srijeda, 4. listopada 2017.

Yukio Abe - Koushoku Ichidai Otoko aka The Sensualist (1991)

55 minuta 18. stoljeća: japanski Casanova na kvadrat.

In the 54 years from his sexual awakening at the age of 7 until the age of 61, Yonosuke had relations with 3740 women and 725 men.
So we learn about the protagonist of Ihara Saikaku's 17th century novel The Sensualist in this animated adaptation, which is directed by erstwhile art director Yukio Abe, best known as the art director of the great Sanrio films of the 70s and early 80s, and scripted by erstwhile director Eiichi Yamamoto, best known for directing the experimental adult epic Belladonna.
Armed with those stats, Yonosuke makes Casanova look like the 30-year-old virgin. The 18th century Venetian and patron saint of latter-day Venutian artists such as Neil Strauss proclaims in his autobiography to have had relations with a mere 200 or so women during his lifetime. Yawn. But Casanova's autobiography is an engrossing and ethnographically invaluable piece of writing, and Yonosuke is a fictional character, so we'll call it even.
Better known as The Life of an Amorous Man, the novel was the first in a series of tracts that Ihara Saikaku published in the 1680s recounting the amorous escapades of the denizens of his Edo-period merchant class demimonde, who were apparently quite the libertines. I'm sure there are some juicy parallels waiting to be drawn between 17th century Japan and 18th century Venice by an enterprising student of comparative cultural studies.
Edo-period Japan was one of the most enlightened and liberal societies the world has ever known when it comes to sexual matters, with its sophisticated amalgamation of sexual openness and artistic expression. Rather than clients visiting prostitutes in dingy dives for a slam-bam-thank-you-mam exchange of fluids, Japan's geisha were government-sanctioned master artists who engaged clients in a classy, ritualized form of intellectual foreplay involving conversation, music and poetry.
The crème de la crème of geisha was the tayuu, and it's one of these creatures that is the object of the chase in this film. The Sensualist tells the story of a fumbling young man who seeks Yonosuke's assistance in getting with a renowned Edo tayuu. Flashbacks weave in and out of the narrative thread, filling us in on Yonosuke's respectable history of romantic dalliances.
The visuals of the film are exquisite, creating a sumptuous homage to the art of the Edo period. The characters are modeled after the style of Edo hanga, and are animated with great care under the supervision of the late great FX animator Mikiharu Akabori. Quite simply, the film is a feast for the eyes. Abe Yukio was first and foremost an art director, and the focus on the film is understandably on creating a sequence of beautiful images, which it does marvelously. There are few anime films as beautiful as this one out there. The film feels like a moving hanga.
Rather than gliding through a crude naturalistic approximation of Edo Japan, the characters inhabit the actual art and expressive symbols of the era. The ocean undulates like an ink painting, white lines on a black background. Naked bodies entwined in an embrace float through fields of lotuses. Shadows of long-eared rabbits hop across folding screens painted with stormy waves. Prints of Edo beauties or landscapes by the great masters pan across the screen, creating a heady and intoxicating atmosphere in which art, sex and life intermingle, rather than simply telling a story.
Although this is definitely a film for adults, and there is a good deal of nudity, a bit of rubbing, and a whole lot of bobbing, none of it is explicit. Actual shunga from the same period as this novel are far more explicit. Instead, symbols like the turtle and the camellia that were used back then to hint at sexual matters are used in a similar spirit during lovemaking scenes. The only time the film borders on funny is when they use the same strategy as 1001 Nights and Cleopatra and suddenly coyly shift from a shot of the couple embracing to a shot of abstract animation showing a suggestively shaped flame, or a clap of lightning that sends birds flying off of a tree. But for the most part, these shots of abstract animation are subtle and creative, and they feel like a modern extension of the Japanese symbolic tradition.
