Format: Cinema

Date: 13 November 2009

Venues: ICA (London)

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Masayuki Miyano

Writer: Tetsuya Nakashima

Based on the novel by: Hideo Okuda

Cast: Tomoko Murakami, Hiroki Narimiya, Saori Hara

Japan 2008

93 mins

Sex comedies: usually neither, right? In theory. Masayuki Miyano’s Lalapipo, a series of interconnected stories following the sex lives of ‘a lot of people’ in Tokyo, adapted from a novel known for its sleazy grittiness, could be grim viewing. It could be too graphic, or disappear up its own over-earnest well-lubed backside (see Shortbus), but the script by Tetsuya Nakashima, the director of Kamikaze Girls (2004) and Memories of Matsuko (2006) saves it with a sheen of knowing, farcical silliness.

It takes a while to build. The film’s first story, centring on freelance writer Hiroshi Sugiyama, makes for uncomfortable viewing. He’s a podgy, sad-sack chronic masturbator in his early 30s, with a talking puppet for a penis. The puppet looks like it’s made of a mildewed towel. It’s mushroom green, looks like a cactus with mange. Besides the puppet, there’s a soundtrack of the kind of smooth disco/treacly r’n’b that’s been filtered through a few muzak factories and third-tier pop producers. They both appear when something horrible is about to happen: rape, manipulation, someone getting beaten up. It’s like a big sign: Hey, this is funny! No, really!

All of the stories are pretty sordid otherwise, so the silliness is necessary. Most of the sex is implied in cutaway shots, like punch lines to jokes, or in OTT fantasy sequences — one guy imagines himself as a robot superhero in a dream sequence drenched in a bright, sparkly, candy-coloured lip gloss overload of neon, daylight, showroom furniture and cute clothes. Even the most squalid porn-filled bedrooms of the film’s loneliest men are kind of cosy. Everyone has shiny hair except for an ageing female porn star, and when she is cast in a mother-daughter-themed lesbian film (with her own actual daughter as co-star — Lalapipo is full of such not-so-surprising surprises) her hair bounces away and she looks a decade younger — and she also gains the confidence to torch her rubbish-filled house. When her daughter is recruited into porn, she wears a sad little pair of scuffed shoes — later, she looks like a pop video babe. Porn saves!

Lalapipo‘s treatment of porn, not just as wacky fun, but as some kind of transformative thing to celebrate, even tongue in cheek, feels like some throwback to a decade ago — actually you could probably take a screengrab from each of the vignettes in this film, make up some internet quiz called ‘film still or late 90s editorial from The Face‘ and confuse just about everybody.

But beneath all this porny, garish in-your-faceness is something a bit more subtle - weird character cards that crop up at the beginning of each vignette subtly undercut whatever macho assumptions the first half of the film brings. All of the women, however mocked or degraded they may be, are making more money than the men who pimp them out or wank to their films. Everyone, male and female, comes off as a little sad, a little vulnerable, and ultimately a bit more humanised — except for the poor karaoke bar manager who sees gangs turn his bar into a brothel, where he ends up anally raped by an errant john. (It’s another 90s twist to see this as humour, recalling the ‘bring out the gimp’ scene in Pulp Fiction.)

There’s no need. And there’s no need for the scene where our freelance writer masturbator friend, early on, is trying to wank while listening through the wall to a neighbour who is about to be raped, or for the scene later on when, after he finally gets some action with Sayuri, a lovely fat girl in Lolita-dolly-style dress, he beats her up and almost leaves her for dead. Why? Because she’s unattractive and thinks she’s worthy of him? It’s pretty gross, and you don’t blame the penis puppet from wanting to escape this charmer. Sayuri’s story, later in the film, makes the first segment less shocking — turns out she’s making specialist porn herself and has seen it all before, and she comes off as wise and compassionate. Most of the time, the humour works, and Lalapipo is ridiculous, offensive, and compelling.

Emily Bick