Morita Yoshimitsu's "Shitsurakuen" (Paradise Lost) is a somber and haunting love story whose tragic tale of two "Star-crossed lovers" will certainly strike an emotional chord with audiences. Based on the popular 1997 bestselling novel by Watanabe Junichi, the story focuses on a doomed romance between a middle-aged family man, Kuki Shoichiro (the wonderful Yakusho Koji) and a beautiful calligraphy instructor, Matsubara Rinko (the alluring Kuroki Hitomi).
Their chance encounter begins innocently enough but soon escalates into a torrid and all-consuming secret love affair. As their perfect romance intensifies, it soon takes its toll on both their personal and professional lives with disastrous results. With their individual worlds shattering around them can they still find a way to stay together?
Given the salacious subject matter of the original novel it is to director Morita's credit that he resists the urge and temptation to turn the film into a exploitative sex film but rather crafted an effectively brilliant yet bittersweet love story about two lonely individuals who have finally experienced true love at mid-life. While many have remarked at the film's erotic content, I don't think the film is particularly graphic or overly explicit. The purposely suggestive nature of the film's love scenes are in fact even more effective in conveying the intense nature of the romance.
Screenwriter Morinaga Kyoko does a nice job of steam-lining Watanabe's original novel and focuses on the key elements which made the novel so poignant to readers. Morita's masterful direction is enhanced by Cinematographer Takase Hiroshi's wonderful camera work which uses various interesting fades as scene transition effects that add to the dreamy nature of the whole film.
The film's emotional strength however relies heavily on the excellent performances of its leads Yakusho and Kuroki. Yakusho plays a somewhat similar character here as he did in the masterful "Shall We Dance", an "every man" who is in mid-life crisis and desperately trying to recapture the passion of his youth. Yakusho successfully paints Shoichiro as not just a man obsessed and blinded by lust but rather as a man who has found solace and fulfillment through Rinko as his soul-mate and emotional anchor. Kuroki, who would later go on to portray the controversial character of Sada Abe (another woman involved in a scandalous adulterous affair) in Obayashi Nobuhiko's film "Sada" (1998) delivers a brave performance as the refined and reserved Rinko, a woman whose arranged marriage early in life was more a matter of convenience than love and who longs to escape from the passionless and suffocating life she leads. Kuroki's Rinko character could have been portrayed as just an adulterous vixen but through Kuroki's subtle performance paints her more sympathetically as just a lonely character who experiences with Shoichiro a sexual freedom that is both liberating and intoxicating.
Morita's "Paradise Lost" seeks not to condemned nor excuse adulterous affairs but simply tries to explain some of the reasons they might occur. While it may be an extreme and morbid example of an affair gone wrong, the love story at the core of the story is truly touching and the haunting ending will definitely leave its mark on audiences.
As a side note, "Shitsurakuen" was also adapted into a thirteen episode Japanese Drama series the same year (1997) and starred gruff character actor Furuya Ikko as Shoichiro and former 80s singing star Kawashima Naomi as Rinko. While the overall story was similar, the drama delved even deeper into the troubled pasts of the two characters. It was also surprisingly even more explicit in its depiction of the love scenes between the two characters and pushed the limits of Japanese TV censorship laws. Kawashima went against-type to portray Rinko and certainly must have shocked audiences with her raw and very sexual performance especially to those who like myself fondly remembered her as the sweet celebrity co-host of "Owarai Manga Dojo", a game show that catered to younger audiences. Sadly, although "Shitsurakuen" the series was a moderate hit and was well watched (more out of audience curiosity than quality) it has not been released to DVD or Blu-ray yet (only VHS copies exist). Hopefully this series will be released to DVD/Blu-Ray soon as it will serve as an interesting companion and counterpoint to Morita's much more superior version.
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Rinko, the wife of an easily irritable, reputable doctor and Sholchiro, a veteran newspaper reporter have made choices in the course of their lives so that their future seems to have been fully established. Both are stuck in a little job that appeals to the imagination and a blissful marriage. Everything changes on the day they meet by chance and fall in love immediately. Together they find the passion no longer present in their marriages. The fire in their hearts has been extinguished and has given way to chill. They forget all grayness in each other's arms and the more often they come together secretly, the stronger their desire becomes. The hours they can not spend together seem like days. However, the intrusive moral laws of Japanese society do not offer a place for their passion. With every kiss, the shame increases, after every banned love night the blame is greater again, until they finally have only one way left to be together .
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