Released as a piece of exotic arty porn, Tokyo Decadence became quite a hit at festivals and art houses around the world. There's something about artistically justified porn which always seems to draw in the punters. The threshold of shame is lowered considerably once a film containing explicitly sexual scenes is qualified as art.
In the case of Tokyo Decadence, the English title was half the publicity. For those wishing to see scenes of decadence in Tokyo, the film certainly delivers. However, the intention of the film is entirely different. It might show explicit sexuality, but this is far from a portrait of the decadence of the Japanese. Rather, it's a portrait of loneliness and the more metaphoric original Japanese title is in fact a much more appropriate one.
Young Ai ("love" - a bitterly ironic choice of name) makes a living as a call girl specialising in SM. A thoroughly lonely soul, she fulfills the wishes of her clients and lets herself be degraded and hurt, undergoing everything with a look of sadness on her face and a distant thought on her mind. She yearns for happiness as she wanders through cold, impersonal city streets. Her desperation is such that when a fortune teller says that she will find happiness if she places a telephone directory under her television and buys a ring of natural stone, she complies. The topaze ring she buys at great expense becomes symbolic for her fruitless search for happiness.
Director Murakami stays admirably true to his own intentions. The loneliness of his lead character is mirrored in many elements of the production. Lit in a harsh manner that gives everything an unearthly paleness, the world Ai inhabits comes across as empty, cold and depressing. Aside from the people she interacts with, few others are seen, and those she meets are almost without exception out to satisfy their own selfish desires.
As a result, Tokyo Decadence can hardly be called erotic. Exotic maybe (or at least, the wishes of Ai's clients certainly are), but above all, this film presents us with a world that's cold and devoid of humanity, compassion and feeling. It's a selectively dramatic portrait perhaps (it simply refuses to let any kind of light shine into its darkness) and as such it's certainly no Taxi Driver, but thanks to Murakami's devotion to his own intentions, Tokyo Decadence surfaces as an effective study of one human being's loneliness.