- Original title
- Yuriko no Aroma
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 73 minutes
- 1 June 2010
by Tom Mes
Anyone who has been active in any sort of sport knows that such physical activity comes with its own unique smell. The mixture of grass, earth, sweat, and shoe polish that fill the hallways and locker rooms of a soccer club is forever engrained in my mind, despite the fact that I only played for a few brief years in my pre-teens.
When I switched to martial arts as an adolescent, the dojo again had its own distinct scent. And I can only guess how my high school teachers felt when thirty sweaty students straight out of phys ed (for some reason we were not allowed to shower after gym class) sat down in front of them for 45 minutes of math or French.
'You should take a bath, you reek. That's no good, you know,' says Takeshi's aunt when he comes straight from kendo class to get a rub-down at her massage parlor. The aunt's younger assistant Yuriko, however, has a very different reaction to Takeshi's sporty teenage B.O. - while the young man receives his massage, she digs into his bag and starts sniffing his gloves.
In this increasingly anaesthetized postmodern world of ours - and there are few more anaesthetized places in it than urban Japan - the very concept of being turned on by another person's body odor has been suppressed under layers of deodorants, air fresheners, after shaves, and all manner of chemicals that have blunted our senses. Outside the animal kingdom, the term 'pheromone' is the exclusive property of perfumers. That we might possess them naturally is something most people have long forgotten.
Not Yuriko, though. When she runs into Takeshi again in the streets, she follows him and while he takes an afternoon nap, she snuggles up close to get a taste of his sweat. A peculiar liaison is born: after the initial shock, Takeshi awakens to Yuriko's unconventional form of affection, so much so that he soon loses interest in the class cutie he had been silently but doggedly admiring up until then - even when the girl turns her back on his brasher classmate and turns her attention to Takeshi instead.
Kota Yoshida's previous films, the medium-length Coming With My Brother (which won the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Yubari Fantastic Film Festival), dealt with a young woman's burgeoning physical attraction for her younger brother. With Yuriko's Aroma the filmmaker once again explores the less conventional reaches of human desire. Yoshida employs a similar set-up (older, wiser woman falls for immature young man) and the same lead actress, Noriko Eguchi, best known for her powerful lead performance in Yuki Tanada's not entirely dissimilar Moon and Cherry.
The casting of Eguchi works in that it would have been most incredible to cast a more conventional beauty to play a woman with unconventional sexual inclinations. Yoshida understands that consensual beauty is not the same thing as eroticism. Haruka Ayase or any other currently popular, inoffensively pretty idol or model type (I won't even mention the bland-to-the-point-of-transparent Meisa Kuroki) would fail royally in the role of Yuriko, even when leaving the question of acting talent out of the equation. Eguchi's one-of-a-kind looks add to the sense of the unconventional, while her considerable physical presence and power are finely balanced by her boyishly naive screen partner. It is in the search for equilibrium between these polar opposites that all the delicate nuances of Eguchi's performance come to the fore.
In this sense, Eguchi is even better here than she was in Moon and Cherry. She proved in Tanada's film that these kinds of roles are tailor-made for her, but she plays Yuriko as a far more vulnerable character than the summer storm of a woman that was the erotic novelist Mayama. Although one of Yuriko's professional specialties is aromatherapy, she herself seems quite unsure how to deal with the experience of being sexually aroused by a boy's sweat. The way her employer approaches their profession is through the banishment of natural smells, and indeed, when the older woman discovers what exactly is going on between her employee and her nephew, her reaction is anything but considerate.
Yoshida's handling of the material is impressive. Once does he slip, with a massage scene that turns into a one-sided, mild lesbian sex scene, in which he veers dangerously close to pink film territory. Yoshida has until now worked independently and perhaps for a filmmaker of his thematic preoccupations the pink film industry might form a professional lure. Let's hope, though, that he manages to resist the formatted approach to sexuality of most pink films and that he continues to trace his own unique path. His films so far bear all the hallmarks of a unique voice in the making, one whose potential is closer to the maturely twisted world of Yasuzo Masumura than to the limitations of the pink film format.
Indeed, even after only two films, one can notice distant echoes of the Masumura / Ayako Wakao partnership in Yoshida's collaborations with his lead actress Eguchi, although Yoshida's approach to human sexuality is far more good-natured than Masumura's: his films tend toward Eros rather than Thanatos and radiate a sort of pure positivity. His characters certainly don't always walk off hand-in-hand into the sunset as the end credits roll, but their exploration of their true selves in what is socially unacceptable does bring them real freedom, even if it is only temporary and intermittent.
Needless to say, the end result is sexy as sin. What's more, Yoshida knows how to structure a plot and tell a story, which makes his films eminently watchable and entertaining, something further enhanced by his subtle use of humor. A filmmaker to watch, in many ways, as confirmed by the special mention Yuriko's Aroma received from the Nippon Digital jury at the tenth Nippon Connection festival in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2010.