Apr 8, 2015

Muscle (1989)

While I am not even marginally interested in the ‘Pink film’ (aka Pinku eiga aka Pink eiga) aside from the occasional oddity like Aryan Kaganof's uniquely unhinged cross-cultural curiosity Shabondama Elegy (1999) aka Tokyo Elegy starring Dutchman Thom Hoffman as a western criminal with a unquenchable thirst for cleanly shaved yellow snatch, I certainly could not turn down seeing a film belonging to the Japanese exploitation ‘movement’ that pays tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini and features a highly complementary soundtrack by the English post-industrial group Coil, including their greatest song “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini).” Indeed, Kurutta Butokai (1989) aka Muscle aka Lunatic Theatre aka Kitami aka Mad Ballroom Gala aka Asti gesshoku eiga-kan aka Asti: Lunar Eclipse Theater directed by celebrated Pink film maestro and ‘V-cinema’ auteur Hisayasu Satô (Widow's Perverted Hell aka Look Into Me, Splatter: Naked Blood aka Nekeddo burâddo: Megyaku) is the fiercely fucked and quintessentially Japanese yet at the same time ultimately universal tale of a gay muscle mag photographer who goes to prison for a year after cutting off his sadistic male prostitute boy toy’s arm with a samurai sword, only to get out of the slammer and become all the more determined to be with his one-armed beau while simultaneously attempting to track down a copy of commie cockscuker Pasolini’s infamous cinematic swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Indubitably, had Yukio Mishima been born into a later generation, he would have directed a film like Satô’s poof Pinku piece, which features a near perfect marriage of sexually perverse poetry and sadomasochistic cinematic schlock, albeit with a sense of romanticism that is rather rare for such works. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that Muscle is the all the more aberrant, if not more artless and hardly nationalistic, cinematic son of Mishima’s sole celluloid effort Yûkoku aka Patriotism aka Rite of Love & Death. A fellow known as a sort of ‘Jap Cronenberg’ who once gave real-life cannibal turned Japanese celebrity Issei Sagawa a cameo role in one of his films, Satô is notable for being the first major Pinku auteur to deliver a queer themed work via Kamen no Yuwaku (1987) aka Temptation of the Mask, which is about a boy that is routinely raped by his sick sod stepfather and grows up to be a sexually confused arsonist who is chased by a gay detective. Muscle is Satô’s second piece of sadomasochistic sodomite celluloid and, despite its considerably unflattering and oftentimes downright depraved depiction of homosexuality, the film managed to win the grand prize at the Berlin Gay and Lesbian Festival in 1993, thus hinting that both the krauts and Japs inherited some of the same pesky vices after the Second World War. While a wayward work of the homo S&M sort, Satô’s film is also dripping with unhealthy obsession, which is certainly something many people, including myself, can relate to. Indeed, Muscle features a protagonist whose love for a young male prostitute drives him to homicidal lunacy, grisly self-mutilation, and a nasty P.P. Pasolini obsession. Despite my general apathy towards Pinku, when I learned about the plot to Satô’s nasty little piece of work I knew I would love it and after watching the film I can happily state that I wallowed up every second of it. A film made during a time when western fag filmmakers were only making films about AIDS and other sterilely banal topics, Muscle is thankfully a provocative stab in the gut that never succumbs to superficial sermonizing or senseless sentimentalism as a work marinated in ‘mad love’ that demonstrates that in every sadist there is lurking a secret masochist and vice versa. 

 Muscle opens with a super gay montage of a muscleman in a pink thong flexing and posing in a shadowy room juxtaposed with heavy male breathing as if someone is beating off or getting slowly butt-fucked. As fairly introverted protagonist Ryuzaki (Takeshi Itô)—a man who snaps photographs for a Tom of Finland-esque fag rag—narrates in a quasi-film noir-ish somber monotone fashion, “It began when he gave me the flyer for the contest. Back then, I was the editor of the magazine, “Muscle.” From there, the viewer is introduced to Ryuzaki’s prostitute-cum-performance-artist lover Yukihiro Kitami (Simon Kumai), who the protagonist seems to have fallen in love with at first sight, but as he somberly narrates, “Our beautiful days were brief. Kitami began to get sadistic.” Indeed, while the two started out their relationship ball-dancing with one another in the protagonist's cramped apartment and worshiping one another’s thong-covered dongs, Kitami eventually got rather sexually sadistic with Ryuzaki and began doing extra naughty things to him like biting his balls and slicing him up with a knife during sex. Ultimately, Ryuzaki eventually decided to hack off Kitami’s right-arm during an S&M photo shoot, with his reason being, “I couldn’t take it. Something inside crumbled and exploded at the same time.” As punishment for his somewhat strange crime, Ryuzaki was sentenced to one year in prison, but it seems that ultra-violence and hard prison time only reinforced his sadomasochistic love for cruel cunt Kitami. 

