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Mourning Wife
“I want to experience new things.”

Readers of film reviews on this site and listeners to the film episodes of the blog radio show are likely familiar with my stance on physical media vs. streaming.  For those few out there who are newbies to the Third Eye Cinema zeitgeist, suffice it to say this, in simplest terms: if I paid for it, I expect to own it in perpetuity, unless I decide to sell or trade or give it away.  Simple, clear, and one would think perfectly logical and obvious.

But as we all know, it’s a changing world.  DVD and even Blu-Ray is becoming something of a scarcity on the market, particularly when it comes to the sort of films that drove its existence.  Now allow me to explain before moving on.

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Those who were around for the dawn of the medium and retroactive critical analyses agree pretty much across the board that the VHS boom and consequently related death of the drive-in, grindhouse, et al, were primarily driven by two things.

The first, which has no real relevance to the issue at hand, was the fact that the major studios of Hollywood began to buy up and monopolize all the independent and regional theaters and chains around the country.  There’s a whole lot more to this end of the story, which I’ll get to relating at some future date, but it has little bearing to the point at hand, so we’ll move on.

But the second part of the equation is more important, for it touches on where we’re going with all of this.  Because the nigh-universally acknowledged driver behind the VHS boom, at least at the dawn of the medium, was porn.

It may seem like another world to those who weren’t around to experience it or at least hear the stories firsthand, but people used to have to view their porn in the sticky, seedy, somewhat dangerous environment of the dedicated XXX theater.

Way on back, in the 50’s and 60’s, there was a day when those who wanted to view something a bit racy would have to join a “gentlemen’s club” of some dubious sort or other, and risk being busted by the police for viewing tacky little black socks one or two reelers, likely without sound, in some dingy basement or meeting hall or other.

As the laws became a bit more lenient in the wake of the youth movement and the hippie aesthetic (which brought both nudity and violence into “mainstream” theatergoers’ experience alongside headier themes and intellectualization than most earlier auteurs working within the Hollywood system were able or willing to offer), this eventually gave rise to the curious 1970’s boom in “porno chic”, where forward thinking and curious couples headed out to sleazy Times Square-style  theaters to see such (surprisingly, in retrospect) critically lauded pieces as Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, Devil in Miss Jones, and Debbie Does Dallas.  Suddenly sex was on everyone’s mind, and in everyone’s view, should they so choose.

But to do this, these couples (or lonely singles) were forced to venture into some of the more dicey ends of the local urban area, and put up with disgusting and often dangerous circumstances, with hookers on the make, perverts masturbating in public, junkies, bums, even couples having surreptitious sex in the darkened theater.  To say the whole enterprise was a bit questionable, and likely to put a strain on even the most adventurous and open minded of relationships, would be a decided understatement.

Enter VHS.  After winning an early format war with the acknowledgedly superior Betamax (mainly due to the fact that VHS were lighter, cheaper and capable of storing up to 6 hours on the lowest grade format of recording – Betas could only handle 3 1/2 hours tops), the VHS player became something of a ubiquitous presence in suburban households.  Why, you ask?  Well, there were a number of reasons, again, a story worth getting into at another time.  But for the purposes of the present discussion, it can be summed up in one simple statement:

Easy home access to porn.

No longer would the daring and the curious (and just plain horny) need to take life and wallet in hand just to enjoy some prurient thrills for the evening, in an ephemeral fashion – now they could just head down to the local mom & pop video shop, head into the back room, and come back with the box (or better yet, just give the call number, “X241”).  Relatively anonymous, quick, and easy – no messy complications and enjoyable in the presence and privacy of your own bedroom.

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Now DVD was a different story.  This time around, things were driven by an entirely different interest and market: the cult film.  Despite a huge output during its relatively short 15 year lifespan, VHS had barely begun to tap into the huge storehouse of cult and genre film from around the world.  While domestic product was reasonably well represented, there were few if any European, Asian, Filipino, or other world cinemas, particularly in terms of cult and genre film, present in the medium.

