THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING A HOUSEWIFE A.K.A. BETTER A PROSTITUTE THAN A SUBMISSIVE SHUFU
Or, at least, that’s the message that director Shion Sono seems to be sending to the audience in his previous to last film 恋の罪 Guilty of romance, recently at Japanese movie theaters and which was presented in Cannes last May. This time, too, we get the usual share of sex and violence, which his filmography overflows with, apart from some more notes of the bizarre, including Clockwork-Orange aesthetics, balloons of pink ink exploding against naked bodies performing sex, an insane, ceremonious and coarse おばあちゃん grandma, and school-girl mannequins hiding a dismembered human body.
But the really interesting thing about this movie is the depiction of an extreme master-slave relationship in the form of a marriage: former idol Megumi Kagurazaka turned Shion Sono’s iconic actress performs the housewife’s everyday perfect routine of preparing tea with pathological precision, placing the husband’s slippers at the entrance at the millimeter, waiting mutely and frozen next to him for his next order while he is reading, candidly soliciting from him permission to execute oral sex when he pleases so, and so on; everything with the fear of making one day a mistake and suffering a psychological punishment by the egocentric and authoritarian writer that Izumi has for a husband. All this might seem completely unreal but I couldn’t avoid thinking about a young co-worker of mine, who quit her job at 26 to become the 主婦 shufu homemaker of a man she hardly knew in Tokyo, and whose main duty became to prepare 3 different お弁当 box lunches for her strict husband’s day and to make sure that everything at home suited his short-tempered personal taste. That’s why I felt a strange feeling of déjà vu when seeing those scenes.
Going back to the movie, in a surprising but unavoidable turning point of the story, it comes what wouldn’t have an easy justification by any feminist theory but which seems to be a revealing lesson for housewife Izumi: the rediscovery of her own body as a sexual magnet for men, not as a symbol of masculine depravity and female degradation but, on the contrary, as one of psychological liberation from her oppressive marriage. It’s especially memorable her scene in front of the mirror practicing naked the offer of sausage free samples to imaginary clients for her part-time job at the supermarket: いらっしゃいませ。試食いかがですか？美味しいですよ！
The next step into prostitution for Izumi will come from the hand of a female university professor, Makoto, with a multiple-personality disorder due to a too predictable childhood trauma which seems a too literal reading from out-of-fashion Freud. She introduces Izumi to the flourishing world of デリヘル delivery health in the Shibuya district of the 1990’s and lectures her with a particular motto: “恋がなければセックスをしたらお金を取れ If you have sex without love, ask for money”.
The triple theme of the film -marriage, sex and infidelity- is rounded, as in a Natsuo Kirino’s novel, by a third character, Kazuko, a police-woman who brings suspense to the film in the form of a third-person limited narrator. Schizophrenically tough at work and affectionate at home, she keeps a secret third life herself, too.
The world of Japanese housewives is an endless source of ideas for this director but it also prompts social debates in Japanese society about the convenience of this institution, close to extinction due to the economic situation –fewer and fewer families can economically afford to have a no-money-making spouse-. Housewives portray the most traditional Japan –some would call it backward- and they can give rise to harmony and happiness in a family or to a repression magazine about to explode. Shion Sono shows us that second possibility.
Recently, I had dinner in Osaka with a young couple soon to be husband and wife. They told me about the 結納 yuino or engagement ceremony that had taken place the previous month at the bride’s home. Apart from a diamond engagement ring costing as much as 750.000 yen, the groom had to give her future wife 1 million yen as a symbol of the pass of the woman from one family to the other, as if a purchase would be taking place. Astonished as I was, they claimed the celebration to be a custom still popular in Japan, and carried out in at least one third of nowadays’ weddings. Her sister would later tell me how much she wished the couple happiness forever and ever, although she also contemplated the possibility that the bride would end up bored of a monotonous life indoors. At one point, alone with the groom for a few minutes, half-jokingly and with a considerable lack of tact from my part, I told him that after the diamond, the 結納金 betrothal money and the apartment he had just started paying, getting divorced would be out of the question. Trying not to show his evident discomfort, he answered dryly: “僕は離婚しない I won’t get divorced”. Good for him. I just hope his young and lovely wife doesn’t become one of Shion Sono’s characters.