Originally released in Japan around 1990, this 54-minute film was presumably a direct-to-video release. Gone were the days when a film like Belladonna, this film's only real analogue in anime, could be released in the theaters. It appears to have disappeared into obscurity fairly quickly, and it's hard to find almost any information about it anymore. Needless to say, it has not been re-released on DVD.
This film deserves a better fate. If ever a film qualified as a buried gem, this is it. There is quality work here. This was an ambitious project that was clearly a labor of love. Director Yukio Abe masterfully handles a complex narrative that flows between the present, the past and the abstract, making every image count. Mikiharu Akabori's character animation is subtle but nuanced, authentically reproducing the complex dress of the era and the styles of physical representation of Edo-era prints. And Eiichi Yamamoto deserves a lot of credit for penning an excellent script tangled with poetry, authentic inflection and subtle wit. Together, they did a good job of visualizing some pretty difficult material in a way that remained true to its explicit nature without teetering too much into the realm of bad taste.
More importantly, they fully utilized all the means available in animation to create a thematically and visually consistent interpretation of the spirit of the novel. They channel the actual art of that period into the modern means of animation, achieving a sense of artistic unity that could not be achieved in a live-action adaptation.
Despite being an erotic film, it's not meant to be titillating. The film has a sense of spiritual and literary depth that goes beyond mere sexual exploitation. It reminds me of the themes invoked in 1001 Nights, the first Animerama film, which was also directed by Eiichi Yamamoto: Ambition, lust, curiosity. The desire to push yourself to be the best YOU you can be, to go higher and higher, just to see if you can do it. That is one running themes that seems to occupy Eiichi Yamamoto in the three characters of Yonosuke, Belladonna and Aldin. 1001 Nights was intended as a film for adults addressing complex adult themes, not as erotica, and I find that that's the case with this one, although the erotic element is unmistakably more dominant here. The film feels like an homage not only to the art of Edo Japan but to the erotic sensibility of that era.
And lest all this make the film sound like a stuffy art film, it's clear that they don't take themselves too seriously. It's entertaining to watch the protagonist, a bumbling stand-in for every ordinary loser out there who isn't a Don Juan like Yonosuke, fumble his way into the arms of this goddess.
Alongside Belladonna, The Sensualist is one of the rare attempts to do tasteful and artistic adult fare in animation. The studio that produced this ambitious film might come as a surprise: It was Grouper Production, a short-lived studio that was co-founded in 1986 by Masami Hata, the director of many of the very same Sanrio productions on which Yukio Abe acted as the art director. Hata directed several of Grouper's productions, including the Hobberdy Dick TV series, the Super Mario Brothers: Princess Peach movie, and the Ping Pong Club TV series. As far as I know, this is the only film that Yukio Abe directed. Since then, he has returned to art directing, most recently working again under Masami Hata on the Stitch TV series produced by Madhouse.
How did this project come about? It seems so out of character with everything else done by the studio as well as the director. Was it a project he had always wanted the chance to direct? So many questions. Grouper continued operating for several years after this film was released, so at the very least, it didn't put them out of business, which is a relief. Belladonna was produced 20 years earlier. Films like this only seem to come around in 20 year increments. Hopefully that means we'll be getting a new one soon. It's understandable that most studios don't have the daring to try their hand at something a little more ambitious like this, but it's still a shame. The talent is out there to make a new adult epic. It only makes me all the more grateful for the occasional aw-the-hell-with-it moments of indulgence like The Sensualist. - Ben Ettinger

