Sex is universal, but kinks can be local. Japanese S&M, at least the varieties I’ve seen in films over the years, is less about black leather and fishnet stockings, more about candle wax and artfully elaborate knots designed to display the flesh of the (inevitably female) subject in enticing ways.
In the 2007 Ryuichi Hiroki documentary “Bakushi (Bakushi: The Incredible Lives of Rope-Masters),” the ones tying the knots are not sailors but bakushi: deft-fingered masters at the art of bondage, whose finished products are akin to human rope sculpture. Actual sex is not part of the process, at least while Hiroki’s cameras are running, and would in any case spoil the effect. Similarly, Japanese haute cuisine is meant to be enjoyed first and foremost by the eyes, with its consumption feeling like an act of desecration, however delicious.
But as Naoto Takenaka’s film “R-18 Bungakusho Vol. 1: Jijojibaku no Watashi (R-18 Women’s Fiction Prize vol.1: Self Bondage)” vividly demonstrates, some bondage subjects prefer the DIY approach. That is, they tie themselves up as a form of self-eroticism.
Based on a novel by Asako Hiruta, “R-18″ is less hard-core porn than a soft-hearted plea for tolerance of folks with nonmainstream sexual tastes, even if they involve waxed ropes, handcuffs and cheongsam frocks. Yoshimoto Kogyo, a giant talent agency with hundreds of comics and other talents on its roster, has produced the film to celebrate its 100th anniversary, while supplying much of its supporting cast.
Takenaka, a veteran actor who directs the occasional film, beginning with the quirky 1991 comedy “Muno no Hito (Nowhere Man),” strains to deliver the sort of mass-audience entertainment that would justify the 100th-anniversary label, but he can’t overcome his subject’s built-in creep factor. In fact, he celebrates it with a self-infatuated gusto long familiar from both his performances and his films.
His heroine is Yuria (Kaoru Hirata), whom we first encounter as a sweet, naive college student researching her graduation thesis when she stumbles across a website devoted to jibaku (self-bondage). Fascinated, she begins to try out the knots she sees on the screen.
Tied from neck to toe, she feels comforted, like a child firmly tucked into bed by its mother. There is also a sexual zing, however, that her pushy, self-involved boyfriend (comedian Yuji Ayabe) can’t supply. Discovering her one day in flagrante delicto, he heads for the exit — and she gives up her new hobby.
Years later she is working for an ad agency under an eccentric, unpredictable boss (Masanobu Ando) who suddenly saddles her with two dubious new hires: a voracious man-chaser (Erika Mabuchi) and a smarmy mama’s boy (Kosuke Yonehara). As if this weren’t stress enough, he enters his odd-squad team in a high-stakes competition for a new client.
For relief, Yuria returns to self-bondage and starts a blog that attracts a sympathetic middle-aged guy whose roping routine includes cross-dressing. At long last, she has found a soul mate.
To this point, the film is a frantic blend of TV-style mugging and soft-focus erotica, though Hirata’s fresh-faced persona and trim, conditioned physique make Yuria’s adventures in self-bonding seem more like a healthy exercise than porny self-pleasuring. Also, she expresses Yuria’s loneliness and insecurity, as well as how her ropes not only excite her body but ease her mind.
When Yuria’s online fan finally makes his appearance — and turns out to be exactly who we thought he would be — the film shifts from the silliness and sexiness of its first half to overblown melodrama that made me feel embarrassed for everyone involved, starting with Takenaka. Once a comedian with a brilliantly skewed mind and a talent for parody, he has since declined into jokiness, stridency and, as the climax of “R-18″ all too clearly indicates, ickiness.
Granted, that is not a sentiment that everyone will share, and I will not presume to judge those who feel like taking notes rather than a shower while watching the film’s steamier (or rather, knottier) bits. To paraphrase Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an Edwardian actress whose own liaisons were legendary: As long they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses, let them tie away.