A film about the intersection of sexuality with food might initially feel like a pretty out-there pitch. However, anyone casually considering the topic will find that the concepts of hunger and desire are far more intertwined than we may readily want to admit. In Sexual Drive, writer/director Kota Yoshida explores this theme across three different tales of secret desires. While this is regrettably my first experience with one of Yoshida’s movies, a glance through his filmography suggests exploring various themes of sexuality is something of a trend. It should be noted upfront that while Sexual Drive is undoubtedly an erotic film given the subject matter, it achieves this in a very subtle way and features no explicit sex scenes. Each episode pairs an erotic story with certain food and all three are united by the recurring character Kurita.
Played by Tateto Serizawa, it is Kurita’s odd nature and obsessive predilections that chain the three segments together. Serizawa has a very recognizable persona and chances are you will recall him if you’ve happened to catch him in anything else. Horror fans might recognize him from SABU’s 2013 flick Miss Zombie. He has also had a prolific career in television and as a diehard Kamen Rider fan, I couldn’t help but immediately recall his performance as Aoba/Stag Hard Smash from 2017’s Kamen Rider Build. Kurita is a hard character to pin down and his actions segment to segment sometimes seem to contradict one another. For this reason, I think Serizawa was the perfect choice for this type of role.
If you’re not already on board with the concept this film is pitching you may find yourself asking why. However, the link between food and sexuality has often been explored in the past, whether symbolically or when touted as an aphrodisiac. Exploring this idea is no stranger to the cinema screen as well between romantic comedies like Chocolat or more serious dramas such as Babette’s Feast. Perhaps most notably for connoisseurs of Japanese cinema will be Juzo Itami’s 1985 comedy classic Tampopo which riffs on the elements of, fittingly, Spaghetti Westerns as it follows a pair of truck drivers determined to help the widowed owner of a failing ramen shop turn things around. Sexual Drive slots in nicely as a companion piece to this very narrow theme.
In the first and arguably strongest segment titled “natto” we focus on married couple Enatsu and Mayumi going through their morning routine. Pretty quickly you can get the general vibe of the film’s style which is both very visually pleasing as well as economically shot. While later segments get a bit more kinetic at times, a lot of static but well-framed shots are used for much of the storytelling which is nominally just characters having a conversation. In short order, we learn that Mayumi works at a hospital and she leaves without much fanfare besides mentioning that they’re short-staffed right now. Yoshida is an excellent visual storyteller because without much dialogue, just in the framing and physical direction of the couple viewers will be able to get the sense that there is some sort of strain between the two in their relationship.
With his wife gone, Enatsu begins corresponding with someone over text which leads to Kurita showing up at his house. He arrives bearing a box of chestnuts as a gift, which is a curious trait that gets repeated across all three segments but is never explained. They take some time building to their actual conversation and it is enjoyably awkward how long things get dragged out. When they finally get to the point it appears that Kurita has been having an affair with Mayumi for the last three years and, feeling guilty, he has come to own up and apologize to Enatsu.
This is where the awkwardness of Serizawa’s portrayal as Kurita really sells the moment. With odd mannerisms and walking with a limp, you can initially see the disdain and disbelief on Enatsu’s face when forced to face this unwanted truth. Though he admits he has been suspicious of her, you can tell he’s pretty clearly passing some harsh judgment on Kurita as he’s unable to imagine the man charming his wife away. All of this plays out with little to no music which enhances the unease building in the scene. The film does have some excellent moments underscored with music, but like the cinematography, it is used very economically to underline key moments instead.
As the truth gets exposed, it unfolds something like the standard plot for an erotic drama. Kurita turned up at Mayumi’s hospital after a stroke and what began as simple patient care twisted into a full-blown affair. This is where any other film would likely rely on flashbacks both to expand the setting of the film and also mesh in actual sexual content. Sexual Drive, especially in the first chapter, often functions more like a stage play relying on Kurita’s storytelling to set the scene instead. How you personally feel about erotic cinema is probably going to dictate whether that choice winds up being a welcome change of pace or a disappointment.
And though there are no sex scenes, things still do get pretty raunchy. As Enatsu begins to deny Kurita’s tale, the story escalates to him describing their sexual acts in very explicit details. This jumps a step further when Kurita finds a leftover package of natto in their trash and begins equating the food to Mayumi while huffing it uncontrollably. This exaggerated performance brought to mind Joe Shishido’s role as the hitman Goro with his uncontrollable fetish for the smell of boiling rice in Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 masterpiece Branded to Kill. In very graphic detail, Kurita describes every aspect of having sex with Mayumi while explaining that she is a nymphomaniac and taunting Enatsu for never knowing who she truly was.
