I was recently approached by a friend for help finding a copy of a movie he needed to study. Well-connected and well-respected in Western scholarly circles though he is, he had been completely unable to track it down. It had a British subtitled release on videotape in 1994, but it was never sold in America.
Even in Japan, it’s hard to come by. You can get a live-action version on Amazon.jp, YesAsia and other sites, but the anime is hard to find legally on the secondary market.
The film was Yukio Abe’s The Sensualist, better known in Japan by the same name as the novel that inspired it – Koshoku Ichidai Otoko, or The Life of an Amorous Man. Having reviewed it, and devoted considerable space to its lush, ripe visuals in Anime UK magazine, I knew exactly what he was looking for, and I was delighted. The Sensualist is a film of spectacular beauty, and deserves to be more widely known.
Written in 1682 by businessman, poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku, the book was an unashamed piece of pulp fiction, created with an eye on mass-market sales to Japan’s cosmopolitan and sensation-hungry urbanites. Ihara’s reputation as a writer was never high among the literati of his day and later generations, who believed that true literature was far above mere entertainment: but he and the other popular novelists of the Tokugawa era created the conditions for Japan’s strong, diverse literary culture. His books are remarkably modern in tone and outlook, focussed on well-to-do sophisticates living the much-desired and envied life of wealthy city merchants.
No expense was spared on conveying the world of Ihara’s novel. The script was by Eiichi Yamamoto, Osamu Tezuka’s collaborator since the days of Astro Boy, who also worked on The Tragedy of Balladonna and the first Space Battleship Yamato TV series. Director Abe was a former art director, and the art department came up with fabulously inventive techniques like impressing leaves and fabrics onto the wet paint on the cells to create sumptuous, subtle visual effects. The characters were based on Edo-era art and animated with exquisite sensitivity under the supervision of Mikiharu Akabori. Keiji Ishikawa’s music is beautifully judged. The package is as lush and rich in its way as Satoshi Kon’s Millenium Actress: Redline, but for people who like their pleasures slow and consensual.
In 1991, when The Sensualist came out in Japan, Akira had just hit British VCRs after a successful festival and arthouse cinema run. Anime was the new rock’n’roll, according to Island World Communications, who spearheaded Britain’s newborn anime industry and launched their Manga Video label that year. A few intrepid British companies ventured to the international movie rights markets, or to Tokyo, to buy up video licences. For a brief, heady period as the new and largely uninformed market expanded, Japanese companies could sell virtually anything. Some of the titles that were unleashed on an eager and unsuspecting public should never have been given their liberty; some are true gems.
The Sensualist is one of the jewels. It was released in Britain by Western Connection, a small company that specialised in subtitling live foreign cinema (they released Serge Gainsbourg’s notorious Je T’Aime/Moi Non Plus in 1993) long before they experimented with anime. The company went on to release another 15 anime titles, many of which stayed on the shelves when it was eventually sold to Anime Projects, another small British label with links to the American subtitling powerhouse AnimEigo.
But here’s the thing: The Sensualist was released in 1994, before the Internet got huge, before DVD and downloads emerged. Despite the fact that it is one of the most visually stunning pieces of anime ever made, and that it’s all about sex, it simply fell off the radar as far as most people were concerned. It’s one of those titles that many fans of old-school anime know, but few fans of less than 15 years’ standing have actually seen. If you look online today for information in English on this gem of a movie, you will find a stub on Wikipedia and a few scraps on Anime News Network. Ben Ettinger gives is its due honour on his magnificent AniPages Daily, and of course The Anime Encyclopedia has a detailed entry. (Oddly enough, Anime Vice gives the synopsis but doesn’t list any of the credits, despite having licensed information from the AE.)
A couple of online sources even label The Sensualist an OAV, or Original Video Animation. They are probably misled by its 55-minute run time and its subject matter. Many anime with sex themes were made for release straight to video, but with double and triple bills common in Japanese theatres, an hour isn’t an unusual run-time for an anime movie. The Sensualist is a theatrical experience. Seeing it on a cinema screen with a full theatre sound system must have been overwhelming, like drowning slowly under fathomless waves of soft colour and gentle line.
Like Gisaburo Sugii’s The Tale of Genji, this movie tackles Japanese literature on its own terms and at its own pace. Rather than redesigning and reinterpreting Ihara’s world for a different era, Abe puts it into a visual language its original author would have understood and appreciated. Twenty years on from its original release, I hope to see it making its slow, stately and exquisitely elegant progress onto HD before too many more years elapse.