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‘Tomogui (Backwater)’

Adult movies set strange template for family drama

by Mark Schilling

In 1971 the Nikkatsu studio, desperate to stave off bankruptcy, switched production to the then-burgeoning genre of softcore pornography. Made mostly by young directors promoted after their elders fled, the films were hardly intended as high art. Instead their main selling point was simulated sex, often with an S&M flavor.

But the best of them had a gritty human realism, filmed with an unbridled freedom (save for the obligatory bed scenes). Impressed critics named products of what was called the Nikkatsu Roman Porno lineup to their annual Top 10 lists, while hailing their makers — including Tatsumi Kumashiro, Chusei Sone, Toshiya Fujita and Masaru Konuma — as true talents. While still a porn factory, Nikkatsu became a training ground for up-and-coming directors, many of whom are still active today.

Though based on an Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Shinya Tanaka, Shinji Aoyama’s new film “Tomogui (Backwater)” recycles and reworks Nikkatsu Roman Porno tropes. The setting is Shimonoseki, a tough Yamaguchi Prefecture port town on the Tsushima Strait; the year is 1988, when the last Nikkatsu Roman Porno film was released and the late Emperor Showa was fighting a losing battle with cancer.

Both events are echoed in the film’s story, narrated by a man reflecting on the momentous summer of his 17th year. But while being something of an unpleasant period piece — its depictions of sexual violence reference the era’s rape porn — the film subverts its characters’ retrograde attitudes in ways thoroughly contemporary, and typically Aoyama.

Since his 1996 feature debut with “Helpless,” an ultraviolent youth film shot in his native Kitakyushu, just across the strait from Shimonoseki, Aoyama has often focused on society’s margins, while coolly deconstructing genre conventions and unveiling emotional truths.

In “Backwater” his narrator/hero is Toma (Masaki Suda), a moody, sharp-eyed teen who fishes in the river, hangs out with his fish-seller mom Jinko (Yuko Tanaka) and makes fumbling love to his girlfriend Chigusa (Misaki Kinoshita) in the warehouse of a neighborhood shrine. This idyll, however, is soon revealed as closer to a living hell.

Tomogui (Backwater)
Rating
Director Shinji Aoyama
Run Time 102 minutes
Language Japanese

First, Toma still resides at home with his war-veteran father (Ken Mitsuishi) and Dad’s bar-hostess lover Kotoko (Yukiko Shinohara), whom his dad routinely beats and chokes prior to noisily climaxing. (The excuse: He has to assert his manly power before succumbing to the unmanly weakness of orgasm.)

In addition to accidentally witnessing this grotesque scene one night, Toma has to later face the battered Kotoko, who smilingly dismisses the bumps and bruises. (“I have a good body, but after he hits me it gets even better,” she explains.)

Toma fears that he will end up like his father, a serial beater of women, including Jinko, who lost a hand in the firebombing of Tokyo — and later left Dad and aborted his second child out of anger at his abuse. Both Jinko and Chigusa speak to Toma about succumbing to his dark inheritance.

But Toma is lured and pulled into doing what he most dreads. As though following a genetic script, his hands grab and slap — and finally curl around an unwilling throat.

Working with veteran Nikkatsu Roman Porno scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai, Aoyama films this material much as his uninhibited Nikkatsu elders might have, taking the rough sex right up to the R-15 rating line, while adding layers that could belong in either a black comedy (Dad’s deer-in-the-headlights look as he approaches orgasm) or an environmental documentary (fish swimming amid man-made detritus).

At the same time, he does not have his elders’ obligation to pander to male fantasies. The bed scenes are more horrifying than hot, while the women are less fantasy objects than fleshed-out characters able to surprise us with their complexity, as well as their capacity for action, violent or otherwise. I was reminded of the films of Shohei Imamura, whose women were often tenacious life-force types whose men might use and abuse, but never completely subjugate.

“Backwater” is more than the sum of its genre parts: S&M porn, coming-of-age film and dysfunctional family drama. As the camera turns from an awe-inspiring shot of roiling clouds against the grimy Shimonoseki cityscape to a raw close-up of fish guts spilling into the river, the film’s overarching theme becomes clear: We are all part of the bigger stream of life, a stream we have perverted and polluted.

Dad plunges into the sewer of his own twisted impulses and climbs out looking refreshed — a happy, despicable human beast. He is, the film implies, a product of a period when the entire country marched, with flags waving, into that ultimate sewer: war.

But “Backwater” also suggests that just as times change, so can people, even ones in desperate need of a moral shower.

Fun fact: Screened at the Locarno Film Festival in August, “Tomogui (Backwater)” won the best director prize from the Swiss critics’ federation and best film honors from the Junior Jury.

Read an interview with director Shinji Aoyama. For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to see “Tomogui (Backwater)” at the theater of your choice, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is Sept. 17.