The Marquis de Sade was a Frenchman, but his erotic, boundary-pushing written works have traveled far and wide, as this 1988 Japanese film from director Akio Jissoji amply demonstrates.
The play-within-a-play structure of Prosperities of Vice — more a thematic exploration than a straight-arrow narrative — is reminiscent of Peter Brooks’ production of Marat Sade, where the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in an asylum, directs inmates in a performance of his play based on the life, and gruesome death, of the French revolutionary of the title. The plot, as it were, centers around a decadent count in 1920s Japan who becomes obsessed with the life and works of the Marquis de Sade, and creates a theater to showcase plays adapted from the notorious writer’s novels. Recruiting a variety of thieves, prostitutes and low-lifes to act out his increasingly outlandish fantasies on stage for the delectation of his rich and jaded friends, the nobleman (Koji Shimizu) trips a wire when he forces one of the actors (Renji Ishibashi), under threat of death, to make love to his wife (Seiran Li) while he watches. Naturally, this collision of fantasy and real life has dire, outwardly expanding consequences.
It’s somewhat striking to see Eastern actresses in this sort of material, no matter the recent influx of nervy erotic fantasies like Man, Woman and the Wall or the wild, raunchy, slapstick comedy of South Korean import Sex is Zero. That mild shock factor, though, rates second to the movie’s rich visual style as the reason for whatever hold it achieves. While eschewing true explicitness, director Jissoji, who just passed away a few years ago, at 69 years old, works in an aggressive and confrontational manner, pushing in on his actors to underscore emotion and intensity, and shooting from unusual, sometimes highly canted angles throughout. He layers and overlaps “reality” and performed stand-alone scenes with little regard for narrative congruity, instead opting to let the viewer sort out the fractured meaning of his narrative. All the while, he trades in a weird mixture of Eisensteinian and even occasionally Dadaist imagery, contrasted with spare, flower petal-laden sets to represent the Eastern restagings of the Marquis de Sade’s works. This isn’t familiar exploitation camerawork by any stretch of the imagination, no matter the cultural differences.
Housed in a bright red plastic Amaray case, Prosperities of Vice comes to DVD on a region-free disc, presented with a Japanese language Dolby digital stereo soundtrack. The brand new anamorphic transfer itself is certainly quite adequate, and nicely free of grain, but the colors themselves are a bit washed out in some sequences, and overall low on contrast. As long as we’re quibbling, and for what it’s worth, the English subtitle translations are also at times a bit dubious. Along with the film’s theatrical trailer and seven minutes worth of previews for other Mondo Macabro DVD releases, supplemental features consist of a pair of textual histories of both director Akio Jissoji and Nikkatsu Studios, and a solid, seven-minute introduction to the movie by film critic Jasper Sharp.
Most involving, though, is a 24-minute documentary on the Japanese sub-genre of so-called “roman-porno” (shorthand for romantic pornography), a category into which Prosperities of Vice decidedly falls. Featuring interview material with Sharp, filmmaker Romain Slocombe and actress Kazuko Shirakawa, among others, this engaging, briskly paced featurette gives a great overview of Nikkatsu’s erotic “Ropponica” line, various directors working in the field, and how such movies fill a socio-cultural vacuum. Footage from a 2001 roman-porno convention in Tokyo is also included, and the female fans there speak convincingly to the sub-genre’s surprising emotional connection. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. For more information on the film, and other Mondo Macabro titles, click here. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)