Pile of Shame
The Sensualist

by Justin Sevakis,

The Sensualist (A.K.A. The Life of an Amorous Man)

I first saw The Sensualist as a fuzzy VHS tape when I was a teenager. While it's ostensibly an adult work, it never seemed lurid or arousing to me. Rather, it held this strange transcendent beauty. It felt like a piece of another person's life, so foreign and far removed from modern life and yet resonant. What haunted me is not the sexual imagery, but rather a quote, which book-ends the film: "As the years advance, my hearing declines. My legs are not what they used to be. I can't stop getting uglier, and the women I loved are getting gray hair and wrinkles. All of this irritates me constantly. If I go on living in this world, I don't think things will get any better."

Artistic erotica doesn't come along very often, especially in a populist medium like anime. Here is an hourlong film that serves as a poetic tale of sex and a life lived in pursuit of it, and is basically drenched in visually appealing sex scenes, and yet offers no titillation. A lot of people don't know how to parse something like that. Its nearest anime cousin is the absurd and horrifying Kanashimi no Belladonna, but its treatment of sex, and of life in general, is gentle and luxurious.

The original book, Kōshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man), was published in 1682 by Ihara Saikaku, originally intended as something of a lurid piece of pulp. It documented the life of Yonosuke, a true sex addict, at a time in the Edo Period where pretty much nothing was off-limits and there were more brothels than a modern city has Starbucks. From the age of 7 until 61, Yonosuke managed to bed 3740 women and 725 men. At various points in his life this addiction caused him misfortune, at one point being disowned by his father, but by middle age he had settled in as a respectable merchant.

The novel is quite long, and the film only needle-drops a few important parts: his overall life history is told in narration, but the real meat of the film picks up with Yonosuke, already middle-aged, being approached by his friend Juzo, a young and not particularly bright guy who has drunkenly placed an irresponsible bet: he is to meet the famed tayuu Komurasaki (a tayuu is the absolute highest class of geisha, a cultured and impressive woman once reserved only for the aristocracy) and sleep with her at their first meeting. If he succeeds, he wins some posh real estate, but if he loses, he is to be castrated.

Yonosuke instantly feels for the guy (and hates whoever it was that placed such an evil bet with an idiot), so he takes it upon himself to help the low-class Juzo meet Komurasaki. But it's anyone's guess as to whether she'll agree to sleep with such a classless slob.

There's not much to the story, and much of the film's running time is spent in deep observation of Komurasaki and her chambermaids, who are refined to the point where even walking down the hallway is a slow, choreographed dance that, by modern standards, seems both relaxing and maddening. Layers of ornate fabric float lushly through the screen. Sexual pleasure is symbolized visually, with imagery ranging from lotuses to flames. It occasionally flirts with cheesiness but never succumbs.

Director Yukio Abe is better known as an art director, contributing backgrounds to everything from NieA_7 to Sea Prince and the Fire Child. Here, he takes inspiration directly from ukiyo-e and other surviving art from the era, breathing life into the world of the most luxurious geisha imaginable.

The ending of the film is the ending of the life story, with Yonosuke embarking on a great voyage. On its own, divorced from most of the book's characterization, it doesn't mean much, although this ending is quite famous (and is paid homage to in Pom Poko, of all films). And if the film has any great failing, it's this lack of context. We observe the film's great beauty but never really connect to the characters. The 80s synth-drenched ending sequence (complete with flying buddhist art in space) also looks pretty ridiculous and makes no sense.

The Sensualist was shown in a few film festivals worldwide (most recently at a Big Apple Anime Fest), but home video releases have been limited to VHS in both Japan and in the UK, the latter having a subtitled release from foreign film publisher Western Connection. (That company was not known for its attention to detail, and indeed, their version is worse than most fansubs of the era.) Former Central Park Media head-honcho John O'Donnell was a big fan of the film, but when he tried to license it a few years later he was rebuffed: the two producers had had a falling out, and both refused to do anything that would enrich the other in any way. And so the film has languished, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In the mean time a fan restoration has surfaced, although with only a VHS tape as its source material, it's still pretty blurry.

The Sensualist is worth seeking out. It's completely unique among anime history, and its depictions of the opulence of the Edo period is unforgettable. While the overall strength of the writing seems to have lost something in its screen adaptation, there are moments of great poetry and poignance that bleed through. One hopes that someday, this film will be saved from its legal purgatory and given a new life in the digital age, but until then...

(Recommended further reading by Ben Ettinger and Helen McCarthy.)

Japanese Name: 好色一代男 (Kōshoku Ichidai Otoko)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 55 min.

Vintage: 1990

Genres: Erotic, art house, historical, literature

Availability (Japan): Only a VHS release exists. The film was never even released on LD.

Availability (English): An old, poorly subtitled PAL VHS release from Western Connection in the UK is all there is. A fan restoration fansub, sourced from the Japanese VHS, is also out there.

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