It is not that common for Haruhiko Arai, one of Japan’s most famous screenwriters, to take the director’s seat, but whenever he does, his makes always impresses – be it with his award-winning Body and Soul (1997), his passion project This Country’s Sky (2015), or with It Feels So Good (2020), his award-winning adaptation of Kazufumi Shiraishi’s novel.
One day, not long after Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) came back to his hometown in Akita to attend the wedding of his past-lover and cousin Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi), he is visited by her. Over lunch, they talk about what has changed in their life since they last met. Naoko has quitted her company and has been doing part-time work ever since – she is so-called freeter. Kenji, for that matter, got divorced and has been, following the bankruptcy of the printer company he worked at, unemployed, but earning some money by working irregularly as a part-time security guard at construction sites. Later that day, Noako starts reminiscing their steaming romance and ultimately asks him to make love to her one more time. But what was supposed to be a one-night stand soon develops in a full-blown affair.
Describing It Feels So Good is no easy task. What appears to be a simple affair quickly becomes a subtle meditation of the past, the present, and the future and an exploration of what speaks beyond the desire to copulate. While one could say that Naoko and Kenji’s bodies vocalize the truth that their ‘dishonest’ mouths initially do not want to acknowledge, not to oneself nor to the other, such statement would ignore the equivocal nature their acts of desire have.
The first equivocal act concerns Naoko’s act of inviting Kenji to her wedding. Even though inviting close family to one’s wedding is quite normal, Naoko’s invitation can also be read as a subtle acting-out. Can one not read Naoko’s invitation – something corroborated by her subsequent comportment – as being born from her wish to convey that she has lost something? Inviting Kenji to her wedding does, in fact, not only creates the opportunity to meet him again and rekindle their passionate sexual desire – an attempt to regain that what (she feels) she has lost, but also allows her to confront Kenji, via the affair as such, with his failure to keep her close (Narra-note 1).
Even if Naoko’s act cannot be read as an acting-out, her marriage does confront Kenji with what he has lost – his initial cold attitude towards Naoko is solely function of this loss (Narra-note 2). What Kenji has lost is not only Naoko as such, but everything that this passionate past represented – which is, in short, a future. Kenji’s reluctance to let himself be seduced by Naoko is not only born from his wish to escape his pulsating desire towards her, but also born from his wish to avoid – and this is far more important – another experience of loss. Even his actions of the past made him lose her, losing her again would reconfirm the loss that marks his subject.
The second equivocal aspect concerns their sexual desire as such. While one could understand the rekindling of their passionate indulgence in sex as being born from a desire to regain what one has lost in each other – “want to go back in time?”, such statement fails to underline the importance of Nachträglichkeit. It is, in fact, more correct to state that what they want to re-find in each other is ‘a lost object’ defined by their current situation of disaffection (Psycho-note 1). Their sexual pleasure and their attempt to regain that was never theirs to attain – their future – is function of the lack born from their current situation. Naoko and Kenji’s indulgence in sexual passion is, in other words, built on the impossibility of returning to the past as well as the impossibility of turning their sexual desire for each other into a shared future (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4). Especially the latter impossibility, by its relation to the act of transgressing the incest-taboo, fuels the ‘addictive’ nature of their sexual desire (Psycho-note 2).
Arai’s cinematographical composition is a fairly standard affair – offering a mix of static shots and dynamic following shots. It is a sober composition, a composition devoid of acrobatic shots to frame the sexual encounters, that successfully highlights that what is at ultimately stake is not so much sexuality but subjectivity.
Even though the cinematography does not focus on empowering sexuality, a titillating but elegant eroticism does pulsate throughout the narrative. The enticing and elegant nature of this eroticism is mainly function of Kumi Takiuchi’s mesmerizing performance – she carries the eroticism of Arai’s narrative. But what allows Kumi Takiuchi’s performance to shine so bright and make the eroticism radiating from her so enticing is her chemistry with Tasuku Emoto.
Classical musical accompaniment is mainly used in order to make the sadness of their structurally lost future and the impossibilities that mark their affair truly sensible, but in some rare cases, it is also used to emphasizes the elegance of the eroticism in play between our two main characters.
It Feels So Good offers a touching but titillating exploration of an addictive sexual desire that lies beyond any kind of love whatsoever. Arai’s sober cinematographical composition, a composition focused on staging subjectivity as such, does not only enables Kumi Takiuchi to mesmerize the spectator but also allows their chemistry to transform the narrative into more than just a concatenation of sexual acts. What Emoto and Takiuchi’s chemistry accomplishes is making the pulsating fatalism and the acceptance of the impending dissolution of their affair truly palpable. This lingering sense of impossibility and nothing else is what makes It Feels So Good a truly haunting experience.
Narra-note 1: Eventually, Naoko will acknowledge or confess that she also failed to keep him close, failed to listen to her bodily desire.
Narra-note 2: The fact that Naoko’s presence confronts him with what he has lost is corroborated when Kenji rather casually states that wherever he would be it would not change her married state.
Psycho-note 1: One could also say that they aim to escape the dissatisfaction that marks their current subjective position, but that what they aim to repress by indulging in sex returns relentlessly in their conversations. While sexual pleasure allows them to repress their discontent, the conversations do not fail to erupt the very discontent that marks their subject.
Their indulgence in sex is thus nothing more than a pleasurable way to avoid their non-erasable past as well as their impossible future. It is, in other words, an escape from their lack/the crater that marks subjectivity as such.
Psycho-note 2: It is implied in the narrative that the sexual pleasure of Naoko (and maybe that of Kenji as well) is function of the transgression of the incest-taboo. It might thus be more correct to state that the sexual pleasure of Naoko is both function of Kenji’s body as is it from the transgression as such.
Narra-note 3: It should be clear that the desire they had in the past is different that the rekindled sexual desire of the present. After all these years, their desire for each other became perverted by their growing unhappiness with their current life and has become structured by a longing for a sort of paradise that never had and will never have.
Narra-note 4: The narrative beautifully unearths that marriage is not always done out of love, but sometimes done to satisfy a motherly desire. Kitano, the husband-to-be, function, in other words, as a support-object – a sperm and a financial donor – that would enable Naoko to satisfy her motherly desire.