Pleasures of the flesh and pains of the soul potently combine in “Aroused by Gymnopedies,” a softcore sex drama commissioned by Japanese studio Nikkatsu to mark the 45th anniversary of its “roman porno” (romantic pornography) cycle of the 1970s and ’80s. Centered on a downcast middle-aged filmmaker whose serial bedding of younger women masks a slowly revealed sorrow, “Gymnopedies” is an engaging and ultimately touching portrait of love, loneliness and loss of youth. Having snared limited theatrical exposure thus far in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, this melancholy, low-key item by prolific director Isao Yukisada (“A Good Husband,” 2009) ought to clock up plenty more festival mileage and has bright VOD potential as both an art-house and exploitation title.
“Gymnopedies” is one of five features in Nikkatsu’s reboot of its one-time cash-cow format. A key part of the Japanese “pink film” wave that emerged in the 1960s, roman porno accounted for no less than 600 Nikkatsu productions between 1971 and 1988. As with the more memorable roman pornos, “Gymnopedies” contains not only a mandatory sex scene every 15 minutes, but a thoughtful examination of why its antihero takes such frequent rolls in the hay.
Itsuji Itao is spot-on as Shinji, a 50-ish art-house filmmaker with a prestigious résumé and an empty bank account. With his glory days a distant memory the sad-sack is directing a porno to make ends meet. The promise of a quick financial fix is scuttled when leading lady Anri (Izumi Okamura) storms off set, forcing production to be canceled. In the week that follows, Shinji fails to return to his modest suburban bungalow. Instead, he drifts around Tokyo searching for cash and sleeping with a succession of mostly much younger women.
Far from being a randy lothario-at-large, Shinji shambles his way from one sexual encounter to the next with nary a smile or trace of tenderness. All of his conquests, including rich student Yuka (Sumire Ashina) and temperamental Anri, offer him emotional support but receive nothing in return except requests for money. At his lowest point, Shinji steals Yuka’s piggy bank and manipulates ex-wife Rinko, (Mayumi Tajima) into prostituting herself with Mr. Homma (Kenji Iwaya), a co-worker with perverted desires.
Shinji’s professional fall from grace reaches its nadir at a pathetically attended retrospective of his films. After pontificating on “the true nature of love” he’s set upon by Yuka’s angry boyfriend, Araki (Kisetsu Fujiwara), with an all-in brawl resulting.
For a good part of the running time most viewers will likely have little sympathy for the self-centered and distant Shinji. Director Yukisada and co-writer Anne Horizumi gradually alter the equation by releasing information about his relationship with current wife Yukiko (Yuko Miyamoto), who remains off-screen until deep into proceedings. Without attempting to excuse or magically reform their protagonist, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji a strangely sympathetic character, despite his apparently heartless behavior.
The title refers to three short piano pieces composed by Erik Satie in the late 1880s and played by Yukiko in carefully positioned flashbacks. Added to the pleasing soundtrack are zippy free-form jazz numbers that sound like they could have been lifted directly from a ’70s Japanese sex or crime movie. Filmed quickly and cheaply as the roman porno manifesto dictates, “Gymnopedies” is given glossy sheen and grungy grit at the appropriate moments by DP Takahiro Imai. All other technical work is on the money.