Taking its title from author Ryu Murakami’s 1988 short story collection entitled ‘Topaz’, which focuses on the observations of young prostitutes working in the S&M trade, Topaz – of which Murakami also directs – explores a cruel and jaded society, in which a young woman named Ai (Miho Nikaido) hopes to one day escape from her job at a popular S&M establishment and become a social worker. One day she visits a fortune teller, who advises her to purchase a pink diamond and turn it into a ring, so that she may enjoy a happy future. Persuaded by this, Ai is recommended a topaz gem by a jeweller and upon placing the new ring on her finger she indeed wishes for that good life. But good things never seem to come for Ai; she’s still sad over her break-up with her boyfriend, who has since gone on to become a television celeb, while she drifts daily from customer to customer, never quite sure what her next job offer will entail. Along the way she meets people, who, in their own way, teach her about the world around her. But Ai needs to follow her own path in life, no matter where it might lead her. As long as she has that little piece of topaz on her finger, perhaps everything will be alright in the end.
Topaz, a.k.a. Tokyo Decadence in the west, might appear to have the allure of a soft-core porn movie, but underneath it’s one of the most poignant and intricate films made on the subject of emotional detachment. Ryu Murakami’s film is a slow-burning deconstruction of one individual working in a thriving sex industry during a time of economic distress. There’s never a sense that Murakami feels the desire to truly exploit his characters for the sake of obvious means, not meant to titillate in a manner of which its posters might suggest. It is all very cynical, of course; you couldn’t accuse Ryu Murakami of being anything less than such, although he’s certainly not devoid of wry humour, as he demonstrates a couple of times throughout his scathing commentary.
Ai: “You must be very wealthy?”
Saki: “Not necessarily. It’s this country that’s wealthy, but it’s not proud of its riches. It drives its men into masochism out of anxiety. As a result, I earn my money exploiting their anxieties…and I’m proud of that.”
Primarily, Topaz focuses on the central disillusionment of a woman lost within a system filled with its own sense of perfect ideals, be that related to the entertainment and education industries or otherwise, which can chew up and spit out its inhabitants as easily as one clicks their own finger. The sad thing is that in the case of Ai she is looked upon almost as being some sort of dredge on society, and yet she has more to offer the world despite insisting that she has no other talent to get by in life, relying on the only thing that she knows will safeguard her an income. But she is a well-spirited human being, studying sign language and teaching young children as a part-time social worker. Although we don’t really get to see this side of her much – only in passing conversation and brief interludes of her studies – these are the times when she’s truly happy and alive. If there’s a moral encompass to all of this, aside from simply telling that we should hang onto hope, it’s in reaching out to help others move forward and live out their lives to the best of their abilities, which in turn will make your own all the better.
The film is an intelligent piece of work, which naturally bares the sting of a frustrated mind. Ryu Murakami often writes about characters who seek to find some kind of catharsis from their routine lives, while also addressing unhealthy social obsessions and the lack of individuality amongst the masses. In the past he’s pessimistically explored youth culture, entailing drug abuse (ecstasy manifesting itself again here) and stories of teen prostitution (later tackled in Love & Pop by director Hideaki Anno). Topaz would appear to be an amalgam of several previous forays: the vicious and sad cycle of self abuse; sexual perversion and media consumption – all of which the director depicts with almost utter contempt, making his point all the more known by drawing out scenes to considerable length, in turn seeing Topaz’s sexual content become a numbing entity. There is no glorification here. S&M and self abuse is used in a repetitive fashion, in order to illustrate humiliation, loneliness, depression and a sense of loss in a rapidly growing culture filled with plenty of moral ambiguities. Each point serves to underline the reasons as to why the central character of Ai wishes to escape her mundane life, as we watch worrying depictions of topics which have long been overshadowed by their very tabboo nature in Japan. At the same time, Murakami reaches out and shows us that those who choose to follow a more unsavoury path do so by way of trying to sooth their own pain – a sorry state of affairs which allows for some truly effective moments. In terms of lensing the picture itself, Murakami couldn’t be any more nonchalent if he tried, as his camera unceramoniously lingers on people carrying out their daily duties. Nonetheless it’s strangely mesmerising to watch Ai wander throughout her little world, with a narrative that doesn’t strictly hinge itself on dialogue to tell her tale. Not only is this because of Murakami’s self awareness in not adhering to conventional rule, whereby the camera serves as an ever-voyeuristic eye for the audience in order to help us understand Ai, but also largely thanks to Miho Nikaido’s stunning portrayal of the film’s centrepiece. Moreover, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s understated piano score does well to match the emotional tone.
And Nikaido might just be the key for most to enjoy Topaz’s lengthy run time. She imbues Ai with a charming sense of hope and innocence, despite her obviously demanding and very adult job. Importantly we feel for her plight and Nikaido lulls us with seemingly little effort on her part. The search for an ex-lover; the attempts at salvation through a little topaz ring she holds so dearly; and the humility of doing the dirty deeds that wealthy gangsters, talkative dullards and drug-addicted crazies pay her for are all beautifully handled by the actress, who ends up eliciting a perfect melancholic sadness and leaves one to wonder if Topaz could ever hope to be as good without her.