Watching Japan’s “Roman Porno” exploitation films from the 1970’s and 1980’s is an often revelatory experience for the uninitiated. These films are stylish and skillfully produced yet often pack the kind of wallop that grindhouse fans associate with the cheapest, grittiest cine-shockers. A key part of this comes from economic concerns. Nikkatsu Studios started making these film in the 1970’s to compete with the way television was cutting into their profits. When porn became prevalent in the 1980’s, Nikkatsu had to up the ante further.
Debauchery is an archetypal example of what Nikkatsu was up to during that more intense early 1980’s era. The plot is essentially like Belle Du Jour as if it were rewritten by the Marquis De Sade: Ami (Ryoko Watanabe) is a prim and proper housewife married to a loving but less than passionate doctor. She is startled but intrigued when one of her husband’s lusty friends tells her about the Madam Michiko Club, a place where a wife can lead a double life as a prostitute.
Ami gives it a try and finds that the clients for this service are as brutal as they are kinky. She is both physically and psychologically stunned… but she also feels the kind of fulfillment and thrills that she isn’t getting at home. Unfortunately, her illicit thrills come with a serious price when she gets a client who calls her bluff. This client takes the edgeplay of her secret career further and further into dangerous territory, culminating in a wild finale with a twist that will leave your jaw on the floor.
The end result is intensely sleazy and aesthetically attractive all at once. Debauchery pulls off this duality because of the high caliber of the filmmaking. In typical Roman Porno style, the running time is kept short but the film is packed with epic levels of sex and kink. Japanese sexploitation fare often has a fascination with S&M and that’s definitely the case here: whippings, suspension from ceilings, rope bondage, etc. all get explored here. At the same time, Japanese social mores dictated that no pubic hair could be shown in a feature film so the filmmakers choose a variety of interesting angles to avoid showing such material and even use optical blurs to comply with this mandate. This combination of factors results in a film that is perverse and restrained all at once and this unique blend of factors adds to its head-spinning quality.
It helps that Debauchery is directed with impressive style by Hidehiro Ito. The film has a certain glossiness to its visual style and production values and Ito uses these qualities to offset the boatload of over-the-top smut its slender narrative delivers. He never treats the film like a sexploitation quickie: instead, he pours on the stylistic flourishes with wild abandon. A great example is the sex scene between Ami and first client, a thuggish brute who is built like a wrestler. Set in bordello room colored in various shades of red and black, it begins with a whipping before moving into bondage scenarios and rough sex involving a toy in a distinctly sensitive place. Ito deploys slow motion and manipulation of sound to stylize the extreme nature of this setpiece. The end result is a sex scene that is as intense and exhausting to watch as a good fight scene.
That said, the film’s secret weapon is Watanabe’s acting. Instead of just going through the expected sex-and-nudity motions, she gives a real performance here. Through body language and facial expression, she creates a character who shows the audience that she is both horrified and helplessly obsessed with the twisted eroticism she has fallen into. Ito pays close attention to her facial reactions and they are as important to selling the film’s kinky narrative as any of the sex or stylistic affectations.
Thus, Debauchery often feels like an iron hand in a velvet glove slapping you across the face. Its blend of technique and sleaze is a killer representation of what the 1980’s-era Roman Porno style is all about – and if you’re an exploitation fan who isn’t familiar with this style, its aesthetically ambitious approach to boundary-pushing will take you by force.