LISBON — Is a world that has grown accustomed to expressing passions through masks and at a safe distance ready to embrace a succulent cinematic work that explores the wildly erotic potential of close-up encounters with sensual foods?
The answer may lie in the surprisingly positive reception thus far for “Sexual Drive,” a quirky, nearly minimalist feature that probes the connection between secret sexual desires and peculiarly tantalizing dishes without anyone actually removing their clothes. Having launched in February, ahead of its Asian premiere at Taipei’s Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival in April, the bulk of reviews and box office returns have yet to come in. But U.S. and European distributors have immediately picked up “Sexual Drive” in hopes that its cool yet quirky approach to some very hot subjects (and meals) may bring commercial success.
Early response to the film has drawn unexpected attention to its Japanese director, Yoshida Kota, whose matter-of-fact approach is as unusual as his background in directing soft-core porn films that are known as “pinku” cinema in Japan.
While drawing accolades on the art house circuit and several international film festivals, “Sexual Drive” is still to be commercially screened in its home country. It follows in the footsteps of other food-obsessed film hits, from the Japanese 1985 film “Tampopo,” which took a hilarious look at the quest for the perfect bowl of ramen, to Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” with family relations revealed through the sharing of a master chef’s suppers, or the flirtatious foreplay over bone marrow, oysters and fruit in “Tom Jones.”
Leave it to Japan to lead the way once again when it comes to examining some of mankind’s most repressed, even embarrassing, urges and to do so through focusing on edible pleasures and their emotional context.
The film throws a special light on the erogenous potential of several distinctly Japanese dishes, including natto, the oozing and highly fragrant fermented bean many Japanese cannot resist; ramen laced with pork-back fat; and the odd attraction of instant mixes that replicate the searing pungent sauce of Chinese mapo tofu.
The film is structured into three segments named after these dishes, presenting a triptych of intimate encounters linked through the enigmatic presence of a gritty yet deadpan stranger carrying a gift box of chestnuts while intent on — pardon the pun — spilling various personal beans.
“You will never see mapo tofu being cooked more intensely or orgasmically. … The camera is so close to the characters that you might just get splashed with ramen broth,” commented Reel Bits, a cinema blog.
North American distributors Film Movement noted “the humor and wit on display in Yoshida Kota’s film, as well as the … incredibly sensual cooking and eating.”
Kota terms the film a comedy of contemporary manners. One episode deals with sadomasochism, with a complete stranger begging to have a pretty girl run him over with her car. Another shows a man following the instructions of a disembodied voice to end his affair with a girl seen slurping noodles. In a third, a meek young husband is confronted with edible evidence of his wife’s infidelity. And throughout, there’s the subtext of desperate escape from social controls, class structures and consumerism.
As brilliantly evoked by lead actor Tateto Serizawa, viewers may come to terms with what Kato describes as “the world seen from the bottom world like homeless people live.”
Yet, Kota notes, “sexuality is the theme of life for me.” In a wide ranging translated interview, he explained: “I don’t have that much of a complex about sex now, but from childhood to adolescence up to about 20 years old, I was suffering from my own bloated libido. I had complicated feelings that mixed a longing for and a fear of sex.” Now, he said, “I think my motivation is that I want to sublimate my own sexual complex by making movies focusing on sexual subjects.”
A youthful 42, Kota has directed 10 films so far, with racy titles including “The Torture Club,” “Love Disease,” and “Yuriko’s Aroma.” Another was called “Come As You Are,” which Kota describes as “a comedy … but a very important film … in which the protagonist struggles to fix premature ejaculation.” Many of his films walk the line between serious themes and trashy titillation.
The plot of “Coming With My Brother” is summarized in the film’s publicity as a woman who “starts acting in a provocative manner” after she “catches her roommate’s brother sniffing her underwear.” In “A Woman’s Hole,” a high-school student seduces her teacher by claiming to be a space alien on a mission to produce a human child.
“Japan is a pornographic powerhouse with a huge number of pornographic videos on the internet,” Kato said. “I think that is evidence that everyone has a tremendous desire for pornography. But on the other hand, it is also the nature of the Japanese that they want to hide such interests and desires.”
“Sexual Drive” inhabits the gray area often claimed by art house cinema but has strong sexual undertones. For that reason, Kato is not optimistic about his new film’s domestic box office prospects. “In Japan, sexual expression is severely restricted and tends to be avoided, so in terms of acceptance of sexual expression, I was thinking that overseas audience would accept this film more.”
Nonetheless, “Sexual Drive” may have more general viewer appeal due to its unfettered embrace of edible treats. “At the beginning, I was inspired by the curiosity of the Japanese food called natto. I thought that this smelly and sticky food could be described as an expression of eros,” Kato explained. “Actually natto is one of my favorite foods that I eat on a daily basis, so I think it was easy to come up with this idea.”
With surprising subtlety, Kato seems to be aiming for something more. He firmly believes that “films which do not portray sex overlook fundamental desires.” His views reflect influences as a film student by the productions of Nikkatsu Roman Porno — a now defunct enterprise known for attempting to give thoughtful drama to open presentations of sex. “They could definitely be works of art,” Kato said.
Shot just before the pandemic, Kato’s film might represent a new model of post-pandemic porn without any physical contact. Working on many aspects of the production himself, Kota was able to keep to a relatively low budget, since he required no special costumes or locations. He also could enlist actors he admires, including three young female leads who seem especially adept at delivering the required double-entendres and suggestive lip-smacking.
A key achievement of “Sexual Drive” is its ability to convey palpable seductiveness and erotic tension without resorting to a single graphic hint of intercourse or nudity. Little wonder, noted Kota, that he is now planning “other movies with indirect sexual expression.”
“With no direct sexual scene, [I] may have found a new production system for soft porn in Japan,” he noted wryly. In other words, plenty of quirky arousal with equal amounts of remote social distancing.