adult job. Importantly we feel for her plight and Nikaido lulls us with seemingly little effort on her part. The search for an ex-lover; the attempts at salvation through a little topaz ring she holds so dearly; and the humility of doing the dirty deeds that wealthy gangsters, talkative dullards and drug-addicted crazies pay her for are all beautifully handled by the actress, who ends up eliciting a perfect melancholic sadness and leaves one to wonder if Topaz could ever hope to be as good without her.



The DVD

Topaz has been passed with no cuts by the BBFC and runs for 112m 37s, compared to M.I.H.K./Blue Light’s 2002 UK video release of 84m 56s. It was released in selected cinemas in 2001 with a run time of 89m 30s. Reportedly there is a much longer 135 minute cut, which has never seen the light of day over here. To be honest I don’t know if such a cut truly does exist, or if it did it was likely a workprint which never saw a home video release. Even the Japanese release has a run time of 113 minutes, but if anyone wishes to prove otherwise then feel free.

A/V

Urgh! Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with Arrow Film’s presentation of Topaz. The film appears to be taken from an analogue source, complete with JVD Co Ltd (Japan Video Distribution) logo, in addition to the hard-matted Tokyo Decadence title, which precedes the official one. Topaz is given an NTSC-PAL non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, which is plagued by digital artefacts such as cross-colouring, dot crawl and aliasing, in addition to low level noise and considerably poor black levels and contrast. Night scenes, of which there are a fair few, lack any detail whatsoever, with unnatural blending taking place between foreground and background, thus rendering the frames practically unwatchable. The rest of the image is noticeably soft throughout, clearly brought on by excessive amounts of badness. The colour palette is also a tad washed out, with skin tones appearing inconsistent. The surrounding environment is very grey and mostly depressing, but that’s one area which serves the entire point of Murakami’s film. Edge Enhancement also turns up. Booo.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese track is about at basic as you can expect. It has its problems, most of which appear to be inherent to the original source, but certainly aren’t helped by a rubbishy video conversion. Outdoor scenes can be a little too noisy on occasion, with ambience overriding some of the central performances, while dialogue in general could certainly offer a bit more clarity as it sounds somewhat hollow from time to time. It’s fine if you adjust the volume levels, but a little cleanliness would have been appreciated.

The optional English subtitles are a bit on the large size, but they read well and there are no errors to report.



Overall

“Erotic sex or dangerous fantasy?”, so say Arrow on the DVD cover. Actually it’s neither. Topaz is far more than a bawdy little S&M movie, though sadly advertising such as that will do it no favours. Undoutedly the worst offender is the Hong Kong title of Sex Dreams of Topaz, which really does take things to an unnecessary extreme. Those hoping to find some wealthy titillation by picking it up will be sorely disappointed. Regardless of whatever title it goes by, Topaz is a great example of taking an established genre and turning it on its head in order to pinpoint the extremities of personal dilemma. More than just a sex film, it’s a worthwhile documentation on an individual state of mind, with an astute philosophy and a defiant nature in successfully depicting areas that have long been overshadowed by their very taboo nature.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
3 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
0 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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