With a huge market of fans forced to relive youthful TV broadcast memories or even fleeting cinematic experiences of the likes of Paul Naschy, Mario Bava and K. Gordon Murray Mexican horror films solely through the medium of “grey market” private resellers or home recordings of televised late night or Saturday afternoon broadcasts, DVD came with an entire demographic of slavering fans demanding a proper and legitimate outlet for their favorites.

With a plethora of books and critical reviews on the market during the 80’s and early to mid 90’s introducing people to entire vistas as yet unexperienced, and with the prominent visibility of former video store jockey Quentin Tarantino, whose love of 70’s obscurities and championing of Italian, Japanese and Hong Kong cinema practically drove publishers to a feeding frenzy over whatever titles they could find, and “boutique” labels which catered specifically to this market appearing seemingly by the dozen, it is unquestionable that the reign of DVD was driven first and foremost by the new discovery, rediscovery, and proper mastering of cult cinema.  Honestly, porn wasn’t even a player this time around.

But with the collapse of the American economy driven by a meaningless and foolish ongoing war over oil and personal vendettas, and an unprecedented loosening of oversight and regulation of Wall Street and the big banking industry, any number of smaller labels fell by the wayside, forced to face the new and changing reality of a shrinking market, and a shrinking discretionary spend among what scraps remain of what was once called the American “middle class”.

Smelling blood, the majors, who hated the ease with which enterprising consumers were able to dub copies of the VHS medium (or for that matter, televised broadcast) from day one, now shifted focus towards a new milieu that both eliminated any and all middlemen, retailers, shippers, et al, and created an ongoing, presumably sustainable “pay per play” monthly service, with ongoing payments flowing into their coffers.

Without fears of consumer “piracy”, without having to give discounts to or lose any percentage of sales to retailers, and without the fear of private ownership of their products (thus creating a perpetual and immediate form of the “enforced obsolescence” model greedy businesses had been pushing for over literal decades in appliances, automobiles, televisions and technology, clothing and more), the push towards an all-streaming, direct from studio milieu began with due rapidity and sweeping force.

In the meantime, an interim compromise of lower grade, manufactured on direct demand per consumer DVD-R started to be pushed, primarily by Warner, but then as numerous other studios (Columbia, MGM, Sony) trailed in their wake, other, smaller scale labels and outlets began to follow suit (VCI, Alpha, and so on).

Still others, blocked by prudish retailers and payment services and stymied by the aforementioned smaller market demographics, decided to imitate the gaming industry, with its emphasis on DLC (downloadable content, the primary product pushed by Microsoft with its XBox Live, Sony’s PSN and even Nintendo’s e-Shop) and make the jump directly into streaming rental or purchase.

Firmly in the latter category sits Pink Eiga Inc., a small but important “boutique label” run by Nadav Rechov (nee Nadav S. ).  About a year ago, I had them on air on the podcast, where we discussed the history of pink eiga as a genre, their releases to date and the news in the air of their probable impending move towards a streaming format.

After sitting by with an eye towards how things played out for some months, it’s become apparent that at least for the time being, this is where the label will likely remain as a viable and ongoing concern (though there is still the potential of a return to DVD or Blu-Ray in the future…we shall see).

Given all this, and my ongoing support of the label and interest in Japanese film (pink or otherwise), I have taken the plunge and, while my own views on ownership vs. streaming remain unchanged, I present to you the first in an ongoing series of reviews of Pink Eiga VOD (video on demand) product, in the hopes that it may spur the interest of those sitting on the fence to go ahead and check out what are in sum some equally worthy titles to those they had previously delivered in the DVD format.  And who knows, some of these titles may eventually make their way to a more permanent format somewhere down the road…

And so we come to the star of our show, Daisuke Goto’s Mourning Wife.

