Friday, April 18, 2008

REVIEW: Frog Song - Shinji Imaoka (2005)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Well, it had to happen eventually. The Pow-Wow would review its first honest to god pink film, the Japanese term for softcore porn, but Shinji Imaoka hardly delivers anyone’s stereotypical idea of a porno with his 2005 “Frog Song (Enjo-kôsai monogatari: shitagaru onna-tachi)”. Granted, pink films aren’t often typical porno as the genre has famously been used by serious Japanese filmmakers as a stepping stone to more “serious” cinematic endeavors. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Kairo), Ryuichi Hiroki ( Tokyo Trash Baby), Rokuro Mochizuki (Onibi: The Fire Within), Hideo Nakata (Ring, Dark Water), Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?) are but a few of the illustrious names who got their feet wet in the fast, cheap world of pinku eiga…. Well, fast and cheap in terms of production, but you get the idea. In this almost disposable genre where as long as they include the prescribed amount of nudity and sex artistically inclined filmmakers are allowed to experiment with both formal and narrative forms without fear of a producer coming down on them for squandering a huge budget.

“Frog Song” is a perfect example of this: Seamstress Akemi (Konatsu) isn’t in the healthiest relationship imaginable. Her boyfriend drinks to much, sleeps around, and is in general a jerk. The first scene of the film shows he and Akemi wrestling over a bottle of vodka until she pulls it away and smacks him over the head with it. To get away from the hurt at home Akemi spends hours reading at a local 24 hour manga café and it’s here that she meets Kyoko (Rinako Hirasawa). While Akemi’s squeak of a voice and her plush frog backpack give us a clue to her immaturity and naïveté Kyoko immediately comes across as serious and old for her age. It’s the old adage of opposities attracting, but the more that Akemi fights with her boyfriend the more often these two young women cross paths until a bond begins to form. Their new found friendship will be tested, though, once Akemi discovers that Kyoko doesn’t make her living by drawing manga or by handing out leaflets on the street dressed in a frog costume.

And this brings us to the prescribed amount of nudity and sex that I mentioned earlier. “Frog Song” is by no stretch of the imagination a mainstream film, so when we discover that the lion’s share of Kyoko’s income is made through prostituting herself we shouldn’t expect scenes that simply end with her slipping into hotel rooms with strange men. Both Hirasawa and later Konatsu spend good chunks of the film in some state of undress engaging in… How can I put this delicately?… “adult” activities; but the Japanese obscenity laws that forbid the depiction of pubic hair, genitalia, and penetration prevents “Frog Song” from becoming the extreme close-up, pneumatic kind of exercise that North American and European porno excels at. In some ways I doubt that Imaoka would have gone this route anyway. The sex in the film is hardly titillating. Banal, yes, and sometimes very uncomfortable, but never geared to the simply get the viewer off. Akemi and Kyoko live in a very real and often disappointing world where sex is used as a tool to be more like the sexual partner, or to forget, or to punish oneself or to punish another person. It’s these emotional mechanics that are absent from Western softcore porn that allows Imaoka to explore the friendship that these two women forge in their very lonely lives. It’s because of this innovation that I’d recommend “Frog Song” to mature viewers who aren’t easily offended.

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