‘Ai no Rukeichi’

Dying for some life-changing love

by Mark Schilling

Japan, it has often been noted, has traditionally been a paradise for men. Boys could once look forward to a life of being waited on by self-sacrificing women — first mothers, then wives and, at the enfeebled end, daughters-in-law, while enjoying the varied erotic pleasures of the mizushobai (water trade, i.e. sex industry). This is changing now, as later marriages and growing numbers of single women indicate, but old attitudes persist, as Yasuo Tsuruhashi’s “Ai no Rukeichi (Love Never to End)” makes clear.

Based on a best-selling novel by Junichi Watanabe, this first feature by TV drama veteran Tsuruhashi would seem to be a jun’ai (“pure love”) drama of the type favored by middle-age women. The two principals, both well past 30, become embroiled in an illicit affair that is all about two passionate souls uniting, not selfish interests coinciding. Watanabe’s novel, however, was serialized in the Nikkei newspaper — that salaryman bible — from November 2004 to January 2006. His target audience, in other words, was mostly middle-age guys, many of whom have not addressed their wives as anything but oi (hey you) in years. What gives?

Novel serializations in the Japanese press are common enough, but Watanabe is unusual in both his success — he has written more than 50 novels, including many best sellers and award winners, and his ability to stir up controversy.

A 1997 Watanabe novel, “Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise),” about an adulterous middle-age couple who commit double suicide, sold nearly 3 million copies, while making gray-haired philanderers fashionable, much to the disgust of feminists, though certain members of his fan base delighted in the boost it gave to their extramarital shenanigans. Few of those fans, however, followed Watanabe’s hero in making the final sacrifice for love, though they and their significant others went in large numbers to Yoshimitsu Morita’s hit movie of the same title.

Ai no Rukeichi
Director Yasuo Tsuruhashi
Run Time 125 minutes
Language Japanese

“Ai no Rukeichi” is along similar lines, but is even more extreme in its romanticism and eroticism. Instead of sharing a poisoned chalice with his housewife lover, the novelist hero strangles her, at her request. Having experienced her best moments with him, erotically and emotionally, she no longer wants to go on living. Earth-moving sex is sweet, but death at the height of bliss, she decides, is sweeter.

This is a tribute to male sexual power, is it not? Austin Powers has nothing on this guy, mojo-wise. But the film’s celebration of rapturous death is — let me make myself clear here — creepy. Not because of the heroine’s final choice, though. The adulterous lovers in Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 classic “Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)” also ended their affair fatally, with the man volunteering for the chokehold, but his death was an expression of, less self-immolating love, than erotic intoxication, personal demons, social malaise and, in the victim’s case, exhaustion with the business of living. The dark complexity of Oshima’s vision made “Ai no Corrida” more than the sum of its hardcore sex.

Tsuruhashi, on the other hand, films his lovers in an erotic Neverland, while airbrushing not only their love-making but their motives. It’s tasteful to the nth degree, in a glossy magazine way, but it’s also a fantasy with a lubricious ambiguity. It wants us to believe in its couple’s pure spiritedness, while making it clear that the hero is the sexiest thing in pants.

He is Kikuji Murao (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former best-selling novelist who has had a decade-long dry spell that has reduced him to university teaching and magazine hackery. After divorcing his wife (Reiko Takashima) and leaving behind his teenage daughter (Shihori Kanjiya), he meets Fuyuka Irie (Shinobu Terajima), a housewife and mother of three who is a longtime fan.

Murao immediately senses the passionate heart beating beneath Fuyuka’s demure exterior and is irresistibly drawn to her. Their first date begins during a summer shower, with an impulsive, lingering kiss under a giant, rain-soaked tree. They then retire to a room in a classy hotel where they make bed-shaking, life-changing love.

Why are two hearts so obviously meant for each other torn apart only one year later? The film, which begins with Fuyuka’s death, soon shifts to Murao’s arrest and trial, while telling the story of their affair in flashbacks — and answering the question of its tragic climax with a simplicity (“true love has its reasons”) that comes to seem disingenuous.

Prosecutor Miyuki Oribe (Kyoko Hasegawa), a hot-blooded number in tight skirts and cleavage-revealing tops, understands Fuyuka’s choice immediately. Despite his battered angelic air, Murao is, to her appraising eyes, a big hunk of burning love that makes her own former partner in adultery look like a wimpy loser. Jealous of what she can never have, she decides to tease and torture the helpless Murao until the hangman slips on the noose.

Terajima and Toyokawa, who were also romantically paired in Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Yawarakai Seikatsu (It’s Only Talk),” bring off their scenes, clothed and unclothed, with nary a false or embarrassing note. But it is Hasegawa’s turn as the steamily insinuating Oribe that gives the game away. In “Ai no Rukeichi” the power of love purifies and uplifts, but it’s also hot, baby — dead hot. See it with your honey, killer, and don’t forget to re-up that subscription to the Nikkei.