Golden-gai, a warren of tiny bars near Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district, has long been a refuge for writers, musicians, filmmakers and other artistic types, who congregate at drinking establishments with like-minded patrons. The area also has a seedier, less reputable side, which is graphically shown in Shinji Imaoka’s erotic drama “Tsugunai: Shinjuku Golden-gai no Onna.”

A veteran director of pink eiga (erotic films), Imaoka has turned the genre’s by-now musty conventions to his own unconventional ends. Yes, his previous films — such as “Kaeru no Uta (Frog Song),” “Ojisan Tengoku (Uncle’s Paradise)” and the pink musical “Onna no Kappa (Underwater Love)” — have de rigueur scenes of simulated screwing, but Imaoka’s playful imagination, skewed sense of humor, and unsentimental humanism sets these films apart from the pink mainstream.

“Tsugunai” may lack the laughs and flights of fancy found in Imaoka’s best works, but its view of Golden-gai life seems to be fueled by hard-won (as well as hard-drinking) experience, be it Imaoka’s or scriptwriters Minoru Sato and Haruhiko Arai’s. (Though I’m guessing it’s all of the above.) The title song, sung by the ex-con heroine, perfectly expresses the film’s gritty attitude and tone.

Tsugunai: Shinjuku Golden-gai no Onna (Unlucky Woman's Blues)
Director Shinji Imaoka
Run Time 87 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Toko (Shoko Kudo) wanders into a Golden-gai bar, whose name translates as “Redemption,” shortly after her release from prison. The friendly kimono-clad proprietress, Kasumi (Kyoko Hayami), is not aware of Toko’s past, though her air of loneliness and astonishing capacity for liquor (she downs a tall drink with one long two-handed gulp) make her a standout. After passing out, Toko is escorted upstairs by Kasumi and two regulars and, when she comes to, finds herself face-to-face with Gunji (Takeshi Itoh), a grizzled former lover who is now shacked up with Kasumi.

Gunji, in fact, is the reason Toko went to prison, but he has since moved on and so, Toko realizes, must she. Walking through Golden-gai to catch a train to her parents’ place, she is accosted by Yamashina (Yuya Kiyama), one of her rescuers from the night before. This louchely handsome guy is obviously up to no good, but Toko, after seven years in the can, isn’t overly particular about her male companionship and agrees to go with him to his frigid apartment, furnished only with a thin futon. They are soon busy warming it up.

This quartet — Toko, Gunji, Kasumi and Yamashina — are the focus of the drama, which is fueled by jealousy, lust and Toko’s lingering feelings of guilt for her crime, whose intended victim was Gunji. These are also the elements of many a melodrama, and not only in Japan, but the film takes a distanced, ironic view of the various goings on, from the hungry lovemaking to the absurd outbursts of violence.

Toko and the others are not types or caricatures, however. They all have complicated pasts, as well as distinct personalities, even if they are odd by society’s standards. And none are young. Even Yamashina, who likes his clothes college-casual and his hair long, is probably either pushing 40 or is past it. This adds a certain piquancy to the sex scenes: Instead of the porn industry’s young, buff bodies, we see middle-aged flesh, wrinkles and all, still in passionate embrace — a trope also found in Imaoka’s oldsters-in-love drama from 2008, “Tasogare (The Tender Throbbing Twilight).”

Where does it all lead? Whatever upheavals occur in the characters’ lives, they find it hard to escape Golden-gai — a cocoon for them to retreat into, away from the world of early risers and earnest strivers. It is an accepting place, even when a denizen feels an anarchic urge to burn it all down.

But if you want to start anew, maybe you should look elsewhere than a small world where your past never dies.

This is a place where that past can sleep till noon, live with no visible source of income and spend its days smoking and drinking, and, when its booze-ravaged body can summon the energy, humping.

Run, Toko, run.

Fun fact: Ticket buyers to “Tsugunai: Shinjuku Golden-gai no Onna (Unlucky Woman’s Blues)” are eligible for discounted drinks at Golden-gai bars where the film was shot, and can chat with bar owners from the film. Check out the website www.tsugunai.jp for more information.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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