New Love in Tokyo never got a U.S. theatrical release, which is a surprise given its diverting mix of fetishism and girl power. Banmei Takahashi’s film presents the lives of a dominatrix and a call girl who become fast friends after trading gripes about the hassles of their jobs. The movie was inspired by a book of photographs of real-life prostitutes in Tokyo, and the accompanying interviews; the script is full of tellingly mundane details and colorful anecdotes presumably drawn from the experiences of real-life sex workers.
What’s refreshing is how director Takahashi has zero interest in showing his two leads as any kind of cautionary tale. On the contrary, the film is strenuously upbeat and anything but judgmental about the two women. Rei (Sawa Suzuki) is a professional dominatrix who’s also an aspiring actress; after each rehearsal she has sex with a different nerdy guy in her acting troupe. When it transpires that nearly all of them have VD, the script treats it as low comedy, the subject of a lot of eye-rolling and sheepish expressions.
Meanwhile Rei’s new best friend, call girl Ayumi (Reiko Kataoka), has to contend with a client who’s a psycho — in his hotel room, the guy starts flashing a dagger that looks like it’s on loan from a Hindu death cult. As it turns out, he just wants to shave Ayumi’s pubic hair with it (the perv!), but he never gets the chance. The upscale outfit that Ayumi works for looks out for its girls, and it’s both entertaining and a relief to see how she gets out of a potentially perilous situation with the help of a few code words.
A less obvious but much creepier affront to the girls comes when Rei encounters a new submissive, a smirking, aging hipster who’s signed up for a bit of S&M as a lark. The dude’s smug condescension is repulsive, and he’s so rude to Rei (note to self: always show proper respect to Japanese women in bondage gear) that it’s grimly satisfying to watch her reduce him to a pleading supplicant. The punishment Rei doles out inspires a memorable flourish from director Takahashi: Rei turns the temperature in the room down to freezing — the better to torment her customer, who’s stripped, bound and gagged on the cold metal floor — and Takahashi switches the look of the film to harsh, overexposed black and white, capturing the sensory deprivation the customer is experiencing. Needless to say, he’ll show Rei the proper respect from here on out.
One customer who does accord Rei the proper deference is a heavily tattooed Yakuza member, clearly not a guy to mess with, but who practically mewls and grovels on the floor at the sight of Rei. The scene of him crawling around on all fours makes overt what had been implicit in the film until now, namely how all of Rei and Ayumi’s clients are like children before them. Thus when the girls go out for a nightlong pub crawl/female bonding session, it’s no wonder that they’re thoroughly unimpressed with the various players who try to hit on them.
New Love in Tokyo is memorably odd. In its own way, it could be considered more taboo-breaking than many supposedly more transgressive movies simply because it avoids heavy breathing, or moralizing, or using Rei and Ayumi in the service of heavy-handed allegory. At no point in the movie does it seem like Takahashi is using the girls’ lives as a commentary on “the new, soulless Japan” or anything like that.
The material could be seedy as hell, but not in Takahashi’s hands, not with nudity this cheerful, and not with two lead actresses as effervescent as Suzuki and Kataoka. There are no wages of sin here: nothing goes seriously wrong for Rei and Ayumi, they both have supportive circles of co-workers and friends, and Takahashi is always ready to grant them another outbreak of giddy girlishness and another blissed-out pop song.