Post by: Kris Hartrum
Yasunari Kawabata’s House of Sleeping Beauties (眠れる美女Nemureru Bijo) is a novella about a peculiar sort of brothel that caters to very old men. These men pay to sleep next to young women who have been drugged with a very potent sleeping medicine. The unclothed girls fall into a temporary, but deep coma-like slumber and cannot wake. The elderly customers who are supposedly impotent do this in order to obtain whatever emotional &/or physical benefits this basic human interaction provides. It is assumed the men can no longer become erect, so there is no sex. The restrictions are few: no penetration, and no visible marks of any kind are to be inflicted. These are the rules of the house. Old Eguchi, the protagonist of the story, sleeps with different girls on different nights. The varying scents, textures and physical nuances of the almost lifeless bodies cause him to recall vivid memories of past lovers, his daughter and female interactions in general.
The breasts sagged slightly but were very full, and for a Japanese the nipples were large and swollen. He ran a hand down her spine and over her legs. They were stretched taut from the hips. What seemed like disharmony between the upper and lower parts of her body may have had to do with her being a virgin.
I read this book some time ago and I have not been able to forget its equally erotic and repulsive qualities. It stirred within me questions and curiosities about age, youth and the real-life application of this service. What does one acquire from the mere act of sleeping beside another human? What can it mean to a dying man to be so close to burgeoning youth? Kawabata weaves an incredibly dense and intoxicating play of forces, which gather weight through corporeal contact, nostalgia and the power of memories brought on by the flesh.
Recently I learned about a relatively new business in Tokyo called Soine-ya where a similar “sleep service” is provided. Soine-ya means “Sleep together shop.” There is one located in the Akihabara district of Tokyo. Male customers pay to nap (platonically) next to young girls for a “reasonable” amount of money. There is no drug-induced coma, or anything actually resembling sex (supposedly). The shop promotes itself as a “co-sleeping specialty shop.” Customers pay anywhere from 3,000-7,000 yen to take an hour long nap next to a stranger. Options can be purchased such as foot massages, resting one’s head on the lap or buttocks and even back patting.
Here is a video of someone going to the shop. (In Japanese)
Though I’d prefer to imagine that the novella was used to inspire the venture, I do not assume that the founder of the Soine-ya is doing his or her best to bring Kawabata’s unique work to life. Lucrative services that skim the borders of sexual gratification and innocent relaxation have, in modern times, flourished in Japan. Various incarnations of massage parlors, host & hostess bars and other alternative forms of “relaxation” have been around for decades, but the idea of paying to literally sleep next to another person seems to be very new. The literary connection is there. It serves a very unique condition. It is something that could only have been birthed in Japan— in art and in in the waking world.
In 2011, Australian filmmaker named Julia-Leigh wrote and directed a film called Sleeping Beauty. The protagonist Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays a emotionally troubled university student who becomes a sex worker that is paid to take a very potent sleeping medicine and sleep with old, rich men. The film offers the vantage point of one girl who shares her bed with three different elderly men, a reverse of Kawabata’s 1961 story where our original protagonist “Old Eguchi” visits multiple sleeping beauties.
Roughly based on House of Sleeping Beauties, Julia-Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty has its moments. The cinematography and art direction are very attractive and artfully executed. The movie contains multiple sequences where Leigh successfully captures the strange, but alluring interaction between rich, old men and the helpless, sleeping beauty. Unfortunately, the majority of the narrative surrounding Browning’s character outside of the job comes off as shallow and uninspired. In the end, the film fell short of eliciting in me any kind of sincere emotional response. Though if you’ve read Kawabata’s story or simply have an interest in the idea, the film is worth 101 minute running time.
I had never heard of Yasunari Kawabata growing up. In 1968 he was the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was a close friend of the renowned and enigmatic Yukio Mishima. Some of his better-known works include the novels Snow Country 雪国 and The Sound Of The Mountain 山の音. Kawabata took his own life in 1972. After reading a few of his stories it seems that the author often returned to the relationship between sex and death, Eros and Thanatos.
–She had been stripped of all defenses for the sake of her aged guest, of the sad old man. She was naked, and would not awaken. Eguchi felt a wave of pity for her. A thought came to him: the aged have death, and the young have love, and death comes once and love comes over and over again.
A literary character named Eguchi travels to a house of comatose beauties to sleep next to young, drugged girls in order obtain something lost and possibly irretrievable. In Akihabara, a Tokyo company-man naps with his head placed comfortably on the buttocks of a nubile college student for 1,000 yen a minute during his lunch break to consider his previously untreated loneliness.
Post By Kris Hartrum