'Aroused by Gymnopedies': Film Review | Busan 2016

Busan International Film Festival - Aroused by Gymnopedies - Still 1- H 2016
Busan International Film Festival
A fitting homage to Japan's softcore glory days.

Indie favorite Isao Yukisada marries sex with sadness in his shout-out to Japan's 1970s roman porno era, one of five films newly commissioned by Nikkatsu.

A broken-down, self-indulgent filmmaker watches his life fall to pieces in seven days in Isao Yukisada’s softcore porn experiment, Aroused by Gymnopedies. Still best known for the hyper-sentimental romance Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World, Yukisada injects his signature emotionalism into the dirty proceedings to entertaining, cheeky and oddly moving effect. A spin on the uniquely Japanese cultural oddity that is “roman porno” (romantic pornography), the film will draw plenty of festival attention, and though it has been picked up by satellite broadcaster SKY PerfectTV in Japan (along with four others), Gymnopedies may be too high-brow for the likes of the newly respectable Cinemax and its international counterparts. Download services, however, could be another option for distribution.

In celebration of the 45th anniversary of Nikkatsu’s roman porno — the more highbrow pinku eiga movement that saved the studio from bankruptcy in the early 1970s — the venerable producer enlisted five of Japan’s most prominent indie filmmakers to re-envision the sub-genre for contemporary audiences in a series of short features. Hideo Nakata (Ring), Kazuya Shiraishi (The Devil’s Path), Akihiko Shiota (Dororo), Sion Sono (Tokyo Tribe) and Yukisada were tasked with producing their films in the roman porno style: a limited budget, a shooting schedule roughly a week long and lots of sex and skin.

In Aroused by Gymnopedies, a failed art filmmaker, Shinji (Itsuji Itao, Air Doll), compelled to make a sleazy skin flick for some quick cash, bounces around Tokyo over the course of one aimless week after his petulant leading lady, Anri, quits. Without her the film is canceled, leaving the creaky, scruffy Shinji time to bed one gorgeous, wildly younger woman after another — including his married wardrobe assistant, Yuka, a rich student, and, ironically, Anri. With his life spiraling out of control, he reaches a low point when, desperate for money, he gets his ex-wife Rinko to prostitute herself to help him out. The reason? His current wife, Yukiko, is in a coma, dying, in a pricey hospital.

Yukisada’s sensitive touch at first seems at odds with sleaze, but given some time it becomes clear it’s actually a good fit with the traditionally thoughtful roman porno. While Shinji initially comes across as a baffling chick magnet that would seem at home in a Woody Allen film, it soon becomes clear he’s desperately unhappy, and manages to destroy everything in his path. The women in his life want to help, but they wind up poorer (he steals Yuka’s piggy bank), humiliated (Rinko) or forgotten. He’s pathetic, and Yukisada (who co-wrote with Anne Horizumi) knows it. Aside from the alleyway scramble for Yuka’s coins, a highlight that crystallizes Shinji’s sad state is an embarrassing retrospective of his art films, attended by 12 people — and where a hilarious fight breaks out (what film writer wouldn’t kill for something as exciting as fisticuffs at a Q&A?)

The title refers to the 19th century piano piece by Erik Satie that Yukiko once played, and which has a central place in the film’s inevitable conclusion. Itao is perfect as the rumpled Shinji, acting out rather than engaging with the people around him and refusing to acknowledge the damage he inflicts. Despite a willfully low budget, the technical specs are ace, with Satie’s piano suite supplying a suitably wistful score. And yes, there’s lots and lots of skin: four nude and/or sex scenes per hour.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production company: Django Film
Cast: Itsuji Itao, Sumire Ashina, Izumi Okamura, Yuki Tayama, Mayumi Tajima, Noriko Kijima, Sho Nishino
Isao Yukisada
Isao Yukisada, Anne Horizumi
Producer: Saori Nishio, Seiichi Tanaka
Executive Producer: Tadashi Tanaka
Director of photography:
Takahiro Imai
Production designer: Naoki Soma
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Music: Meyna Company
Casting: Yoshiko Arae
World sales:
Nikkatsu Corporation

In Japanese

Not rated, 83 minutes