One of the most compelling parts of any narrative is the origin story. That’s why it was genius for the producers of Lost to build their storytelling around flashbacks after the initial hook of the plane crash. It’s why Mei Ah capitalized on the popularity of Ip Man by making The Legend Is Born. How the story got to be the story is a rich vein for evocative material.
Nude, based on the autobiography of the same name, tells the origin story of Japanese AV (adult video) personality Mihiro. In rural Niigata prefecture on the last day of school, Hiromi (Naoko Watanabe) tells her best friend Sayaka (Aimi Satsukawa) that she is following her boyfriend Eisuke (Takashi Nagayama) to Tokyo. Hiromi plans on getting a job at the airport but she admits to Sayaka that she secretly wants to be an actress and hopes to be discovered by a talent agent someday.
Hiromi gets her wish when she runs into Mr. Enomoto (Ken Mitsuishi) while waiting for Eisuke in Shibuya, the heart of Tokyo’s youth culture. However, in a classic example of “be careful what you wish for,” Mr. Enomoto turns out to be a talent agent for a company that provides nude models for productions ranging from magazines and photo books to AV. Driven by her ambition, Hiromi signs with Mr. Enomoto and adopts the stage name Mihiro. She is adamant, however, that she will not do AV.
After developing a small following as a model for adult magazines, Hiromi takes another step towards her dream by acting in V-Cinema (soft core erotic video). Mr. Enomoto parlays her V-Cinema work into a meeting with mainstream producers, but Hiromi fails to impress them. In a frank conversation with Mr. Enomoto, two paths are laid clear. Hiromi can continue with modeling and V-Cinema but, having already struck out with mainstream producers, all she can hope for is a meager public profile until she inevitably fades into obscurity in a very competitive and crowded market.
The other path involves Hiromi changing the conversation about her. By taking AV roles, Hiromi would increase her public profile, possibly leading to renewed interest from mainstream producers. When an AV producer points out that, in the eyes of the general public, there is no difference between a V-Cinema actress and an AV actress, Hiromi decides to take the plunge. Actions have consequences though and her decision takes a toll on her emotional well-being and creates tension in her relationships with Eisuke and Sayaka. How far is Hiromi willing to go to pursue her dreams?
Despite the porn industry setting, Nude’s narrative arc is not much different from the countless “small-town girl moves to the big city” stories that have been told over the years. Filled with ambition and fueled by her dreams, small town girl moves to big city. Unforeseen obstacles knock the wind out of her sails and she must decide how much she wants to sacrifice for her dreams. The thematic beats are the same, so it all comes down to the interpretation. In the case of Nude, the interpretation is uninspired.
Nude fails to capitalize on what makes it unique, the focus on Japanese AV and what it means to become a porn star. While AV in Japan is more socially acceptable than porn in the United States (AV performers have found some success in the mainstream) a stigma is still attached to being an AV personality. Showing how Hiromi reconciles herself with becoming Mihiro is the central theme of Nude, but Naoko Watanabe does not possess the necessary skill to portray that conflict. When Watanabe needs to show inner turmoil, she is unable to muster up the requisite emotion. The real-life Mihiro appears in the movie as an industry veteran headed towards retirement and one wonders if Nude would have been better had Mihiro played herself.
Watanabe is not helped by the script. Hiromi’s boyfriend Eisuke exists solely as an obstacle and Takashi Nagayama is given the thankless task of playing the poorly-rendered character. Aimi Satsukawa fares better in the role of Hiromi’s best friend Sayaka. Her character is used to show how the shadow of stigma affects not just the AV star but her family and friends, as defending what others see to be indefensible takes a toll. Ken Mitsuishi stands out playing Hiromi’s calm and steady manager Mr. Enomoto.
Given the subject matter and the film’s title, there is, naturally, nudity in Nude. However, the nudity is not gratuitous. Instead, it is one of the film’s strengths as it drives home the fact that the AV industry is a business and, just like any other workplace, people are there to do their jobs. Sex scenes are scripted and choreographed in advance. The director sets up shots with the lighting and camera personnel. The sound man concentrates on capturing sound while keeping the boom mike out of the shot. The hair and makeup lady stands at the ready for any touchups. Off to the side, a production assistant wipes down props with a sterile alcohol cleaning pad. These jobs may revolve around people engaging in sex but nothing salacious or illicit goes on.
In a monologue at the beginning of the movie, Hiromi points out that there is a difference between having sex for an AV and making love in her private life. One is a dispassionate physical act while the other is an intimate one. The same could be said for Nude. Because of the valiant but depthless performance by its lead and some thin writing, Nude has sex with Mihiro’s origin story but it does not make love to it. (Sanney Leung, 2012)