 Upon getting out of prison, Ryuzaki takes a leak in a public urinal and a random fag goes up to him and says, “Welcome back. Let me suck it,” but the protagonist is a rare monogamous queer who is only interested in finding and being with his beloved one-armed beau Kitami. Unfortunately for the protagonist, finding a mono-armed muscleman hustler is not as easy as the protagonist assumed it would be. During his first night as a free man, Ryuzaki suffers what most normal people would call a nightmare that involves Kitami biting his balls, covering his body with what looks like cream cheese with a knife (!), and savagely raping his bunghole. The next morning, Ryuzaki wakes up with a copy of Muscle Magazine on his face as if he fell asleep while masturbating and soon receives a call from his boss, who informs him that they will have to temporarily stop publishing because they lack funds. Clearly, Ryuzaki is disappointed as he is not only out of the job, but also because he is rather sentimental magazine, stating, “It was really good; an excuse to look at hard bodies.” To the annoyance of his boss, Ryuzaki demands to know about Kitami’s whereabouts, pleading, “I dreamed of the man,” but the only thing he can tell him is that, “I’ve heard there’s a one-armed man walking the streets.” Ryuzaki has such a kind and thoughtful boss that he went to the effort of watching all of his belongings while he was in jail, including Kitami’s dismembered arm, which the protagonist has on display in a phallic-like jar and which he seems to worship as a sort of religious icon. Of course, in Ryuzaki’s mind, the arm pales in comparison to the real living and breathing man that it once belonged to. 

 Aside from his obsession with finding his beloved bastard of a beau, Ryuzaki develops an unhealthy fetishistic fixation with Italian poet and auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini, who he seems to feel that he is tied to in a sort of spiritual fate as reflected in his remark regarding the filmmaker, “He was killed the same time I cut off the arm.” Indeed, both Ryuzaki and Pasolini faced much pain as a result of their masochistic love for young gay gigolos, but unlike the filmmaker, the Jap photographer fought back and now he is fighting for love. Since he is out of the job, Ryuzaki finds new employment as a ticket collector at a bizarre arthouse theater called ‘The Lunatic Cinema,’ where he only charges the viewer if they like the film that they see. Naturally, Ryuzaki begins looking at the seediest fag bars in town for his missing boy toy and in one of these places a quasi-tranny man-hooker greets him and states, “Welcome. This is the entranced to paradise. It can also be the exit from hell. We both love to slip in through the back entrance. Around the world, French, Greek, take your pick.” Ryuzaki reluctantly agrees to buy the sickening shemale’s time in the hope of plying him for info about Kitami, but the sexually confused streetwalker is more concerned with using his self-described “first class” sexual technique, so the conversation goes absolutely nowhere. Meanwhile, Ryuzaki writes to a Japanese friend living in Italy named Sugisaki to ask him if he can track down a copy of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom since they are not screening the film at any of the theaters in Japan. It almost seems like Ryuzaki believes that Salò reveal to him sort of hidden spiritual truth, but fate ultimately has different plans for him. 

 When Ryuzaki hangs out with his mustached buddy Tschida (You Suzuki), he is rather annoyed upon witnessing the exceedingly fucked relationship his friend has with his sadistic girlfriend ‘Yoko’ (Kiyomi Itô), who introduces herself to the protagonist by stating in a misleadingly soft fashion, “Yoko for flower. Ko for child. Flower-child. Hello!” and then proceeds to stare at him like a virginal schoolgirl with an innocent high school crush. Of course, Tschida is agitated by his girlfriend’s less than polite staring, so he slaps the shit out of Yoko, but she is not as passive and innocent as she looks as demonstrated by the fact that she immediately throws soda in her boyfriend’s face, knocks him on his ass, drives her heel into his cock and stomach, and then begins fucking him right in front of Ryuzaki, who seems rather unimpressed with the entire scenario. As it turns out, Yoko is turned on by Ryuzaki’s coldness and decides to show up at his work when they are screening Pasolini’s Porcile (1969) aka Pigsty. Whilst attempting to use stereotypical female deception by pretending to be a ‘damsel in distress’ even though she is anything but, Yoko pleads to Ryuzaki regarding her boyfriend, “Help me, please. Tschida will kill me,” but the protagonist knows her game and does not fall for her pathetic bullshit as expressed in his stoic response, “I don’t think so. Tschida’s the one who’s going to get killed […] By you.” Instead of denying that she might kill Tschida, Yoko then asks Ryuzaki, “Are you…..S…or M?” and he shows he can be quite the sadist by knocking her on her flat Jap ass after she starts biting him. When Ryuzaki begins handing out flyers the next day reading, “I’m looking for you. The one who lost your right arm” to people around the city, Yoko approaches him and attempts to seduce him by stating, “You’re cold as ice. But I like your cold eyes […] Your eyes were ice cold when I was fucking Tschida […] You got yourself caught in my web. The spider’s web. I won’t leave you alone.” Luckily for Ryuzaki, he’s 100% queer and will not have to go through the ordeal of becoming the lover of a psychotic bitch, but then again, his true love is no less deleterious. 