I first saw The Sensualist as a fuzzy VHS tape when I was a teenager. While it's ostensibly an adult work, it never seemed lurid or arousing to me. Rather, it held this strange transcendent beauty. It felt like a piece of another person's life, so foreign and far removed from modern life and yet resonant. What haunted me is not the sexual imagery, but rather a quote, which book-ends the film: "As the years advance, my hearing declines. My legs are not what they used to be. I can't stop getting uglier, and the women I loved are getting gray hair and wrinkles. All of this irritates me constantly. If I go on living in this world, I don't think things will get any better."
Artistic erotica doesn't come along very often, especially in a populist medium like anime. Here is an hourlong film that serves as a poetic tale of sex and a life lived in pursuit of it, and is basically drenched in visually appealing sex scenes, and yet offers no titillation. A lot of people don't know how to parse something like that. Its nearest anime cousin is the absurd and horrifying Kanashimi no Belladonna, but its treatment of sex, and of life in general, is gentle and luxurious.
The original book, Kōshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man), was published in 1682 by Ihara Saikaku, originally intended as something of a lurid piece of pulp. It documented the life of Yonosuke, a true sex addict, at a time in the Edo Period where pretty much nothing was off-limits and there were more brothels than a modern city has Starbucks. From the age of 7 until 61, Yonosuke managed to bed 3740 women and 725 men. At various points in his life this addiction caused him misfortune, at one point being disowned by his father, but by middle age he had settled in as a respectable merchant.
The novel is quite long, and the film only needle-drops a few important parts: his overall life history is told in narration, but the real meat of the film picks up with Yonosuke, already middle-aged, being approached by his friend Juzo, a young and not particularly bright guy who has drunkenly placed an irresponsible bet: he is to meet the famed tayuu Komurasaki (a tayuu is the absolute highest class of geisha, a cultured and impressive woman once reserved only for the aristocracy) and sleep with her at their first meeting. If he succeeds, he wins some posh real estate, but if he loses, he is to be castrated.
Yonosuke instantly feels for the guy (and hates whoever it was that placed such an evil bet with an idiot), so he takes it upon himself to help the low-class Juzo meet Komurasaki. But it's anyone's guess as to whether she'll agree to sleep with such a classless slob.
There's not much to the story, and much of the film's running time is spent in deep observation of Komurasaki and her chambermaids, who are refined to the point where even walking down the hallway is a slow, choreographed dance that, by modern standards, seems both relaxing and maddening. Layers of ornate fabric float lushly through the screen. Sexual pleasure is symbolized visually, with imagery ranging from lotuses to flames. It occasionally flirts with cheesiness but never succumbs.
Director Yukio Abe is better known as an art director, contributing backgrounds to everything from NieA_7 to Sea Prince and the Fire Child. Here, he takes inspiration directly from ukiyo-e and other surviving art from the era, breathing life into the world of the most luxurious geisha imaginable.
The ending of the film is the ending of the life story, with Yonosuke embarking on a great voyage. On its own, divorced from most of the book's characterization, it doesn't mean much, although this ending is quite famous (and is paid homage to in Pom Poko, of all films). And if the film has any great failing, it's this lack of context. We observe the film's great beauty but never really connect to the characters. The 80s synth-drenched ending sequence (complete with flying buddhist art in space) also looks pretty ridiculous and makes no sense.
The Sensualist was shown in a few film festivals worldwide (most recently at a Big Apple Anime Fest), but home video releases have been limited to VHS in both Japan and in the UK, the latter having a subtitled release from foreign film publisher Western Connection. (That company was not known for its attention to detail, and indeed, their version is worse than most fansubs of the era.) Former Central Park Media head-honcho John O'Donnell was a big fan of the film, but when he tried to license it a few years later he was rebuffed: the two producers had had a falling out, and both refused to do anything that would enrich the other in any way. And so the film has languished, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In the mean time a fan restoration has surfaced, although with only a VHS tape as its source material, it's still pretty blurry.
The Sensualist is worth seeking out. It's completely unique among anime history, and its depictions of the opulence of the Edo period is unforgettable. While the overall strength of the writing seems to have lost something in its screen adaptation, there are moments of great poetry and poignance that bleed through. One hopes that someday, this film will be saved from its legal purgatory and given a new life in the digital age, but until then...  - Justin Sevakis

