Sex, love, confusion and more sex in Ando Hiroshi’s tale of obsession…
Ando Hiroshi, one of the latest Japanese directors to make the jump from softcore pink cinema to the mainstream, doesn’t stray too far from his former path with Undulant Fever, a drama focusing on sexual obsession and strained intimacy. Headlined by former swimwear model turned actress Ichikawa Yui (Tokyo Tribe) in the challenging lead role, the film was adapted from Nakazawa Kei’s award-winning first novel Umi wo Kanjiru Toki (I Sense the Sea), written when she was just eighteen years old.
Ichikawa Yui plays Emiko, a high school student in the newspaper club and with a bright future ahead of her, who meets and falls for the older Hiroshi (Ikematsu Sosuke, Love’s Whirlpool). Although he openly and repeatedly tells her that he’ll never fall in love with her and is only interested in sex, Emiko enters into an intense physical relationship with Hiroshi, her studies suffering as a result, much to the anger of her mother (Nakamura Kumi, Eye of the Spider). Things progress to the point when in 1978 she moves to Tokyo to continue their strange tryst, despite his continuing refusal to return her feelings. Gradually, Emiko begins to change, his brusqueness taking its toll, and as she does, Hiroshi finally shows signs of opening up.
Undulant Fever starts off as a character study of both Emiko and Hiroshi, using their relationship as a means of exploring the link between emotions and sex, and though it takes a while to get a handle on their unconventional characters, the film does have its interesting moments of insight. Patience is an absolute prerequisite, as it’s a slow moving and deliberately distant film, especially during these early stages, Ando Hiroshi keeping the viewer and his players very much at arm’s length and suggesting rather than dwelling upon motivations. With a plot that shifts between time periods without warning and which meanders rather than showing any kind of narrative drive, the film can be hard to follow in places, venturing into art house and abstract territory and making its long two-hour running time a bit of a push.
Thankfully, the film does come into focus as it progresses, with Emiko taking centre stage as she gradually matures as a woman and an adult, searching for and claiming her own emotional and sexual identity. Though this isn’t a new theme or anything terribly deep, there’s something engaging and refreshingly honest in Ando’s clinical approach, and the minimalist script is quietly effective and free from needless clutter or artificial drama. The film’ eventual destination is never in much doubt, though it’s no less satisfying for its predictability, with a powerful final shot that lingers after the credits have rolled, despite the rather inappropriate use of a pop music closing number.
Undulant Fever is a very graphic film, with a great deal of sex throughout, some of it rough and including scenes of bondage, and it’s very much an adult production, Ando drawing on his prior pink cinema experience. The sex scenes however are entirely in-keeping with the film’s plot and themes, coming across as naturalistic rather than being inserted for cheap titillation, and shot and paced in a manner which reflects the changing bond between Emiko and Hiroshi, and more importantly the transformation of her character. Ichikawa Yui is excellent in the lead role, putting in a brave and subtly multi-layered performance and managing to make Emiko sympathetic even if her actions and decisions don’t always make a great deal of sense. Whilst this doesn’t give the film any kind of emotional core, she does at least provide an anchor for its bleak ponderings, something which proves crucial in ensuring that the viewer isn’t left completely uninvolved.
Undulant Fever is undeniably a bit of a tough watch, being a cold mix of sex, obscure character drama and philosophising, and one without any eventual clear message. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished offering from Ando Hiroshi, and a film which should deservedly find its admirers amongst those open to this kind of fare.