An impotent Japanese man who hasn’t slept with his wife in more than five years receives a house call from her secret lover, who tortures — and arouses — the husband with pungent descriptions of his partner’s vaginal secretions, which he lustfully compares to the stink and stringiness of fermented soybeans. A beautiful woman stricken with panic attacks runs over a familiar pedestrian on her way to buy some mapo tofu, only to discover that her masochistic victim might know how to alleviate her anxiety. A handsome executive who’s sick of his mistress receives a phone call that she’s been abducted, and is forced to listen to her captor ramble on about the missing woman’s carnal appetites as he slurps noodles in a ramen bar where talking is strictly forbidden.
Hardcore food porn for (or at least about) sexually repressed people, Kôta Yoshida’s 70-minute “Sexual Drive” serves up an explicit yet tasteful triptych of semi-connected shorts, all of which leverage the visceral pleasures of food in a way that allows frustrated husbands and wives to eat away at their self-denial and satisfy the less socially acceptable cravings that can make someone mad with hunger.
Anyone expecting a three-course meal as rich and nuanced as Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” (or even a single dish as sumptuous as Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”) might find themselves disappointed by a quick and dirty film that only aspires to offer the satisfaction of a light dessert, but Yoshida’s giddy fetishism makes for its own simple fun. For all of his movie’s empty calories, there’s still an aftertaste of truth to the idea that holds its predictably heteronormative trio of stories together: If people fed their other natural appetites with the same degree of unashamed self-pleasure that they lick the rim of a natto container or suck down some wet ramen in a crowded noodle bar, it might just be the entree to a more nourishing life.
The first story, “Natto,” sets the tone for the sexually frustrated — always fully clothed — hijinx to come. A sordid tale shot in lo-fi digital with a clear but unfussy eye for staging, it begins with the sheepish designer Enatsu (Ryo Ikeda) inviting a strange man over to his house the moment that his gorgeous wife Megumi (Manami Hashimoto) heads off to her nursing shift. The guest’s name is Kurita, a Japanese play on the word “clitoris,” and he introduces himself with a hilarious line delivery that has no risk of getting lost in translation: “I’m definitely having an affair with your wife.”
What the disbelieving Enatsu doesn’t know, and what the rest of us will soon come to find out, is that Kurita is something of a devilishly horny angel in disguise. Played to impish perfection by the toad-like Tateto Serizawa, the walking sex pun appears in each of Yoshida’s stories when he’s needed most, and sets their characters free by forcibly negging them out of their inhibitions.
At first it seems as if Kurita is just a run-of-the-mill sadist, but the more vividly he describes the “horrible but good” stink of Megumi’s genitals, the less cruel his speech becomes; Kurita might be cucking Enatsu to the brink of death, but he’s also trying to remind the guy of his acquired taste for natto. A longer, better film might have bothered to unpack the source of Enatsu’s hang-ups, but the Smell-O-Vision strong final shot of his segment makes it clear that he’s found a new appreciation for his wife’s cooking. Don’t be fooled by the complete lack of nudity or sexual contact: That sinewy glimpse of fermented soybeans is one of the most graphic things I’ve ever seen in a movie.
As in Hamaguchi’s triptych, the second chapter of Yoshida’s film is the most psychosexually complex. It doesn’t strike us as strange that the frazzled Akane (Honami Sato) doesn’t recognize Kurita after she plows her car into him — that’s not going to help her driving-induced panic attacks! — but we soon learn that she has good reason to remember the injured man who climbs into her backseat.
If the specifics deserve to remain unspoiled, that’s because of how deliciously they untangle this movie from any sort of too-digestible moral code. As Kurita badgers Akane about the masochistic joys of lava-hot mapo tofu, the idea of inflicting that sweet agony reminds her of the pleasure she takes in hurting other people. Starving that part of herself for so long has made Akane lose control of her body, but sweating over a certain Szechuan dish might allow her to restore an appetite that stretches well beyond her tongue, and possibly into her bedroom. Is that a good thing? Maybe not. But it beats a deadly case of self-denial.
It’s a shame that “Sexual Drive” flubs its final act with a hearty serving of “mediocre food, and such small portions.” The nagging sense that Yoshida’s film would have been much stronger with twice as many stories is gradually salted with the sense that it has one too many. Abstruse where “Natto” and “Mapo Tofu” were aggressively straightforward, “Ramen with Extra Back Fat” cross-cuts a young woman’s meal at a hole-in-the-wall noodle bar with her married lover’s efforts to retrace her footsteps; Kurita taunts him through his earbuds, using the taste of ramen to make the man hunger for the mistress he tired of, and maybe even feel the flavor of her own desire. The ramen bar’s anti-talking policy — combined with its symphony of slurping customers — underlines this triptych’s consistent emphasis on the discretions of good taste. “Sexual Drive” is better and more true to itself when it doesn’t have any.
Film Movement will release “Sexual Drive” via virtual cinema and on VOD April 22.