It leans a little hard on the emotional trauma as Enatsu has a full-on mental breakdown, but in the end Kurita offers his apology once more and then leaves him to his misery. The segment wraps up with Mayumi’s return in the morning. Unsure how to react, Enatsu takes a more passive role and the story ends with Mayumi eating another pack of natto while he watches on. Using a lot of carefully framed close-ups on Mayumi eating mixed with great sound design, the film is able to give us Enatsu’s perspective as he notices the sexual nature of it all. Finally, noticing his odd behavior, Mayumi asks if he would like some as well and this prompts him to give back a look of interest.
While the segment is incredibly well presented as a film, I think I left a little unsure what to take away from it in the end. Kurita is a complicated character and the film seems to at times champion him as much as it demonizes him. He seems all too eager to relish in Enatsu’s despair while ranting about the affair, but at times there also seems to be a bit of a suggestion as if Kurita has somehow helped Enatsu by awakening him to the truth of Mayumi’s sexuality. Maybe there is no answer and I’m just looking for something that I want to be there, but like in life perhaps that isn’t always the case.
The other two chapters, while interesting, never quite reached the same height that the first did for me. The second segment titled “mapo tofu” follows a woman named Uehara who suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks. While reluctantly driving on her own she accidentally runs Kurita over and at his insistence offers him a ride home. It’s a much more bombastic story though it still has that play-like aspect as we’re set mostly within Uehara’s vehicle. Kurita shares a past with Uehara having been bullied by her in elementary school and he both blames her treatment as the reason for his own sexual proclivity as a masochist while declaring that the reason for her anxiety is that she has lost track of who she really is. While doing so, he relates it to the mapo tofu of the title which, in its original form, was exceedingly spicy and almost intolerable for many to eat but has since been generalized and toned down for mass appeal.
It’s a sloppier tale, but it finishes with a pretty great climax as Kurita ultimately demands that Uehara run him over to satisfy his desire to be tortured by her once again. It ends with his fate left up in the air and Uehara returns home to her husband where she makes true hot-like-lava mapo tofu. This cooking scene is very well done and they really visually impart the idea of just how spicy the food is while tracing that with an erotic bend as Uehara begins to sweat with excitement. It brought to mind, though in a more reserved capacity, the infamous “foodgasms” of the Shokugeki no Soma (Food Wars) series. In the big picture, this feels a lot better as the final segment with Kurita’s fate left unknown because the final chapter kicks off with Kurita in another situation with little notion that his encounter with Uehara had any impact on him.
The final story entitled “ramen with extra back fat” once again focuses on an affair. This time, however, it’s a bit less straightforward as we follow Ikeyama who is cheating on his wife with Momoka. However, Momoka has vanished and we find Ikeyama on a phone call with Kurita who is forcing him to retrace her steps. It builds to an interesting concept as Kurita forces Ikeyama to confront the loneliness Momoka feels being stuck only able to be his sex friend. In his usual fashion, Kurita blends in food as a reference stating that the violent force of the ramen awakened her own desires left unsatisfied by her situation with Ikeyama. Mirroring the first story, Kurita suggests that he has stolen her away and delights in giving some emotional despair to Ikeyama.
Its resolution, curiously, takes a strange turn as it gets suggested that Momoka simply lost her phone, it was picked up by Kurita and he engineered the entire scenario. I guess, perhaps, to teach Ikeyama a lesson? This segment also highlights some of the inconsistencies with Kurita’s characterization. In the second chapter, he describes himself as a masochist. However, in the first and final segments, he comes across far more domineering and delightfully describes both women as masochists while detailing his sexual encounters with them. Section to section these contradictions make it hard to draft a clear picture of Kurita.
In the end, that really bothered me. Kurita lacks the playful charm of the young gangster in Tampopo and given his focus perhaps we are supposed to take him more as a sort of diabolic influence twisting those he encounters to his whims. But unlike, for example, idealistic manipulator Joe Murata (Kippei Shina) in Sion Sono’s The Forest of Love we never quite get the full picture to understand who Kurita is and why he is doing these things. Maybe it is easier to think of Kurita more like a force of nature in that respect drifting into the lives of others to impart a dose of self-reflection, but I personally still found myself struggling to reconcile these elements.
While I enjoyed my time watching Sexual Drive, I think where it ultimately falls a little short for me is that I don’t really know who I would recommend it to. If you are repulsed by a heavy theme of sexuality in films, I think there is still enough erotic subject matter just in the conversations being held that the lack of actual sex scenes won’t really help you get into the film any further. On the other end of the spectrum, fans of erotic cinema and more exploitative works like pink films will likely find the movie to be a bit too reigned in and lacking. If you dig the premise, you probably already know there aren’t a lot of films willing to tackle this idea so it’s definitely a must-watch in that specific scenario.
And that’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of great talent on display here. Sexual Drive is well shot and well performed by its cast, but it tackles what many may consider more unconventional subject matter through a very nuanced and subtle method. To hazard the risk of a food reference, it perhaps calls for a more refined palate to fully savor everything the way it has been presented here. I may have personally left wanting just a little more, but I appreciate the craft at hand and will gladly check out whatever comes next from Yoshida.
Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.