I was recently approached by a friend for help finding a copy of a movie he needed to study. Well-connected and well-respected in Western scholarly circles though he is, he had been completely unable to track it down. It had a British subtitled release on videotape in 1994, but it was never sold in America.
Even in Japan, it’s hard to come by. You can get a live-action version on, YesAsia and other sites, but the anime is hard to find legally on the secondary market.
The film was  Yukio Abe’s The Sensualist, better known in Japan by the same name as the novel that inspired it  – Koshoku Ichidai Otoko, or The Life of an Amorous Man. Having reviewed it, and devoted considerable space to its lush, ripe visuals in Anime UK magazine, I knew exactly what he was looking for, and I was delighted. The Sensualist is a film of spectacular beauty, and deserves to be more widely known.
Written in 1682 by businessman, poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku, the book was an unashamed piece of pulp fiction, created with an eye on mass-market sales to Japan’s cosmopolitan and sensation-hungry urbanites. Ihara’s reputation as a writer was never high among the literati of his day and later generations, who believed that true literature was far above mere entertainment: but he and the other popular novelists of the Tokugawa era created the conditions for Japan’s strong, diverse literary culture. His books are remarkably modern in tone and outlook, focussed on well-to-do sophisticates living the much-desired and envied life of wealthy city merchants.
No expense was spared on conveying the world of Ihara’s novel. The script was by Eiichi Yamamoto, Osamu Tezuka’s collaborator since the days of Astro Boy, who also worked on The Tragedy of Balladonna and the first Space Battleship Yamato TV series. Director Abe was a former art director, and the art department came up with fabulously inventive techniques like impressing leaves and fabrics onto the wet paint on the cells to create sumptuous, subtle visual effects. The characters were based on Edo-era art and animated with exquisite sensitivity under the supervision of Mikiharu Akabori. Keiji Ishikawa’s music is beautifully judged. The package is as lush and rich in its way as Satoshi Kon’s Millenium Actress: Redline, but for people who like their pleasures slow and consensual.
In 1991, when The Sensualist came out in Japan, Akira had just hit British VCRs after a successful festival and arthouse cinema run. Anime was the new rock’n’roll, according to Island World Communications, who spearheaded Britain’s newborn anime industry and launched their Manga Video label that year. A few intrepid British companies ventured to the international movie rights markets, or to Tokyo, to buy up video licences. For a brief, heady period as the new and largely uninformed market expanded,  Japanese companies could sell virtually anything. Some of the titles that were unleashed on an eager and unsuspecting public should never have been given their liberty; some are true gems.
The Sensualist is one of the jewels. It was released in Britain by Western Connection, a small company that specialised in subtitling live foreign cinema (they released Serge Gainsbourg’s notorious Je T’Aime/Moi Non Plus in 1993) long before they experimented with  anime. The company went on to release another 15 anime titles, many of which stayed on the shelves when it was eventually sold to Anime Projects, another small British label with links to the American subtitling powerhouse AnimEigo.
But here’s the thing: The Sensualist was released in 1994, before the Internet got huge, before DVD and downloads emerged. Despite the fact that it is one of the most visually stunning pieces of anime ever made, and that it’s all about sex, it simply fell off the radar as far as most people were concerned. It’s one of those titles that many fans of old-school anime know, but few fans of less than 15 years’ standing have actually seen. If you look online today for information in English on this gem of a movie, you will find a stub on Wikipedia and a few scraps on Anime News Network. Ben Ettinger gives is its due honour on his magnificent AniPages Daily, and of course The Anime Encyclopedia has a detailed entry. (Oddly enough, Anime Vice gives the synopsis but doesn’t list any of the credits, despite having licensed information from the AE.)
A couple of online sources even label The Sensualist an OAV, or Original Video Animation. They are probably misled by its 55-minute run time and its subject matter. Many anime with sex themes were made for release straight to video, but with double and triple bills common in Japanese theatres, an hour isn’t an unusual run-time for an anime movie. The Sensualist is a theatrical experience.  Seeing it on a cinema screen with a  full theatre sound system must have been overwhelming, like drowning slowly under fathomless waves of soft colour and gentle line.
Like Gisaburo Sugii’s The Tale of Genji, this movie tackles Japanese literature on its own terms and at its own pace. Rather than redesigning and reinterpreting Ihara’s world for a different era, Abe puts it into a visual language its original author would have understood and appreciated. Twenty years on from its original release, I hope to see it making its slow, stately and exquisitely elegant progress onto HD before too many more years elapse. - Helen McCarthy

The same 17th century novel was adapted by Yasuzo Masumura as A Lustful Man.

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