Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “The Sensualist”

Release Date: 28 June 1993
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 54 mins
Catalogue Number: WEST005
Japanese Title: Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man)
Japanese Production Date: 1990

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog March 2014, based on a previous version published on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2004.

This is the second part in a series on the UK video label Western Connection (please click here for the intro). The very first anime the company released was the highly obscure OVA “The Sensualist”. While it’s blatantly obvious that the title was really out of step with the material Manga Entertainment and other anime companies in the UK were releasing at the time, it really fits in with the mixed bag of live action foreign and arthouse films that Western Connection had released prior to this. I think we can safely assume that Sasha Capliko had absolutely no intentions of marketing this tape to the anime crowd. Of course this title changed everything for the company. But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the contents of the tape.

Sometime in the Edo period in Japan, an aging man in his early 60s drinks sake while recounting his life. He laments that he is getting old and grey and the women he loved are also turning the same way. From the age of seven until the age of sixty, the man, Yonosuke, had sex with over 3,742 women and 725 men. Born into a wealthy family, offspring of a merchant with loose morals and a prostitute, his obsession with lust eventually led him to gaol, his father disowning him, and even a brief stint as monk, until his lust drove him mad a week later.

Around 10 years earlier, Yonosuke was merchant and running the Kyoto branch of the family business, a shop named Yume which sells kimonos. One of his underlings, a tailor named Juzo, comes to visit him at the shop. He explains he is off the Edo in order to sleep with the tayu oiran (high class prostitute) called Komurasaki. Yonosuke is extremely surprised at this because these women will not sleep with anyone on the first meeting, let alone see commoners such as lowly tailors. Juzo explains that he was drunk at a party and made a bet with the host he could sleep with the legendary Komurasaki upon the first meeting. If he wins he gets a villa, but if he fails he will literally lose his manhood. A man called Uhei is travelling along with him to confirm the bet. Yonosuke realises that Juzo has been duped and decides to travel with him to Edo to give him the best chance he can of winning the bet. During the journey and upon arrival the red light district of Yoshiwara, Yonosuke teaches and prepares Juzo to give him the best chance he has to succeed. Upon arrival of Komurasaki’s residence, they are told that the mistress will be unable to see her for a few days. But eventually she makes her appearance and having done as much as he can to prepare him, Yonosuke leaves Juzo to complete the bet.

This OVA is based upon Ihara Saikaku’s 1682 novel “Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man)”. Saikaku was a really talented man. Like the protagonist in this OVA, he was the son of a wealthy Osaka merchant and studied under a couple of the country’s top poets. He soon became well versed in the art of haikai poetry (a satirical form of Japanese poetry that uses puns). Supposedly Saikaku wrote somewhere between 16,000 and 23,500 haikai stanzas in a single day and night in 1677. In 1675 when his wife died, he was so grief stricken he wrote a thousand verse haikai poem in 12 hours. After roaming Japan as a monk, he began writing lurid accounts of the business dealings and affairs of the merchant class, of which “The Life of an Amorous Man” is probably the most famous of these.

As I mentioned before the era the OVA depicts is the Edo period, sometimes referred to the Tokugawa period. To be honest not I don’t think it’s a period really well known or understood by many westerners. Sexuality in this era is even more of a mystery to the average westerner, so of course world of the courtesans called oiran would completely unknown to most. During this time, Japan was possibly the most liberal country in terms of sexual openness. The oiran had to be well versed in a number of skilled Japanese arts such as flower arranging, tea ceremonies, calligraphy, traditional Japanese instruments as well as being knowledgeable in scholarly matters and to hold witty and intelligent conversation. They expected clients to be of high social ranking and could turn down any client at whim. It wasn’t just about sex, in fact there was a lot of ritualised “foreplay” to get though before the act was even considered. While some of this is explained in the OVA, I think the creators assumed the viewers had some knowledge of the subject. The tape could have benefitted by some liner notes, but of course this is a Western Connection tape, so would have never been on the cards.

