Most film-makers who take the works of the Marquis de Sade as their starting point elect not to attempt a straight adaptation of any of his books but rather to do films that try to capture some of the feel or some of the philosophy of de Sade. Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice (Akutoku no sakae) falls into this category.
By 1988 Nikkatsu had abandoned the roman porno movies that had kept the studio afloat for the previous decade-and-a-half. As a result the sexual content in this movie is much more tame than would have been the case a few years earlier. The best of the roman porno films were a bold combination of sex, art and experimentation and in this case director Akio Jissoji is attempting something similar but with more artiness and less sex.
In the years before the Second Wold War a Japanese nobleman becomes obsessed with de Sade. He founds a theatre company that he uses as a means of exploring his own interpretations of the ideas of the Divine Marquis as well as his personal obsessions with sex, power, jealousy and cruelty. He recruits his actors exclusively from the criminal classes. They are mostly thieves and whores. Most of them share his decadent tastes so their time is devoted as much to games of sexual power as to the theatre itself.
Or rather the games and the plays overlap. The movie works on three separate levels of reality, or unreality - the performances of the plays, the rehearsals of the plays, and the offstage interactions between the players. All three layers intersect and reality and art become impossible to disentangle.
Sexual betrayals are played out on stage and behind the scenes. The nobleman manipulates his lover into a sexual liaison with one of his actors (who is also a thief), while at the same time they are playing out a similar situation on stage. The nobleman has always believed he could remain in control, pulling the strings and forcing everyone around him to dance to his tune, but he discovers he is as vulnerable to feelings of jealousy as those whose lives he manipulates.
The plot isn’t easy to follow in detail but this turns out not not be a disadvantage. It might even have been a deliberate ploy on the part of the director. With art and reality bleeding into each other the protagonists themselves are not always sure what part they are playing, or where the dividing line is between onstage and offstage.
If this all sounds very arty and pretentious, it is. But Akio Jissoji’s visual imagination makes it a lot more entertaining than you might expect and the lines between the theatre and real life are blurred so successfully that you can’t help but be fascinated.
The movie is helped by some very effective acting performances. One of the strengths of Nikkatsu’s roman porno films had been the luscious period detail. They may have been relatively low-budget productions but Nikkatsu was still a major studio with the resources to provide lavish sets and costumes. That’s not so much in evidence in this movie but perhaps that was intentional, an attempt to give it more of a feeling of unreality.
As with virtually all Japanese exploitation movies there’s a political subtext with the Sade-obsessed nobleman being drawn into political conspiracies.
This being a Mondo Macabro release you expect the transfer to be superb, and it is. There are some reasonable extras, including an unfortunately all-too-brief interview with Jasper Sharp. Sharp probably knows as much about Japanese erotic cinema as anyone outside of Japan and I’d have liked to hear a bit more from him.
Personally I found this movie to be slightly less impressive than some of Nikkatsu’s earlier roman porno movies but it’s still an intriguing and offbeat movie, another fascinating slice of movie weirdness from Mondo Macabro.