In order to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Roman Porno, Nikkatsu commissioned five narratives of well-known directors. One of the directors asked by Nikkatsu to offer his re imagining and reinterpretation of the genre, was Kazuya Hiraishi, known from narratives like Blood of Wolves (2018), Dare to Stop us (2018)). With Dawn of the Felines, a re-imagining of Night of The Felines (1972) in a contemporary context, we are able to present our third review of Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project – previous reviews were Antiporno (2016), and Wet Woman in the Wind (2016).
Masako (Juri Ihata), Yui (Satsuki Maue), and Rie (Michie) are three escort girls working for Health express: Young wives paradise in Ikebukuro. Each struggles with their own problems and forms of loneliness. Masako is homeless, running from one internet-café to another. Yui struggles with being a single mother – a struggle resulting in her abusive behaviour to Kenta. Rie, for her part, keeps her problem hidden from the others. One day, Horikiri (Kaito Yoshimura) releases undercover videos of the various interviews he conducted with the prostitutes of his agency on foutube.
Dawn of The Felines, in contrast to Night of The Felines (1972), offers a more psychological approach to the subjectivity of our three felines and to the dynamic of selling one’s body to the desire of men. The narrative – and this should be applauded – goes further than just revealing the general idea that the exchange of money problematizes or, in some cases, annihilates women’s sexual desire.
In Masako’s case, the question of her desire within her function as sexual object for the other – or, in other words, her reason for choosing this work – is raised. The spectator is immediately introduced to the radical separation between her enjoyment and her body that is to be enjoyed. She gives her body as an object – an object for the sexual fantasies of men – and she plays within the semblance of her enjoyment, but without allowing any of her subjectivity to enter the sexual game. Men do not generally aim to find woman’s enjoyment, but aim in most cases to realize a fleeting masturbatory enjoyment by using the woman’s body and the fantasy of her enjoyment. While men might be able to buy enjoyment for themselves – buy an body-object to masturbate with, they cannot buy the true enjoyment of the other. This aspect is eventually emphasized by revealing Masako’s true reason for entering the business.
Through Yui’s narrative, the dimension of the semblance of female’s enjoyment, a semblance already subtly introduced in Masako’s narrative, is vividly evoked. Complaining about the lack of work to her boss Nonaka (Takuma Otoo), he underlines, as the many complaints he received imply, her failure to play the semblance of giving her enjoyment. Even if its faked – one could even content that men need the prostitute’s enjoyment as fake – men do need an inkling of female enjoyment in order to attain their masturbatory enjoyment.
In Rie‘s narrative, we see a reversal of certain elements we mentioned above. The impotent Kaneda (Ken Yoshizawa), one of her clients, does not seem to be focused on attaining masturbatory enjoyment (Narra-note 1). Furthermore, faced with the (true) enjoyment of Rie, as caused by the vibrator Tobio-kun, he refuses to proceed. These contradicting aspects raise, at one side, the question of Kaneda’s desire and the function Rie is given within this desire and, at the other side, the question of Rie’s desire to be (sexually) desired within her work as prostitute.
While sexual themes, the themes of the phallus, are present in abundance – it is a Roman Porno after all, sexuality should be seen as a means to approach the problematic situation these women, as subject, find themselves in (Narra-note 2). For these women, the putting into play of their body as fantasy-object of enjoyment is not, by definition, a pathway to happiness. For Masako and Yui, for instance, prostitution offers nothing other than an emptiness. The solution to this emptiness, as is revealed between the lines of their conversations, is nothing other than a true intersubjective relation – a true human connection unmediated by money (General-note 1, General-note 2). For Rie, prostitution offers something else, an answer, a way to capture the sexual desire of men and thus go beyond her real and symbolic lack (Narra-note 3).
