Pain and Pleasure, Indivisible

Why are we so fascinated with pain? More importantly, can Japanese media help us answer this question?*

In the movie Tokyo Decadence, a young college girl, Ai, watches rich Japanese men submit themselves to the dominance of women. To answer the first question of this post in a shallow way, pain is fascinating because it is often taboo; Tokyo Decadence is banned in a couple countries, most notably Japan’s geographical and historical neighbor, South Korea. But why are these men actively searching for pain? Why would anyone willingly put themselves before the whip?

Ryu Murakami explained, “People need to express themselves sometimes. Otherwise, they get completely stressed out. And games like S&M give them a chance to express themselves. It’s hardly a matter of good or bad.” But the stance Murakami takes in his movie isn’t persuasive in my opinion. At the very least, it doesn’t seem complete. He thinks the anxiety of the modern Japanese man comes from having money without pride, which somehow drives them to masochism. As a result, Japanese men must either stop spending or release their stress through masochism. While this does get us somewhere, it doesn’t get us far enough. At some point, the pain and pleasure in Tokyo Decadence become sexual, as clearly demonstrated by their outfits and sex being a major theme in the movie in general. How, then, does having money without pride — and the anxiety this brings about — eventually give rise to sex?

What can really be said about the abundance of female-on-male** violence in anime? MM! is an interesting example because whereas most mainstream anime would deal with the violence as merely slapstick humor on the surface, leaving the rest to be debated in between the lines, the sexual nature of the pleasure derived from pain is overt in MM!:

In many anime, boys and girls blush even when they’re holding hands — even when their eyes catches the glance of the other gender. Sexual pleasure remains distant and elusive for most of these couples. Perhaps, then, the only recourse is the opposite end of the spectrum: pain.

Maybe we just want to feel period. In Audition, the femme fatale tells her victim, “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted… (pause) right? You can feel pain.” The last sentence is crucial: unable to feel either the empty promises of words or pleasure in general, she opts to dispense pain.

“When you feel pain, you’ll understand.”

But is the pain in Audition sexual? It most likely is; sex, again, plays a huge role in Miike’s dark movie. More importantly, maybe the motivation underlying the movie can help explain what’s going on in MM!

Before diving back into MM!, consider what Rob Ager has to say in his analysis of sadomasochism in Hellraiser:

Self punishment or surrendering to pain infliction by others eliminates guilt. For those who are cursed with intense sexual desire, but find their desires conflicting… perhaps it is tempting to willingly engage the punishment…. This in effect gives… pleasure…. — Rob Ager

The idea of guilt being intertwined with the masochist is echoed in a book on this very topic by Mark Edmundson:

For the masochist, pleasure is paid for immediately and fully with pain. The masochist can enjoy piquant, long-wished-for joys that conscience has forbidden, for now conscience can also have what it deeply desires: the pleasure of punishing the transgressions. Morality and appetite are alternately satisfied…. The masochist, we’re told, often leaves the encounter in a state of harmony, moral and sexual passions both expended, the inner balance at soothing zero. (134)

Achieving that stage of pure bliss is often the key in MM! Pain only seems to bring Sado Tarou closer to the heavens:

But can we also say that Sado Tarou is released from guilt when the various anime girls in MM! punish him? Is it sexual guilt? In numerous instances throughout the anime, the pleasure Tarou feels hints deeply at being sexual in nature. Along the same lines, is his pain sexual as well? You make the call.

Personally, I believe his pain is sexual. Tarou seems to derive no pleasure in the first episode when his best friend started physically abusing him. His masochistic tendencies are thus gendered. He also makes an effort to note that beautiful women are punishing him. Although sex is never explicitly spelled out in clear terms, it’s an undercurrent running through the anime.

* This post isn’t aiming for a complete and exhaustive look at the topic. For the most part, I have dealt mostly with the masochistic aspect of the unequal power relations in sadomasochism. The sadist role occupied by the girls in MM! deserves an equal look, but perhaps for another post.

