Love’s Whirlpool (2014)
Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for Japan: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
Based on his 2005 play of the same name, Miura Daisuke’s second feature film is bookended by scenes of a young, unemployed man (Ikematsu Sosuke) receiving directions over the phone to a place and his emergence from that very place after spending the wee hours there. These bookending scenes also feature a young woman who is a university student (Kadowaki Mugi), through whom the spectator discovers the nature of the place and with whom the young man (seemingly) strikes a connection. Both of these characters end up in what is called a sex party, where a group of people pay to spend several hours having anonymous sex with each other. While the film’s depiction of the Japanese sex industry may recall Matsumoto Hitoshi’s R100 (2013) since it also reveals a sex service, it is actually quite nothing like it. Low-key, insular, and unadorned, Love’s Whirlpool is an interesting intimate study in, well, intimacy; though its more than two-hour running time is absolutely unwarranted. In fact, it is like a contemporary Japanese take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), though involving eight people instead of three.
Though the film contains graphic sex scenes, it is not an orgy of sex images. A lot of conversation is involved, and the process of initiating the ‘party’ is very orderly and methodical, even timid.
In the course of the film, Love’s Whirlpool betrays its theatrical origins through its singular setting of the two-floor apartment and dissection of human relationships and desire, in both its sensitive and ugly manifestations—thus inviting the comparison with Sartre’s aforementioned play. Though the film contains graphic sex scenes, it is not an orgy of sex images. A lot of conversation is involved, and the process of initiating the ‘party’ is very orderly and methodical, even timid. It begins with the manager (Tanaka Tetsushi) giving out the guidelines to the attendees (washing before and after, using condoms, changing partners, etc.). Once the group of attendees—four women and four men—find themselves in the living room, the mood is no different than an afternoon office party where no one talks at first due to shyness, except that here everyone is wearing only towels. The politeness and introductions remain, as well as banal conversation. The women speak amongst themselves first, and the men follow suit, about how they got to the place, among other things. One woman, a kindergarten teacher (Nakamura Eriko), even compliments the other women’s bodies and states that she is fat and should go on a diet. Rather than jumping into orgy mode, the film focuses on the social process of feeling each other out, getting over one’s nerves to initiate steps towards contact, be it physical or emotional. In this way, the characters are not reduced to being animalistic and brazen. Some do get to the sex more quickly than others, like the ‘freeter’ (someone who takes on odd jobs with no permanent status, played by Arai Hirofumi) and the office lady (Mitsuya Yoko), but it is matter-of-fact. Apart from one spinning overhead shot of all of the couples having sex, Miura does not indulge in stylized shots, angles, or composition to heighten the act of sex.
Protracted silences, hesitations, and conversations take place before everyone has sex and in between sex sessions, which lay bare the human desire for contact in a guileless way. Even the cynical blonde woman (Akazawa Seri), a regular customer, and her careful watching of each couple having sex before she does so herself is not presented in a perverse way. In a way, she stands in for the spectator, especially since she munches on snacks while watching each couple, expressionless but curious and candid.
After the first session of sex, everyone returns upstairs to the living room and initiates further conversation that touch upon personal details and sexual ‘perversions.’ This particular scene is amusingly reminiscent of a Buñuelian dinner party that could be found in The Phantom of Liberty (1974): the guests are in towels and the ‘server’ (Kubozuka Yosuke) provides not only snacks but also dildos on a tray. They air out to each other their sexual fantasies and preferences, but there is an honesty and modesty to them that prevents them from being coded as perverse.
But as with any group of people that are enclosed in a space for a number of hours, harmony can transform into discord, which happens when several of the attendees speak their minds about others in the room and sparks off a chain reaction of insults, rejections, and meanness. Two new attendees join the group late into the evening to cut the tension and change the group dynamic, with middling impact. But such a scenario is reminiscent of another Buñuelian situation: that they are all in one room and must remain there until five a.m. recalls The Exterminating Angel (1962). Furthermore, the ‘server’ is cool, to the point, and efficient, intermittently appearing among the group to provide snacks and dildos, making sure that there is no trouble or putting a stop to it, and dictating how everyone must leave the place when five a.m. strikes.
While the opening scene with the young man serves a purpose of putting the spectator in a mysterious position of not knowing where one is going, the concluding scene is unfortunately far too drawn out and strikes a disjointed note vis-à-vis the rest of the film.
While the opening scene with the young man serves a purpose of putting the spectator in a mysterious position of not knowing where one is going, the concluding scene is unfortunately far too drawn out and strikes a disjointed note vis-à-vis the rest of the film. Why the need to return to the place once everyone has left it? Why focus only on the young man and young woman in their everyday lives? Why not the other six characters, too?
Low-key, insular, and unadorned, Love’s Whirlpool is an interesting intimate study in, well, intimacy; though its more than two-hour running time is absolutely unwarranted.