Daisuke Miura’s Love’s Whirlpool opens with four nameless men and women sitting in the neutrally furnished lobby of a sex club, draped in nothing but identical pink towels. Once briefed with the rules of the evening (use of condoms and showers – with the exhortation to not be “immodest” and try the small-size condoms on first), they are invited to snack, and taken to the upstairs room, the “playroom”. The host leaves. The staff will return shortly before 5am, when the session ends, “just in time for the first morning trains”.
The organisation of this fictive club is a small study of sexuality in the age of mass urbanisation, in which strangers may come together for any number of unusual activities, but some well-defined rules are, nonetheless, in everyone’s interest. The prices vary staggeringly: 20.000 yen (around 200 Euros or US Dollars) for men, 1.000 for women. A platter of dildos is served. Showering between partners must occur. Women must not be forced to do anything. Swapping phone numbers is strictly forbidden. By the end of the evening, the staff ensure the women leave first, to prevent stalking. It is only within such regulatory bookends that the sex party can establish the necessary privacy, anonymity and freedom.
Miura’s company, potudo-ru, which started out as a university theatre group, is renowned for demanding great exposure from its actors. We are certainly treated to some discreet male nudity, manual pleasuring of women, and very realistic moaning. But the evening proceeds in the atmosphere of understated hyper-realism; the kind contemporary Japanese drama is very fond of: small talk, inconsequential chit – chat between sex sessions and conversations about work. The fantastic setting is not built in order to provide space for revelatory meanderings of the human soul; no character’s emotional or spiritual depths are exposed during this night of freedom. Of course, the shy female student turns out to enjoy sex passionately and loudly. The kindergarten teacher shares some paedophiliac fantasies. The thirty- year – old virgin learns to pleasure women during the course of the night. But these remain formulaic turns, never quite rising above the level of situational comedy. By 5am, these eight people have remained strangers to each other, and to us. While the subtitle of the play demands “four couples, three beds, and us the voyeurs”, more baring of the soul can be revealed through the cursory watching of certain kinds of extreme video pornography, to say nothing of avant – garde literary pornography such as L’Histoire du O.
Love’s Whirlpool, presented at Berlin’s Foreign Affairs Festival of International Theatre and Performance, has been framed and interpreted, both in the festival materials and by the critics, as a demonstration of the degradation of eroticism in the time of mass consumption. Miura’s production itself flirts with this interpretation when it intercuts the play with video intermissions, with large projections gliding through the details of classical Renaissance painting (Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam) to the sounds of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Schumann’s Dichterliebe, two of the best-known song cycles of the German Romanticism. What else are we supposed to take from this reference to the artworks most famously glorifying the human body and the human soul, in contrast to the simple, simplified physical and emotional transactions of Love’s Whirlpool, other than a thesis on the cheapening of contemporary human relationships?
However, the analogy is both superficial, and misguided. Japan’s romantic tradition has had a radically different course from its European counterpart. While the Christian Church spent the early Middle Ages opposing all sex, and only gradually came to condone strictly monogamous marital unions between a man and a woman (powerfully setting the blueprint for the contemporary notion of romantic love), in Heian-era Japan polygamy was the norm, and marriage simply a verbal contract between lovers with a child. While courting was developing into an artform in the European courts, Japan was developing a merchant society in which marriage was strictly a financial contract. While European marriage was burdened with the Christian notion of eternal devotion, and patriarchal inheritance and ownership patterns, the Japanese marriage came with ample opportunities for divorce, and the groom could marry into his wife’s family as easily as vice versa. In the 19th-century, while the European marriage was asserting itself as primarily based on love, the Meiji Restoration in Japan made arranged marriages wide-spread among all classes. This lasted right until the 1960s, when love marriages finally replaced arranged marriages as the social norm.
Indeed, contemporary Japan has a problem, particular among developed nations, of having imported an ideal of romantic love without any socially agreed patterns of romantic expression. While it has not been infected with Christian puritanism, it has not developed a romantic vocabulary either. This has caused, among problems such as extremely low rates of marriage and childbirth, a proliferation of unusual sexual activities and gadgets: from group blind dates and extremely diverse pornographic literature, to host and hostess clubs (offering modern-day geisha services to men and women). “Happening bars”, such as the one depicted in Love’s Whirlpool, offering sex for strangers, are a product of this historical process, which has largely bypassed Michelangelo and Schubert.
If a Japanese sex club cannot be seen as the endpoint of a romantic tradition that began with the anatomically correct depictions of frolicking nymphs in 15th-century Italy, neither can the evolution of the Western-European sexuality be understood as ending in Love’s Whirlpool. But even if it did, why the cheap apocalypticism? From arranged marriages to gay saunas, human history is a tale of organising chaotic bodily urges into a form that does not unduly destabilise our societies.
What remains, instead, in this play without a grand philosophical dimension, is a fine study of politeness. Miura professes to be most inspired by television soap-operas, and I read a much narrower ambition in Love’s Whirlpool: to show ordinary patterns of communication straining to deal with an exceptional situation, the way a well-made European play might depict a difficult dinner party. From the moment when two new-comers to the sex party form a “Beginners’ Club” and wish each others “good work together”, potudo-ru excels as an ethnography of contemporary Japan; the men who struggle to strike a conversation with the women, despite the clear promise of sex, or the way in which, as inhibitions loosen, women start to pick on each other’s looks and sexual prowess. Fine manners stretched to the breaking point as women try to avoid having sex with the male virgin. Finally, beautifully, a sense of short-lived camaraderie, culminating in one woman’s proposal that they organise a reunion in the same club, as if they have just been on a fruitful work excursion.
Unfortunately, theatre is not television, and studies of politeness only hold so much interest, even in a sex club. In a country in which communication patterns tend towards blunt and simple, this play could have been science-fiction. For those in the audience without a particular interest in Japan, there is very little to write home about.
Love’s Whirlpool is part of Foreign Affairs at Berliner Festspiele, taking place between 28th September – 26th October 2012.