 While Ryuzaki manages to receive a VHS copy of Pasolini’s Salò from his comrade in Italy, he has to convert the tape since it is in PAL format, but when he goes to the conversion place, they refuse to do it since it is ‘uncensored’ (after all, Japs hate pubic hair and Guidos have tons of it). After leaving the conversion place, Ryuzaki is approached by Tschida, who attempts to talk him out of looking for his one-armed man Kitami by remarking, “I want to turn you into an upright citizen. You’re not a criminal. It was self-defense,” but the protagonist wants nothing to do with what he is talking about and retorts, “That doesn’t change the fact that I chopped off his arm.” Rather creepily, as Ruyazki and Tschida argue, Yoko stalks them. Later that day, Ryuzaki heads to a pier to hand out flyers where he runs into a leather-clad hustler that claims that he and his friends recently hung out with Kitami remarking in an almost fiendish fashion, “Everyone made fun of him because he was so creepy. We were actually afraid of him, because he was indescribably charming and had a divine body.”  As Ruyazki and the dubious hustler continue their conversation in a bathroom, the latter remarks, “You’ve got a big one” while the former takes a very long leak. When the hustler tells an extravagant story about how a man came to live with his family and seduced every single person in the house in a salacious scenario that caused his sister to turn into an insomniac, his mother to sexually degenerate into a nympho that chased “anything with a dick,” and caused his father to run out the door naked and never come back home, Ryuzaki becomes exceedingly enraged and spitefully states, “Stop talking shit. Don’t steal stories from movies.” Indeed, the hustler merely regurgitated the basic storyline from Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) and pathetically attempted to pass it off as a tragically intriguing anecdote from his own life. When the seemingly sociopathic hustler steals Ryuzaki’s VHS copy of Salò from his hands and smashes it on the ground, the protagonist naturally completely loses it and beats him to death with a metal rod. After all, what better way to avenge Pasolini’s legacy than to beat a young hustler to death?! 

 When Ryuzaki receives an envelope containing a fancy blood red invitation for a masquerade ball and a pair of black pantyhose, he knows that his cocksucking comrade Kitami wants to meet him for a fateful event that will decide the future of their unfinished unhinged sadomasochistic romance. Rather curiously, the masquerade is taking place at the some movie place where the protagonist works. Undoubtedly, Ryuzaki’s date with fate at the masquerade initially vaguely feels like something out of Arthur Schnitzler's novella Traumnovelle (1926) or Kubrick’s adaptation Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but what ultimately erupts is much more morbidly modern, not to mention quite flamingly and melodramatically, if not quite violently, gay. When Ryuzaki arrives at the theater, a ticket collector sporting pantyhose over his head tells him that him that the place has been rented out for a “private party” and that he must show his invitation and cover his head with pantyhose, which he immediately does. When Ryukazi walks inside the theater, a man with pantyhose walks him onto a stage with a spotlight where they dance to the soothing sounds of Coil. Eventually, various other men wearing different colored pantyhose get on the stage and start pushing the protagonist around in a rather rough fashion until the protagonist yells, “Kitami.” After that, the music stops, the lights come on, and everyone takes their pantyhose off their head, including Tschida and Yoko, who were clearly involved in a plot against Ryuzaki from the very beginning but immediately attempt to warn him about Kitami who, to delight of the protagonist, soon reveals himself. Rather absurdly, Ryuzaki attempts to give Kitami his dismembered arm back, but he knocks it out of the protagonist’s hand and then gives him a royal beating when he acts like a sentimental pussy and tries to pick it up. As Kitami states to Ryuzaki like a true deranged braggart, “I knew you came here. That’s why I chose it as the execution ground. I’m the matador. If you don’t attack me, your torture is going to have to wait.”  Of course, Ryuzaki has no problem enduring torture for love but he is wholly unwilling to fight back, as he feels that he has already hurt Kitami enough and does not want to open old wounds.

