An older man, a much younger woman and a mystery that surrounds their relationship — for the Japanese, it’s a familiar story. The woman doesn’t say much, letting her youthful allure and beauty do most of the talking. The man doesn’t say much either; he’s more interested in looking at and pampering her, as if she were an exotic orchid rather than a human being. And the story of their mysterious relationship unfolds against the backdrop of a seaside hotel and its pool, a symbol of desire and obsession.

This film, “Onna ga Nemuru Toki” (“While the Women Are Sleeping”) — a male-oriented story, aptly set in a male-dominated society — has created a stir here, partly because it is Wayne Wang’s (“The Joy Luck Club,” “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”) first Japanese movie, and partly because it is the first time in 12 years that Takeshi “Beat” Kitano has starred in a film by a director other than himself. Besides Kitano, the film stars Hidetoshi Nishijima who, according to women’s magazine surveys, is consistently ranked among the top five of Japan’s most desirable men.

Though based on a short story by Spanish novelist Javier Marias, the ambience permeating the film feels distinctly Japanese or at least East Asian. The older-man-and-much-younger-woman dynamic feels more at home in this part of the world. It should feel creepy but somehow it doesn’t, even inviting sympathy and, perhaps, envy of the old man who has managed to capture the affections of a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.

“I did a lot of research on Japanese literature and ‘pink’ (erotic) films while I was preparing for the shooting,” Wang tells The Japan Times. “I also spent a lot of time with my Japanese friends on my numerous visits over the years. I got a sense of the Japanese man-woman relationship through all this experience, though I would not honestly say that my own understanding is deep.

“The man seems to be the head of the family. Their manliness is quite important. They separate their family life from their social life and the men go out drinking only with their male friends. Even though Western culture has been influential, in theory, in promoting equal rights for Japanese women, I am not sure it is true in practice.

“What I found most interesting is that there seems to be a distinction between the wife as the mother of one’s children and the other women as a lover or sex partner. This is similar to Chinese culture, since both are rooted in the Confucian philosophy of a patriarchal society.”

In the film, 23-year-old Shioli Kutsuna plays Miki, the object of male obsession, appearing in an array of white clothing, from a stunning bikini to a men’s shirt that she dons when she’s sleeping.

Kutsuna is part of a new generation of Japanese actresses who speak English (she’s third generation Australian-Japanese), are less awed by industry hotshots and less likely to be intimidated by tradition. But in “While the Women Are Sleeping” Miki represents less progressive concepts such as unsullied virginal purity. Her much older “husband,” Sahara (Kitano), refrains from touching her or treating her like a grown woman.

“I chose to make this story in Japan because I heard that Takeshi was interested in playing the older man,” says Wang. “I am a fan of Takeshi not only as an actor but as a director. I found Takeshi to be a real gentleman on the set. He always treated Shioli (Kutsuna) as an equal, sometimes giving her helpful acting instructions. He treated her character on camera in a very subtle yet complex manner.

“When he had to put sunscreen lotion on her bikini-clad body, he did it in a way that made me think of a man polishing his beloved car,” says Wang. “His watching of the young woman sleeping reminded me of Eguchi in (Yasunari) Kawabata’s novel ‘House of Sleeping Beauties.’ In total silence, Takeshi brought a strong tension between the radiance of youth and encroaching death in these scenes.”

Kawabata’s 1960s antihero, Eguchi, wanders into a secret club where he spends a succession of nights with a string of beautiful virgins — all sleeping quietly and completely nude. Theoretically too old to have sex, Eguchi is content with watching these young women and obsessing over their bodies before falling into a deep, pill-induced sleep beside them.

In “While the Women Are Sleeping,” Sahara’s relationship with Miki is similar to Eguchi’s bond with the sleeping virgins. Though in the film, the presence of a second male, Kenji (Nishijima), makes things more complicated.

Kenji is a novelist with writer’s block, who is inordinately fascinated by the couple and bored by his own marriage to Aya (Sayuri Oyamada). He easily succumbs to obsessive fantasies and an accelerating desire for Miki.

“Similar to many Hitchcock films, the story is about male obsession in an explicit, voyeuristic way,” says Wang, who also acknowledges he didn’t want to play into the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. “The two female characters initially seem weak and controlled by their men, but when one thinks carefully about them, they are strong and complex, especially in the male-controlling context of this film’s story. The two female characters are more dominating in their own way than their male counterparts.” Indeed, in the end, the two men have relinquished all control over their lives, caught in the marshlands of their own obsessions. Kenji becomes a slave to his daydreams about Miki even as he makes attempts to patch things up with Aya.

Intriguingly, movie critic and talk show host Hitomi Matsuoka held a lecture after the film’s Nagoya screening on how to influence men and motivate them for life, love and work. In case you’re wondering, the solution doesn’t involve discussing things as equal partners. It’s about stimulating and teasing the male imagination — something Wang’s leading women can do in their sleep.

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.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.