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‘Ai no Uzu (Love’s Whirlpool)’

Searching for meaning in meaningless sex

by Mark Schilling

Sex and love — can the twain ever meet? In the world of fūzoku, a euphemism for Japan’s enormous sex industry, that question is usually answered in the negative.

In the industry’s lower reaches, sex is regarded as a service to be offered in defined ways for specified times, something like a 30-minute foot massage, with about the same level of emotional exchange. In its upper reaches, where expensively gowned young women cater to the whims of well-off men, love is suggested and even promised, but the adage “no money, no honey” still applies.

Daisuke Miura’s new film of his own award-winning 2005 play “Ai no Uzu (Love’s Whirlpool)” offers up a 1970s swingers’ twist on the ancient fūzoku business model. At a split-level flat on a backstreet of Roppongi, Tokyo, men pay ¥20,000, women ¥1,000 and couples ¥5,000 apiece to spend the hours of midnight to 5 a.m. at a sex party. Presiding over this orgy are a jaded manager (Tetsushi Tanaka) and bartender (Yosuke Kubozuka) who explain and enforce three simple rules: Take showers prior to sex, use protection and respect the wishes of the women.

Since this is Roppongi, where nearly anything goes, this set-up is imaginable, if hardly as common as the ubiquitous hostess bars. On the night the events of the film unfold, the club’s guests include a tough-guy “freeter” (“freelance worker”) (Hirofumi Arai), a straight-arrow salaryman (Kenichi Takito), a porky factory worker (Ryusuke Komakine), a cutesy office lady (Yoko Mitsuya), a statuesque nursery school teacher (Eriko Nakamura) and a rail-thin woman with multiple piercings (Seri Akazawa) who is pals with the bartender and seems to be a regular.

The drama, however, centers on a moody NEET (“not in education, employment or training”) guy played by Sosuke Ikematsu who empties out his bank account for this night of pleasure, and a bespectacled college student (Mugi Kadowaki) who at first impresses as mousy and shy, but frankly confesses her randiness to the astonished manager. These two, we see, are meant for each other, but how, we wonder, can they ever connect — beyond the night’s couplings, that is?

Going into this R18-rated film, whose ad copy proclaims that the party-goers are fully clothed for only 18 of its 123 minutes, I was expecting an absurdist sex comedy, similar to Miura’s 2010 “Boys on the Run,” whose nerdy, sex-obsessed hero ends up fighting for the honor of a former girlfriend who can’t stand him.

The film is instead an instructive essay on the difficulties and delights of swinging, including the almost impossible leap from commercial humping to a real relationship. The sex is viewed more objectively than hotly, while the dominant mood is post-coital melancholy.

One surprise for me was that most of the eight attendees are young and attractive enough to be taking their chances on the open sex market that is Roppongi. Another was that the number of women and men would so easily match, even given the disparity in the admission charge. The reality, I imagine, would be a motley assemblage of guys well past their prime waiting for the female equivalent of Godot.

Be that as it may, once the guests were assembled and an awkward silence descended, I began to believe I was watching a natural social interaction among actual Japanese. In fact, I wondered how they would ever make the transition from polite, embarrassed chatter to communal sex in the five hours allotted.

But make it they do, with the freeter, the most uninhibited of the lot, serving as a catalyst. And the sex, which unfolds on the four beds of the flat’s lower level, is shown in all its naked splendor. The film’s R18 rating is completely justified.

The breaking down of inhibitions, however, is just the beginning. There are still identities to be revealed, pretenses to be unmasked and, inevitably, feelings to be hurt. The late arrival of a couple — a heavy-set woman (Yu Nobue) and a scrawny guy (Tokio Emoto), adds fresh spice and uneasy volatility to the mix. Most dangerously, the NEET guy is falling quietly and hard for the student, who reveals herself as the horniest of all, while never quite breaking out of her shell.

At one point the film begins to look like a group-sex video, complete with a spinning bird’s eye shotof four sweaty, enthusiastic couples on adjoining beds. But its focus shifts to sex’s darker complexities, such as how ephemeral and even revolting anonymous screwing can feel in the cold light of dawn.

I am reminded of Gustave Flaubert’s observation: “A man has missed something … if he has never left a brothel at dawn feeling like jumping off a bridge into the river out of sheer physical disgust with life.” The conclusion of “Love’s Whirlpool” may not be so dire, but it confirmed my belief that the last place to look for love is where it’s sold by the hour — or night.

Fun fact: The stage version was first performed by Daisuke Miura’s potudo-ru theater company in 2005 and won the 50th Kishida Drama Award that same year. The play was most recently performed in France.