 Naturally, Ryuzaki fails to fight back and instead declares his undying love to Kitami, passionately stating in regard to his reason for cutting his arm off, “Back then, I couldn’t stand the pain. My nerves were shot. Something was wrong with me, even though I needed you. I loved you.” When Ryuzaki attempts to embrace his decidedly demented beau after making his impassioned declaration of love, Kitami kicks him to the ground and contemptuously states, “You only love yourself.” After describing in a histrionic fashion how he was bedridden for two months and suffered insomnia for another four months because, “My severed arm was trying to find me,” Kitami asks Ryuzaki if he “killed the queen on the pier” and then goes on to described how “no one will cry” and “no one will care” about the forsaken hustler’s brutal death. Ryuzaki defends himself by saying, “He lied to me. He told me about his family, like it was from some screenplay” and Kitami’s long-haired friend remarks, “it’s true! But it’s Kitami’s family story. He started working out to get over it. Everything is an illusion…like in the movies.” Ultimately, Ryuzaki desperately begs his lover to stay with him by stating, “Please stay with me. If you want to torture me, you can do it until I die” and, somewhat surprisingly, Kitami agrees, but under the stipulation that he demonstrate his devotion to him by allowing him to chop off his right arm so that they will be “50/50” in terms of the abuse and disfigurement that they have bestowed upon one another. Right before Kitami goes to hack off his arm, Ryuzaki yells “Wait! “I’ll do it my own way” and proceeds to blind himself with the sword. As blood drips down his face, Ryuzaki states while in a state of completely deranged ecstasy, “Now I’ll see your body the way it was when we me.” In the end, in a most morbidly romantic scene juxtaposed with the quite fitting Coil song “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” in a semi-surreal scenario that truly demonstrates that love conquers all, Ryuzaki and Kitami literally dance into the night like two old dapper queens. 

 Although I probably should not admit it, Muscle touched me in a way that no gay S&M exploitation film has ever done before, as it potently depicts in a simple, albeit highly effective and aberrantly allegorical, way the sort of perennially (self)destructive hold that a great love can have over a person. I know personally that I thought I had been in love various times before until a met a certain girl who completely changed how I looked at the world and who I tolerated things from that I had never tolerated from anyone else before. In that sense, as the protagonist of Satô’s film learns, love can have a refreshing humbling effect that helps put things in one life’s into perspective, even if it comes at the price of much metaphysical pain and suffering. By the end of Muscle, the protagonist rather chose death than be without his beloved and rather symbolically, he opts to brutally blind himself to save his romance. Indeed, it might be some patently perverted cheapo Pinku fag-fest, but Satô’s work ultimately exposes great truths and insights about love that the seemingly soulless and sociopathic dream-defilers in Hollywood would never dare touch. Another interesting aspect to the film is that it is innately anti-Hollywood in its almost mystical portrayal of arthouse cinema, namely the works of Pasolini. For instance, when the protagonist is asked by the female sadist Yoko if Pigsty is interesting, he replies “That depends on you,” thus alluding to the fact that Pasolini’s work is only for a select few who have the eyes and minds to appreciate it.  Of course, to fully appreciate Muscle, one must be more familiar with Pasolini thank Pinku films.  As the protagonist also states to Yoko regarding Pasolini's film, “If you don’t like what you saw, you don’t have to pay. That’s the principle of the Lunatic Cinema,” thereupon indicating that such idiosyncratic arthouse works are not made for mere monetary reasons and should not by forced on the uninitiated or art-adverse, as it would like be attempting to teach the blind how to read. After all, like with lovers, taste in cinema is a highly subjective matter and my experience is that people that like banal movies are typically banal people. Of course, my great love and I also have similar taste in cinema as we do in the bedroom and it does not involve tiny muscular Jap men in pink thongs.   Ultimately, Muscle is more successful than Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) in terms of depicting a gay romance in a universal way that can be understood by heterosexuals, which is no small accomplishment considering the film features sleazy hustlers, degenerate queens, queer bondage photographers, man-on-man ball-biting and countless other depraved sexually inverted ingredients that would surely cause kraut poof pig Rosa von Praunheim to giggle with glee like a Japanese schoolgirl.

-Ty E

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