An Intermingling of Sex, Desire and Food

By Łukasz Mańkowski

There are two kinds of people. Those who love nattō and those who dearly hate it. The former cherish the aroma of fermented fragrance of soybeans on every occasion; the latter, well, they simply avoid the smell of it, as it reminds them of a stench of worn-out socks.

Nattō believers would savour every single drop of its stickiness, while the others would find the taste as surprisingly weird. The same can be said of Kōta Yoshida’s Sexual Drive, an almost orgiastic three-tale take on the intermingling of sex, desire and food. Just like nattō, the film delivers with the ambiguity of sensations. The only porn one gets to see, is the food porn, being limited to a voyeuristic pleasure of gazing on the erotic, but stripped down from carnal representation. And yes – nattō can be sexy.

Lynchian stalker

Yoshida’s fascinating debut takes on the metaphor that you can actually reflect on carnal desires through linking them with the idea of a single dish, its texture and smell, colour and shape. It is revealed in three chapters respectively, through the image of nattōmapo tofu and, of course, ramen. Each of the triptych’s segments is connected through a Kurita-san (impeccable Tateto Serizawa), who intrudes into three different couple’s lives with a box of Chinese chestnuts (kuri). He seems to be a bit Lynchian stalker, as creepy as Robert Blake was in Lost Highway, uncomfortably polite, yet obtrusively direct. He horns in, right into one’s erotic wants, and takes the horniness of each of the protagonist with a well-executed mastermind plan. Kurita-san, or Mr Clittoris, as Yoshida puns his name to his needs, is also a pick-lock for social comment, a component making the sexually-driven a socially-driven. His facade of being a perfect citizen, very proper on the outside, but an oddball on the inside. With no job, no family and no home, he’s in the perfect position to observe the soft spots of the Japanese upper-middle-class. Although the chestnuts (another pun) are never to be consumed in this tale.

Sexual Drive still

In the first segment, it is designer Enatsu that gets ambushed by Kurita-san’s provocative actions. Claiming to have an affair with his wife, Kurita-san, although being post-stroke himself, unfolds the fetishes of his supposed relationship. As he gets into more spicy details, he finds the leftovers of a nattō box. It starts an eerie spectacle, a foodie simulation of cunnilingus. A fermented soybean becomes a symbol of fertility for his sexual endeavours, an equivalent of a spilt egg-yolk-kiss from Tampopo that stimulates one’s imagination. Enatsu, we learn, have problems with sex; he has been celibate for the past 5 years. Hearing Kurita-san’s tales of umaminess of sexual consumption, might lead towards a change, because all one needs is perhaps a pinch of the art of umami. After all, aji no moto (monosodium glutamate) literally stands for the essence of taste. 

Genuine taste, genuine thrill

Bringing the metaphor of mapo tofu, Yoshida reflects on masochism – why do we even eat something that burns the hell out of us? Through a furious redness and an eye-smarting smell, he connects the frenetic visuality of a dish with calamitous desires, one that grounds the story within the ero-guro aesthetics. “Do the genuine mapo tofu, one that is red like lava”, Kurita-says, when his second victim, a housewife with panic disorder, goes shopping to cook the Sichuan dish in its Japanese variation (less spicy, more sweet). With genuine taste comes the genuine thrill, it seems, and thanks to that we are given one of the most furious cooking scenes in the history of cinema.

With ramen, Yoshida redefines the sexual drive through the orgasmic experience of various layers of the dish. Just as going through all the components that build its savouriness, Yhe brings the complexity of desire and, above all, the meatiness of spontaneity. The slurping comes as a frenzy of audible, to paraphrase Linda Williams, being a tour-de-force for our imagination, just as the watermelon was in Tsai Ming-liang’s universe of pornographic musical, The Wayward Cloud. Many say that remembering one’s first ramen is equal to remembering one’s first time. I guess there might be some truth to it.

But with all that disturbance and creepiness, Kurita-san is like a predecessor for the Japanese sexuality, specifically for an ever-driven stereotype of impotence. His actions comfort the feelings around one’s lust. Just as in the classic representations of eroticism in Japanese cinema, that is pinku eiga and roman porno, the idea of arousing the desire works as an allegory for contemporary times. It will not answer the question, whether the Japanese have sex these days, the answer that many tabloid journals might relentlessly look for, but it is surely a convincing depiction of how our bodies work. We need stimulus and these might as well be found in the food. When Enatsu’s wife finally asks him whether he wants some nattō (he’s not a fan of it, though, as we learn), one’s answer might lean towards a total, irrefutable yes. Genius.

Łukasz Mańkowski
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021