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Tomiko (the quite fetching if obviously aging Mayuko Sasaki) is shown first in relation to her mother in law’s passing.  Returning home from funeral preparations, with grave marker in hand, we are introduced to her sick husband (Yukijiro Hotaru), who requests some oral favors.  Despite helping himself to a nice view of her unbridled favors while she works on him 69 style and complete with sexy black thigh highs, he can’t get off, and impotently asks her how his own mother’s funeral was…

Obsessed and surrounded by all this morbidity, when she inadvertently drops what appears to be the local cultural version of the ashes (which would seem to be pieces of the bones of the deceased), she becomes oddly excited, and uses one of the bones to pleasure herself.

A young man (Keisaku Kimura) comes in reference to a help wanted posting for a press operator position (which was apparently the husband’s job), and they take him on, leading to the first of her outside affairs.

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“yes, I’m a dirty bitch.  I’m the one who doesn’t care…I want this.  I fucking want this!”

We discover along the way that the husband is impotent in several respects – having given up his dreams of becoming a musician to care for his mother, he was in some unspecified accident that damaged his spine, leading to the physical impotence hinted at in his opening scenes.

Back in the press room of the house, Tomiko and the new worker (who the subtitles identify at the end of the film as “Gyuzo”, though most characters outside of Tomiko appear to remain nameless throughout most of the film’s running time) are working up a sweat and break for lunch.  “Can I have some of your leftovers?” he asks, and it’s a loaded question, because it’s not long before he is in fact taking his bedridden employer’s “leftovers” – his wife’s affections and unfulfilled physical passions.

Things start getting a bit crazy when the female doctor in charge of Tomiko’s husband’s case (the younger, if much plainer Shiori Kawamura) pays a call one evening, and it quickly devolves into a strangely athletic lesbian fling.  The new worker walks in on them and in the same reasonably rough fashion he displayed in their earlier encounter, takes over, driving the doctor away in shame or at least the disgrace of having failed to win over her prize in any ongoing sense.

A bout with ice as lubricant for some rear passage exploration leads to Tomiko’s blurted wish that the brutish young fellow kill her husband (who is in fact peeping in on them).

A morbid philosophical discussion between the husband and the doctor (who he gets to jerk him off, albeit unsuccessfully) and a pointed exchange between the husband and the worker about his apparent prison background ends with the husband (who is being carried upstairs piggyback style) pissing all over the man, before his attempt to choke the latter to death.  This results in both of them falling down the stairs and a final denouement which leaves the husband dead and Tomiko in the arms of Gyuzo.

Unfortunately, Gyuzo then falls down the stairs off camera, and the film ends on Tomiko’s screams, presumably leaving her in the exact same position she was in at the start of the film, all within a week of the opening scenes’ funeral…

As with such otherwise unrelated fare as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the oppressive summer heat and humidity of the Southeast Asian island nation comes across as a strong bit of atmosphere and as something of a metaphorical background to the overheated passions of the characters who reside therein.

With a running Greek chorus of cicaida chirruping and a visible layer of sweat clinging to all the parties involved, there’s a strong parallel to the sort of overheated Southern Gothic of films as far removed from each other as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll and Full Moon’s Netherworld – it’s almost as if the moisture of the environment is allegorical, reflective of the characters and their barely suppressed sensuality.  Things are so overheated in the film’s milieu, the implication goes, that even Tomiko and her charge having noisy sex in front of an open door goes all but unnoticed by passerby.

While I’ve certainly seen steamier fare originating from directors and stars all around the world, Goto and his impressive starlet deliver an utter suffusion of every frame of Mourning Wife with raw, sweaty sex – straight, bourgeoise if not peasant sex, to be sure, but palpable nonetheless.

While a bit grim in its base setting of funereality and impotence (there is even a recurrent pun on literal bones and “rolling the bones”, with hands rolling dice shown after each funeral), the proceedings are hot enough to keep things interesting, and while hardly a deep film in any real or profound sense, there’s a stronger focus on characterization than one often finds in this sort of fare.

Overall, Mourning Wife comes quite recommended for fans of the genre, or those who appreciate a sexy mature woman unafraid to bare both body and soul for the voyeuristic cinematic gaze.

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