Tokyo Decadence Review
The following is a reprint from my original review posted 13-06-2007. For all intents this is to be a comparison piece, so feel free to skip on down to the A/V section.
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 DVDCinema Epoch’s R0 disc hit’s the U.S. in its “original uncut version” apparently. In the months prior to its release I personally contacted the company to find out exactly what we were expecting - the fabled 135 minute cut or the wider known 112 minute version. Their response:
According to the film's producer JVD Company, there never was a 135 minute version and this has been an error spread on various message boards. They inform us that there has only ever been a 112 minute version and that is the version that was trimmed in various forms for censorship in other countries. They believe that the supposed 135 minute Hong Kong VCD might have been padded with footage from other films.
Which I was quite happy to accept, given my already personal doubts. Although I have since seen a list of cuts detailed at the IMDB I’m still not convinced, not until I actually have that HK VCD in my hands. So if anybody reading this fancies doing me a favour by sending a copy over then please get in touch.
I don’t need to go mad with the screen grabs here as it’s quite clear that definition wise there’s very little between versions. Arrow Films’ release arguably has a slightly higher contrast level, but otherwise they share very similar traits. I admit, then, that my original assessment of the R2 release may have been somewhat harsh in that the film appears to be a video production and that JVD are supplying distributors with the same source materials (note the hard-matted international title again), presumably Digibeta masters; but this is most unfortunate because Cinema Epoch’s release is also a standards conversion, exhibiting the usual combing artefacts. Aside from an obvious anamorphic overhaul and better compression there’s little else to shout about. The image is very soft throughout, showing a fairly washed out palette - which is still prone to colour bleed on reds especially - weak blacks and the occasional speck, although in comparison to Arrow’s disc the film fares slightly better when it comes to having less cross-colouring and dot crawl. There is still a spot of aliasing to be found and edge enhancement is also present, making things considerably up and down overall. I do wonder if we could perhaps get better still; a progressive conversion would be nice for a start, but at the same time I’m beginning to think that this might be the best we’ll ever see the film.
Cinema Epoch - top, Arrow Films - bottom.
Sound-wise I’m left with little to say over the current Arrow disc. The single Japanese 2.0 audio is at a low level, so it’s best advised to turn things up a notch. Dialogue is basic across the front channel, while there’s minor hissing throughout the duration. Background noises can at times prove to be a tad obtrusive and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score isn’t given a better look in. It’s totally adequate and I imagine it’s pretty much representative of how it’s meant to come across.
A trailer for the film kicks off the extra features, though curiously it’s of Korean origin, showing clips of the main feature but with Korean characters describing various details. Also part of the lighter material on disc is a stills gallery. This runs for little over two minutes with Sakamoto’s ominous scoring accompanying some fine images, which includes promotional material.
Nicholas Rucka’s essay is a fairly interesting foray into the themes of the film. Although I feel he dwells a little too much on the Japanese “Bubble Boom” as the backbone, it’s certainly a point not without relevance and if anything this is a picture that is well open for interpretation. Rucka puts across his own strong points, mentioning the way in which Murakami works, while asking specific questions in relation to Ai’s decisions and wondering if she is indeed a symbol of much bigger things.
Finally we’re left with an eight minute interview. Actually it’s pretty rubbish in that the first five minutes are nothing more than a selection of film clips and actor rundowns. Following on from this is footage from the S&M themed wrap-party, which includes brief interviews with Murakami and cast members. Most of it entails back-slapping about how good each actor was, while Ryuichi Sakamoto, despite having not seen the completed film, remains confident in how his music will elevate it. So don’t expect any meaningful discussion here about the director’s overall intentions.