FILM REVIEW: Donzumari Benki (Japan, 2012)
Donzumari Benki opens in a high school storage room reminiscent of If… a secret place where a personal rebellion unfolds. Narumi-chan’s with a boy. She pulls her panties up as he begins the patter of how good it was for him. She’s nonplussed. As a cicada begins its electric buzz she asks for 300 yen. Not much to charge for sex, but for Narumi, we will learn, this small fee exacted from the boys in her life represents taking some control. As he starts to fuck her again in voiceover, we hear her dispassionate voice:
“I shaved my legs first when I was in the 5th grade and in 7th grade my armpits. My menstruation stated in the 8th grade and I had my first sex in the 11th grade. I was a woman.”
We then see her with her teacher, Shimada (Shohei Uno) in a lab examining sperm samples, talking about mechanics and miracles – the chance of a sperm reaching an egg, the chance of love. She blithely adds her noncommittal rejoinders while stealing a vial of Shimada’s sperm. She later attempts to self-impregnate herself with said sperm.
Sex itself is a means to something she can’t find – and in her own personal tragedy, will never find. She’s too self-centered, infantile and mixed up. But like a train that can’t stop, she powers on to her own wreck, taking whomever she can with her. Director Haruhi Oguri takes the whole sticky mess and twists it around into a perverse tale worthy of Bunuel, but with a decidedly post-feminist take that slyly lauds Narumi’s destructive energy.
Actress Nahana informs the role of Narumi with a feral intensity. As an up and coming character actor, she risks being typecast as your basic grrl punk. She got a mix of boyishness, electric energy and nihilism that was showcased magnificently in Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story. In that film, Zeze tamed her character with motherhood. In Donzumari benki, she’s allowed to go to full force into the abyss.
The odd high schooler becomes a disturbed young woman. We see Narumi in an office, arguing with a fellow officer worker. She chases the woman down a hall and stabs her. Next we see Narumi getting out of prison. She goes to the family home, now inhabited by her younger brother, Kei (Kuniaki Kanamura) and his girlfriend, Kana (Keiko Sugawara). Petulant, incommunicative, angry and domineering, she’s ever combative with Kei and shows open contempt for Kana. She keeps a strange hold on her brother that ends up creating the friction that grinds all the characters into frazzled emotional messes. Flashbacks eventually reveal that childhood sex play – right after their parents have died – have left a stain of incest on their adult relationship. Narumi also hooks up with her old professor, now fired from his old job, dissipated, but good for a drunken lay. And a good shattering of any illusions of any sort of relationship with him. Also revealed in flashback is Narumi’s miscarriage a baby – his baby – in a high school toilet stall. The burdens of all these fraught relationships end up in Narumi having a breakdown.
Her only real friend in all this is Aoki-san (Shun Sugata), a coffee shop owner, who takes her away to a small sanatorium in the country. Here, Narumi feels even more a fish out of water amongst a handful of folks who, unlike her, are at very least accepting their conditions and trying to work through them. In the penultimate scene, Narumi escapes and runs back to the city for a final confrontation with her brother, which ends in little brother finally saying “No more” to his sister. Despairing, she runs back to the sanatorium. The final scene finds her at the sanatorium, exhausted. She’s wearing a jacket with embroidered with praying hands and a crucifix. She touches her stomach, Goes to the bathroom. From inside we see her straining and then a difficult plop sound. She looks up to see a young boy, one of the residents, staring at her. She looks back at him, takes her pants down and lifts up her shirt. Cut to the boy as he puts his hands in prayer. Cut to her as she begins to grin. Like Catherine Deneuve in Viridiana, she finally figures out where her power lies and how to use it.
Oguri’s not subtle in anything. She takes some outrageous plot devices and runs with them. She revels in recurring images of cum, blood, toilets, dark rooms and cavernous spaces. She takes an otherwise overblown and baroque story of twisted family ties, pulling it into a stunning whole. With the help of a fine group of actors and her very assured vision, Donzumari Benki is a thrilling feature debut – she’s made several equally interesting shorts – by a wild new talent.
(Editor’s note: As of December 2012, this film has received the English name Toilets and Women)
Originally published on VCinema Podcast and Web Blog, Dec. 12, 2012