While the film itself is quite amazing for the most part, it’s perhaps a little too crude towards the end. The setting and content really is the exact opposite of what was being produced in Japan during that time period. The animation is drop dead gorgeous most of the time, but is to a degree quite experimental and deliberately quite flat looking. A lot of the time the imagery reminds me of a Edo era woodcuts with the character designs also have a similar feel but obviously having a more modern look. As the story of Yonosuke helping out the hapless Juzo unfolds, it is intercut with Yonosuke’s back story and scenes of him having sex with various prostitutes. The thing is for the greater majory of the film the sex isn’t really explicit at all. Yes, you can clearly see the characters having sex, but whilst they’re doing the deed certain elements are represented in surreal and abstract ways. For instance at one point male genitalia is represented by a turtle’s head and female genitalia by black ink morphing into vulva like shapes. It’s certainly not meant to be pornographic, but it can be very sensual. A lot of the time the focus is on the woman’s face, usually in ecstasy with a few strands of hair in her mouth. But the problem with the film is there isn’t a great deal of plot. We learn of Yonosuke’s debaucherist past, Juzo’s path to fulfil his bet and we meet the courtesan Komurasaki, and that’s it really. Oh, and the sex. The climax (ooh-err!) of the film contains the most explicit sex scene of the film with a male voyeur spying on a couple while he, uh, tugs himself off. I understand that in terms of story the voyeur was needed in that scene, but it did feel rather crude, almost like a scene out of an exploitation film, especially after the artily done sensuality of the previous sex scenes.

The studio who made it, the now defunct Grouper Production, isn’t all that famous for experimental anime of this type. In fact their two most famous productions are the crude “The Ping Pong Club” and the 1986 film “Super Mario Brothers: Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach”. The director (also the art director) was Yukio Abe who is most famous for working on a lot of Sanrio’s animated children’s films as an art director. It seems he never returned to the director’s chair after this film. But the screenwriter, Eiichi Yamamoto, has a background more in line with this film. He was the director for the trilogy of Osamu Tezuka/Mushi Production films made in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s referred to as the Animerama film series; “A Thousand & One Nights”, “Cleopatra” and the lesser known “Belladonna”. These trio of films were aimed at an adult audience and to various degrees contained sexual themes. I suppose due to the bubble economy in Japan during the late 1980’s to the very early 1990’s, a lot of money was poured into various industries. Anime of course got it’s share too, so it’s no wonder that a fair amount of unusual projects got the green light, including this one.

Curiously the only versions available of this OVA are three VHS versions; a Japanese version released by Toho, a French release and this one. It has never been reissued on Laserdisc, DVD or Blu-ray in Japan or anywhere else for that matter. According to an ANN article on this film by Justin Sevakis, Central Park Media attempted to licence the film back in the 1990’s, but two of the Japanese producers had a falling out and flat out refused to grant licence for US distribution. This falling out is probably also the reason why the film has never made it to DVD or Blu-ray in Japan. In fact once the film was originally released by Toho in Japan on VHS, it just seemed to fade into obscurity. There is very little in the way of Japanese sources with any information on the title. A couple of English language sources try to claim this film was a theatrical release, however there is no evidence that this was the case. There’s no entry on the Japanese Movie Data Base (only the 1961 live action theatrical version released by Daiei is listed) and no other movie sources list it. The website of the film’s co-producer, OB Planning, clearly lists it as an OVA, so that’s pretty definitive in my book.

Overall I think it’s an extremely well animated and engaging OVA. The only thing I can compare it to is the 1987 anime film “The Tale of Genji”, but other than a couple similarities in style and genre, the two films are quite different. If you are interested in animation as art, then you should track down this film. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. As this was one of Western Connection’s earlier releases, the subtitling is rather decent (well, compared with their latter work). Certainly there are a few mistimed lines and a couple of untranslated lines of dialogue (nothing of real importance is missed), but overall it’s decent. It’s quite passable. The packaging and artwork is also above the company’s usual standard, though the front cover is almost an exact facsimile of Toho’s VHS cover. As for current availability of this tape, well as you’d expect for something so obscure released some two decades ago, it’s slim pickings. There’s only one copy I can find available for sale at the moment, being sold on for £21. This is arguably the best anime title the company released in its catalogue. The remaining anime titles I’ll be covering in this series are far more on the trashier side.

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