Thursday, 13 May 2010

Lunch Box (2004)

Shinji Imaoka’s Lunch Box (Tamamono) is an odd little tale of sexual and emotional obsession. It’s a pink film, but like so many pink films the emphasis is very much on character and on emotion, with the sex being merely one element within the film.

The pink film is one of the more interesting creations of the Japanese film industry. These movies emerged in the 60s as the Japanese film studios were facing financial disaster and erotic movies seemed to be the only hope of salvation. But the unbelievably stringent Japanese censorship laws meant that these movies have always been extremely tame by comparison with western movies. This has worked to the pink film’s advantage since it has allowed writers and directors to use the genre to make real movies with real characters.

Shinji Imaoka is one of the most celebrated modern film-makers in this area, and since the Japanese don’t despise pink films as mere sex films he’s become a highly respected movie-maker.

Lunch Box charts the course of a sexual relationship between Yoshio, a young male postal worker, and a somewhat older mute woman, Aiko. Aiko works in a bowling alley, loves bowling, and seems to believe the bowling balls can cmmunicate with her (hence the Japanese title which means “bowling ball”). They meet when Aiko accidentally knocks Yoshio off his bicycle. Yoshio later offers her a lift home, and an intense sexual relationship begins immediately.

For Yoshio at first it’s every young male’s dream - an attractive woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. But it’s clear from the start that for Aiko this is more than just sex. At least it would be clear to anyone with even a trace of intelligence or sensitivity, two qualities sadly lacking in Yoshio. Aiko cannot communicate with words, and spends the entire movie trying to use other means of communication to somehow reach Yoshio. The two methods she uses are to make him lovingly prepared boxed lunches to take to work (hence the English title) and incredibly intense sex.

Sadly, even if Aiko could speak it’s doubtful if Yoshio would listen. And while Aiko’s obsession grows, Yoshio is being pursued by one of the girls in his office. Yoshio is uncomfortable with Aiko’s obsessiveness. And since the office girl is younger and more “normal” he agrees to marry her. But he can’t give up the sex with Aiko. The situation is obviously not going to end well, and it doesn’t.

Yumika Hayashi gives an extraordinary performance as Aiko. Without being able to speak she still manages to convey her emotional intensity and neediness very powerfully. Lemon Hanazawa is also impressive as Yoshio’s new love from the office, while Mutsuo Yoshioka is effective in the much less rewarding role of Yoshio.

The movie was filmed on 16mm deliberately to give it a more desperate kind of look. This deliberate graininess can be an annoying trick but in this movie it works.

Shinji Imaoka pushes the boundaries of the pink film, including full frontal nudity which until recently was absolutely off-limits for Japanese film-makers. And the sex is non-simulated. In recent years several mainstream directors (notable Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs and Catherine Breillat in Romance) have used non-simulated sex in their movies and tried to justify it on artistic grounds.The results have generally been tedious and completely un-erotic. Lunch Box is a rare case where the use of real sex actually does sex, giving the sex scenes the intensity that the story requires. And while the sex is not simulated the movie is still strictly softcore, and in fact still quite tame even compared to western softcore erotica. But Shinji Imaoka isn’t really interested in showing us graphic sex. He’s interested in what his characters are feeling.

Lunch Box isn’t really disturbing in the way that many pink films are but it’s an oddly compelling and rather touching movie. It has its dark moments but unlike far too any recent western movies it never gives the impression of trying too hard to be Dark and Edgy. It’s quirky, erotic and entertaining, and emotionally involving. And it’s nice to find a modern film-maker who can tell a completely satisfying story in just 65 minutes.

It was released by Redemption as part of their Sacrament range. The DVD is now rather difficult to get hold of, unfortunately.

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