Thursday, 18 February 2010

Lost Virgin (2001)

I’m continuing my exploration of the world of Japanese pink cinema, this time with a modern example - Toshiki Sato’s 2001 film Lost Virgin (also released as Cuffs, original title Rosuto Baajin: Yamitsuki Enjo Kosai).

It’s really quite similar to the much earlier examples I’ve seen - there’s no graphic sex or nudity, and it’s much more focused on character and on emotional states than on titillation. And it’s very much seen from the female perspective. Essentially it’s a romantic tragi-comedy, and a rather good one.

It deals with three summers in the life of a young woman, Chisato. The first summer was ten years ago, the second was five years ago, the third is today. On all three occasions our heroine manages to find herself in handcuffs, although not quite in the kinky sex way you might imagine. The handcuffs become a kind of metaphor for her life, but again not in the obvious way.

Ten years ago Chisato was a high school girl desperate to lose her virginity. She’d made a date through a telephone dating service, but when the guy tells her he’ll have to handcuff her because “virgins go crazy the first time” Chisato decides this is a good time to leave. She finds herself wandering the streets, handcuffed but still a virgin. She encounters a schoolmate, Takashi. He manages to get the hand cuffs partly off her, and lends her a pair of sneakers. And she finally manages to lose her virginity. It’s not a terribly romantic occasion, but she’s just relieved to have finally done it.

Takashi is a bit like Chisato. He’s likeable but rather aimless. She’s certainly not in love with him, but she’s oddly fond of him. When she returns his sneakers she find his girlfriend Hikari at home, They get drunk together, and form a kind of bond.

Five years later Chisato’s path crosses Hikari’s again. Hikari has a child, and she’s married to Takashi. Chisato is holding down a day job, and doing a bit of part-time prostitution on the side. She appears to be motivated more by boredom than by anything else, and she likes sex and she likes the extra pocket money. She and Takashi find themselves in bed together again, and somehow or other Chisato manages to handcuff herself this time.

Another five years pass. Chisato and Takashi are still leading rather directionless lives, and they encounter one another again. They try sleeping together in a rather desultory fashion, but it just doesn’t happen. They go looking for Takashi’s old house, searching for memories of their past, and they wake up together. And Chisato still manages to find herself wearing handcuffs. If she sees a pair of handcuffs, she just can’t resist putting them on for fun. And she still hasn’t learnt to make sure she knows where the key is first.

The movie is gently humorous, and is oddly touching. It’s a story with plenty of potential for sentimentality and for portraying Chisato as a loser or a victim, but both screenwriter Shinji Imaoka and director Toshiki Sato avoid this trap. I can’t imagine a Hollywood director showing the same self-restraint.

Nikki Sasaki’s sparkling performance as Chisato helps a good deal. There is no trace of self-pity in Chisato. She gets herself into plenty of awkward and often pathetic situations, but somehow she never quite loses a fundamental belief that life will somehow work out, and that love, sex and men are still worth bothering with. She always manages to free herself from the handcuffs, so in a strange way they’re a symbol of her unwillingness to become a victim. She just patiently sits down and works at it until she finally gets them loose, and then carries on with her life.

There’s a good deal of sex, but Japanese censorship even in the 21st century remains fairly strict and it rarely goes much beyond PG-13 stuff. It still manages to be erotic, but it’s erotic mostly because we come to like Chisato, and we identify with her search for love and sexual fulfillment. It’s more chick flick than softcore porn (using chick flick as convenient shorthand rather than as a disparaging term). And Nikki Sasaki projects a slightly offbeat but quite appealing sexuality. She’s not a conventional beauty, but she’s earthy, humorous, self-confident and unselfconscious about sex.

Toshiki Sato is one of the most highly thought of of modern pink directors, and it’s easy to see why. It’s also easy to see why he’s gained a considerable following among female audiences in Japan. If you’re looking for a change from the predictability and obviousness, and emotional manipulativeness, of Hollywood rom-coms then you could do a lot worse than to give this one a go.

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