** Sadomasochism is, of course, not limited to simply female-on-male relations. I am certain something interesting can be said of the sadomasochistic tendencies in some seme-uke relationships of yaoi, but I will leave that to someone else to address. I am no expert of even mainstream anime. As a result, anything I could say of yaoi would likely be full of errors and presumptuous at best.

Edit: I have decided to revise parts of the post in an effort for clarity after a brief discussion with Taka in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Pain and Pleasure, Indivisible

  1. Taka

    As far as I know the only thing Sado Tarou feels especially guilty about is his own masochism. Though, I’m not sure if he feels guilty about it so much as ashamed that others have to see him in masochistic pleasure.

    Generally I think that masochism arises out of a lack of being able to feel pleasure. I think it can somewhat be related to cutting. When someone is depressed to the point of numbness, the pain is a welcome relief from the lack of feeling. As far as I know they don’t feel sexual pleasure from cutting themselves. It also will suppress any feelings of guilt as a cutter might feel the pain they think they deserve. Which brings them back to zero. In most cases of masochism though, I don’t think guilt plays as big a role or else I wouldn’t expect them to gain sexual pleasure from being hurt.

    Also like you said, I think part of it has to do with the sadist administering the pain. The complete submission to another’s will is another way to receive masochistic pleasure. May be some predator/prey instincts going there.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Though, I’m not sure if he feels guilty about it so much as ashamed that others have to see him in masochistic pleasure.

      There are a lot of things we don’t know about his character. All we know is that he enjoys masochism. In this case, I’ve look to how masochism has been portrayed in various media. In all of those cases, masochism seems to hint at some deeper than just deriving pleasure from pain. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s true of Sado Tarou as well, but that’s why it’s food for thought.

      As far as I know they don’t feel sexual pleasure from cutting themselves.

      That’s an interesting and good example that I hadn’t considered till you just brought it up, but I don’t think it entirely fits the picture here which concerns sadomasochism. Cutting oneself is definitely masochistic in some sense, but it isn’t surrendering or submitting oneself to another. It’s just one half of the equation.

      In most cases of masochism though, I don’t think guilt plays as big a role or else I wouldn’t expect them to gain sexual pleasure from being hurt.

      You lost me somewhat here. The argument being put forth is that the pain in masochism acts as a punishment for their guilty desires and imagined transgressions. Through the pain, they can at least say “I’ve been appropriately punished for it” and thus bring about the pleasure. I’m not sure what you mean by guilt not playing a big role. Are you saying that with guilt, you can’t feel sexual pleasure?

      1. Taka

        yeah, that wasn’t a very coherent thought. What I was thinking of was how much is actual guilt and how much is just role-playing. For the stereotypical portrayal of a businessman with a ball-gag going “I’ve been a bad boy and need punishing” how much of that “being a bad boy” is actual guilt over something and how much of it is just the submissive role.

        I also just have a hard time seeing how the relief of guilt as granting *sexual* pleasure. The way I read the quote from Edmundson was that the removal of guilt by the pain creates a moral equilibrium. To me this implies the sexual pleasure of the act comes from elsewhere. Ager it seems explains this by saying the people are guilty because of intense sexual desire. So maybe the guilt from the sexual desire and the relief of that guilt creates a feedback loop of pleasure, sexual or otherwise.

        1. E Minor Post author

          Ah, I see what you mean now. It’s my fault for being unclear in the post. I don’t mean to say that all pleasure that arises from any acts of sadomasochism is sexual pleasure. I am wrong for giving that impression. I’m thinking in terms of only the movies and anime in the post, i.e. Tokyo Decadence, Audition and MM!. To derive sexual pleasure from the two movies as opposed to merely pleasure in general, I think the context of both movies are necessary. Sex is a major theme in both movies so there are some assumptions at work on my part. As for MM!, deriving sexual pleasure is a little trickier. I guess the combination of the fact that he gets nothing when his best friend abuses him plus him making numerous comments about being abused by beautiful women implies that the pleasure is sexual in nature.


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