Is there a body part that is not, for someone, an erogenous zone? Feet have their fans. So do eyes, noses and, as Hiroshi Horiuchi’s “Mimi wo Kaku Onna (The Ear Cleaner)” makes clear, ears.
But in this third theatrical film by Horiuchi, following a documentary about folk musician Hitoshi Kaji and the ensemble drama “Watashi no Kanashimi (My Sorrow),” both released this year, the eroticism on display is mild indeed by today’s standards. Compared with the arms race playing out on Internet porn sites (Bigger! Faster! Stranger!), “Mimi wo Kaku Onna” is positively restrained, if not repressed.
Instead it gently, sexily, celebrates the passion that many Japanese share — and many outlanders find puzzling — for having their ears cleaned. This is no mere kink for horny men, but rather a traditional, innocent pleasure that mothers give to their children, wives to their tired husbands, using picks that look vaguely like dental tools, with the recipient’s head on their lap and mind often in the clouds.
But as the film shows in faux-candid interviews with female cleaners and their customers, as well as in scene after erotically atmospheric scene, mimikaki (ear cleaning) has become a component of Japan’s vast fu￣zoku (sexual services) industry, though the only part of the customer’s anatomy usually stimulated is the auditory canal.
We first see the heroine, Ena Koda (Rina Sakuragi), on March 11 of last year, when she is awakened by a terrifying earthquake — but her sleep-in boyfriend is nowhere in sight. The creep, we learn, abandoned her the moment the tremors started: a traumatic incident that not only ends their relationship, but shakes her self-confidence, and causes her to lose her hearing in stressful moments.
Later, as Ena stumbles and trembles through a brutal job interview at an IT company, wearing an over-the-ear hearing aid, a young customer services rep in the next room becomes fascinated by her perfectly shaped, if partly obscured, ear. This rep, Yoshinobu Kawamura (Akira Nakata), is somehow reminded of his long-gone mother. Like Ena, we see, he is struggling to find his place in the world, though unlike her he has a passion: photography.
Through a college friend, Ena finally lands a job at an ear-cleaning establishment, whose all-female staff wear yukata, work in dimly lit tatami rooms and mostly cater, as Ena’s instructor blithely tells her, to guys with mother complexes. She discovers she has a talent for the job, with her gentleness, shyness and naivete considered a plus rather than a handicap by her clientele. All seems to be going swimmingly (as shown by her improved hearing) until Kawamura walks through the door.
The ensuing boy-meets-girl story, with its familiar complications, is more than an excuse for porny antics, however, just as Ena’s hearing aid is more than a fetish item. Working from his own script, Horiuchi shows how the sense of hearing and the organs that enable it have psychological as well as physical dimensions. Just as the horror of 3/11 has made Ena selectively deaf (instead of human voices loudly admonishing her, she hears only static), the early exit of his mother has made Kawamura long for the infantile intimacy and security Ena’s tender cleaning supplies.
In her first screen appearance, dancer and stage actress Sakuragi is a bit too convincingly awkward and stiff as Ena, though her combination of natural purity and physicality make her as watchable as a deer startled into graceful if frightened motion. Similarly inexperienced is Keio University student/theater actor Nakata, though his own aura of innocence as Kawamura is a good match for Sakuragi’s.
Despite its roughness around the edges, from occasionally choppy editing to over-obvious grabs for profundity, “The Ear Cleaner” makes for seductive and soothing viewing. Or maybe I’ve just been here too long — and forgotten my mother’s injunction to never put anything in my ear but my elbow.