While some sexual encounters are not erotic in Dawn of The Felines, three scenes do succeed in realizing their erotic potential. The first scene, the most erotically enticing one of the entire narrative, is that scene that juxtapositions Masako’s and Rie’s bondage with Yui’s sexual act with the comedian. Rie’s final sexual act as well as Masako’s final sexual act succeeds, albeit to a lesser degree, in tantalizing the spectator. It is also in Rie’s final sexual act – the act that underlines the satisfaction of her desire – that Dawn of The Felines is able to touch and move the spectator beyond its mere erotic enticement.
The cinematography of Dawn Of The Felines consists mostly out of a blend of (often temporally long) crude following shots and trembling semi-fixed shots. While certain cinematographical movements reveals the act of shot-composition, the naturalistic tremble that characterized the greater part of the narrative’s cinematography gives the narrative’s composition a certain intimate documentary feel. The fact that the subjectivity of the female subjects, our felines, is central in the narrative finds its corroboration in the tendency of the cinematographical movement to circling and lingering around our female subjects in question (Cine-note 1).
The framing of the narrative spaces, especially the indoors and outdoors of nighttime Tokyo, is beautifully supported by the narrative’s lighting and colour design. The impact of the lightning and colour design is, first and foremost, felt in the narrative’s opening montage. Is it not by the thoughtful use of lighting and colour that the blend of mostly vague nighttime scenery and subtle erotic imagery, a blend supported by lingering of moaning sounds, is able to attain such pleasing fluidity? The interplay between blues, yellows, oranges, and reds is furthermore instrumental in evoking an atmosphere of loneliness as well as an atmosphere of intimacy.
Even though some lightheartedness is present in the narrative – fleeting positive moments accentuated by playful music, the atmosphere of the intermingling narratives is characterized by a lingering sadness and a sensible loneliness. The sadness – a sadness concerning the social positions of our felines, is beautifully made present by the musical accompaniment, i.e. the moody piano-pieces, that support the naturalistic framing of the intermingling narratives. In truth, the out-of-place lightheartedness, a lightheartedness that acts as a tribute to Night of The Felines (1972), slightly problematizes the otherwise serious approach to subjectivity as either marked by a lack of intersubjective connection or as marked by a lack that installs a subjective wound/failure. Dawn of the Felines would have been better and more powerful without it.
While Dawn of the Felines is a great follow-up to Night of The Felines (1972), it is not able to surpass its predecessor. The very reason for this ‘failure’ is to be found in the very tribute of lightheartedness that the narrative pays to the original. By inserting such lighthearted moments – even one at the very end of the narrative, the psychological depth so beautifully engendered by Shiraishi is unable to attain its full resonating power. Regardless of this misstep of lightheartedness, Dawn of the Felines still fully realizes what Roman Porno stands for, offering an erotically enticing investigation of inter-subjectivity and the role of sexuality within one’s subjectivity.
Cine-note 1: There are also fluid moving shots and some rare fixed shots to be noted in the narrative, but their use is limited to evoking the setting of the narrative.
Narra-note 1: Without revealing too much, one could say that Kaneda needs Rie in the guise of someone else. It is only when that fails that Kaneda ‘repressed’ feelings come to full bloom.
Narra-note 2: The narrative – see the opening conversation between the Horikiri and Masako – also touches upon the erotic potential the whore has within male fantasy.
Narra-note 3: Prostitution offers her a way to be desirable. As she cannot have any children – her real lack – and cannot become mother – her symbolic lack – her marriage (especially within Japanese society) is considered a failure. She cannot become mother, but, through prostitution, she can give her body as object to enjoy and to be desired.
General-note 1: Let us point out that, through Masako and Yui, the wider problem of Japanese society is evoked – the aspect of loneliness and the lack of true human connections. One could read in these evocation a minor societal critique.
General-note 2: There is a subtle evocation that society drives on sexual pleasure. This is not only evoked through one mid-narrative montage, but also by subtle references to sexuality, like the unfaithfulness implied in the restaurant scene or the passing baby stroller on the train tracks.