Don't laugh at someone else's sex? But it's laughable to call it sex at all

Film review: "人のセックスを笑うな" (2007)
Director: Nami Iguchi
Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Kenichi Matsuyama

I guess I should explain why I picked this film to watch one night. It's because the title, "人のセックスを笑うな" (don't laugh at someone else's sex) caught my attention. Obviously I was intrigued by the provocative challenge that dares us to trivialise other people's predicaments where they are most vulnerable. I'm artistically-minded like that.

Just quickly to give you an idea what this film is about; basically, a boy of 19 (played by Kenichi Matsuyama) meets a mysterious (and apparently irresistibly attractive) maturer woman (played superbly by Hiromi Nagasaku), and predictably falls in love with her, who turns out to be a new lecturer at his college. What is not so predictable is that the innocently coquettish femme fatal turns out to be very much maturer indeed by some twenty years, and to be very much married also, happily living with a very sweet man. Heartache ensues, naturally.

Well, the film didn't quite deliver. It was all very stylish, all very cute, and actually I like it as a piece of work. But as a story, I didn't like it one jot for two reasons.

First, I didn't find the heroine a sympathetic character. The mysterious, free-spirited creature is basically just an overgrown child who has no respect for others or has no inkling that they may have such things as feelings. So she happily goes on taking advantage of everyone else, on assumption that the entire universe orbits around her existence. As you can see, I didn't quite like her.

Second, while I wholeheartedly agree with the message, "don't judge other people's affairs," (and that's what got me interested in the first place, I have to remind you), there's hardly any sex in the film. I'm not saying that I wanted to see Kenichi Matsuyama in action (though that would've made it more interesting, undoubtedly).

What I mean here is that there's no sensuality, no raw desire portrayed in the film. The most we get is Nagasaku kissing (more pecking, really) Matsuyama noisily and persistently, which we are supposed to interpret as liberated sexuality of a free-spirited older woman. No saliva, just cute little noises. I found that persistent pecking rather annoying, more than anything else. It's like talking about the "rampant sensuality" of biting into those pretty little pastel-coloured macaroons.

So there is no shock value that might be expected from the provocative title. The film is too busy being stylish, and it does not engage in the nitty-gritty of falling in love - the obsession, the exhilaration, and the hurt.

There is a very symbolic scene towards the end, where Matsuyama flicks the lighter that Nagasaku gave him in the early days (it's red and heart-shaped by the way, so you won't miss the symbolism), and a feeble light flickers on though he thought it was out of gas. Then a line comes up across the screen, something like "会えないからって終わるわけじゃないだろ" which roughly goes, "it doesn't die out just because you can't see her, does it."

The feeble flicker is very symbolic, I thought. The film's premise is jolting the world with the all-consuming flame of desire beneath the apparent ludicrousness that is the banal reality of romance. But there is no flame, just a flicker -  from a heart-shaped lighter that you thought was out of gas. Don't laugh at sex? There is no sex to laugh at. No nudity, no saliva, no sweat, no raw emotion - just girls jumping up and down on sofa/bed in tantrums. Quite a well-chosen gesture for the selfish, immature, skin-deep "want" of the characters I thought, as in kids screaming "Want" in front of toy shops.

So the film doesn't achieve what it sets out to do. Instead of shocking us into realising that every romance is real, no matter how lame it appears to be, it achieves the exact opposite in convincing us that yeah, something that can be so neatly contained in a stylish flick about romance IS shallow and superficial. Because it doesn't disgust you, embarrass you, weary you and captivate you by realities of naked human desire. It has no claw. It's only a kitten scratching at the surface, meowing "I can do you real harm." No, kitten, you are quite harmless. Very cute though.

About Nagasaku's oddly healthy huge cotton pants - why does she wear them over tights? Does everyone actually wear underwear over tights?

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Ponyo - Spoiler alert

After singing its theme song innumerable times while poking an aggravated niece's round belly, I finally watched "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea". I'd like to come clean before I go any further; I am a fan of Studio Ghibli's, though there are some films that I have resisted and haven't watched to this day. I wasn't too keen on "Ponyo", despite the hype that the highly addictive theme song created, because it seemed as if Miyazaki was having too much fun with himself there for the film to be a general success.

At any rate, I watched it finally, and I was pleasantly surprised. I say surprised, because I had read somewhere that some oversea viewers thought the plot didn't quite make sense in some places, so I expected something in the lines of Princess Mononoke, but even more enmeshed in the Japanese mythology. The film turned out to be nothing of the sort; nothing is less perplexing than a little girl (albeit of unknown species) causing a world-engulfing tsunami, causing the Moon to go off its orbit, and creating general mayhem in the world, just to be with the boy of her heart's desire. Girls tend to do that.

The plot is obviously a re-write of "The Little Mermaid" (or at least its framework is), as the Little Mermaid's bubbly demise is even referred to in the film. I am surprised that I haven't come across any review that mentions this, and only hope that it is not a well-guarded conceit of the latest wonder of Studio Ghibli (...just found out that the Japanese Wikipedia page does mention this!)

I loved the film. What amazes me more than the not-so-cute frog-like form that Ponyo takes when she performs magic, is that a man as advanced in years as Miyazaki hasn't forgotten the heartache he must've felt when he first heard the tale of the Little Mermaid. As I remember, it was the most heart-breaking story for a child yet unacquainted with The Little Match Girl; the level of sadness quite unknown in Snow White or Red Riding Hood. I already love the man but what endears Miyazaki to me even more is that he evidently wanted to rescue the Little Mermaid from her beautiful but sad foamy end.

Haven't we all a sad story or two that we'd like to re-write, given the chance? My pet fantasy is that the phantom of a certain opera house turns out to be quite a good-looking ardent fellow, and receives love despite his rather irregular facial features. (Has someone done that already?) Miyazaki may be just having fun here, rewriting the choking tale and letting Little Mermaid have another go at the prince and her life, but he made a brilliant job of it. Our little fish-girl is full of life. No such nonsense as disappearing into sea foam and sacrificing herself for the sake of unrequited love with her; she grabs both her boy and life with her chicken-like hands. (Only worry I have is that the kind of love that makes a fish-girl forsake her world and magic is a little too weighty for a boy of five. They have a very long "Happy Ever After" to go through after this.)

So all in all, Ponyo may not have the serious, profound messages of other Ghibli films (though we could argue perhaps that Ponyo actually represents Nature and that what happens in the film is that Nature takes revenge on the human race and we finally learn to live in harmony with it when submerged by it, or something like that, if we must); it may not bring Miyazaki another Oscar home (a five-year old girl's love, no matter how cute, and geographically and cosmically catastrophic, cannot win against an octogenarian's love for the diseased wife). But it is an exuberant film, fairly bursting with the joy of loving and living, as only a five-year old can experience. A joy to watch.

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