Kon Ichikawa’s pre-Viagra The Key (called Odd Obsession in the puritanical States), from Junichirô Tanizaki’s novel, addresses Kenji Kenmochi’s problem: he can’t much “get it up” anymore. The potency injections he has been taking on the sly aren’t sufficiently helping, and having a younger wife, Ikuko, only deepens his discomfort. But Kenji lights on a plan: manipulate Ikuko and Kimura, a young interne, into a sexual relationship so that his (Kenji’s) voyeurism can incite his jealousy and stiffen his, er, resolve.
The film begins with Kimura—and with poker-faced hilarity that eases into chuckling and a broad smile. Looking into the camera, prior to taking Kenji’s blood pressure and giving him his virility shot in the hinterlands, Kimura pontificates on the swift degradation of the senses during the aging process. Things start going sooner than we might have thought. Senility begins at ten years; at that same age, eyes begin to lose their “elasticity.” Eros? Already at twenty we start suffering its decline. Being born hardly seems worth it!
Ichikawa has the good taste not to brandish Kenji’s sagging buttocks, but what follows wittily underscores the concept of backside: Kenji’s trip home is shown from underneath the streetcar that is transporting him! (It is very dark down there.) This purely visual comical passage resolves with unexpected poignancy: Kenji’s unsteady walk after he has exited the vehicle.
Meanwhile, Ikuko is at her husband’s doctor’s office, sleuthing around in an effort to unearth what’s what. She is slyly introduced with her back to the camera, suggesting that Kenji’s marital partner primarily exists, in his scheme of things, as a touchstone for his feelings about himself.
Ichikawa’s satire on Japanese ideas of masculinity is tart and terrific; the lead acting, by Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyô and Tatsuya Nakadai, irresistible.
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