"The Handbag", Tango, and Enjo-kosai

The Handbag

Kyoko Wakao & Teruyuki "Mocky" Saito
Written, Produced & Directed by Ivy Yukiko Ishihara Oldford
Original Music by
Riaz Hassan

I loved this video the moment I watched it, and yet even now I hesitate to post it. When I was first sent the link, the summary that accompanied it said it was about a Tokyo salaryman returning a bag to a high school girl at a subway station - and then I suppose sort of randomly taken to dancing Argentine tango in the middle of that transaction. When I watched the video, I could see quite a lot more going on, though I didn't know the complete story until I read the blog post by filmmaker, Ivy Oldford, here.

If you'd like to see it before learning any details about it, simply watch it embedded below:

What I loved immediately:

- The music moves me. It's so beautiful that I immediately went looking for the artist and the song. Both of which you can find here.
- The camera spends a lot of time focused on the dancers' embrace. I wish more tango videos would spend the time focused there, than on the dancers' feet (of course this video has quite a lot of footwork focus as well.) Their embrace is appropriate to the music and to the story they're telling and it's nice to actually be able to see that.
- The way Kyoko Wakao can dance in loafers. I can't even walk gracefully in loafers, let alone dance. The shoes, by the way, were new, and had not even been broken in. (See tango instructor, Kyoko Wakao, dancing in more traditional tango attire with her partner Ezequial Gomez.)

Themes and Context

Like anything else in life (and art), context is everything. As soon as I saw the female lead in a schoolgirl uniform, I recognized the Lolicon theme (named for "Lolita complex" and describing the attraction of older Japanese men to young women, typically wearing school uniforms) which is quite prevalent in Japanese pop culture. What I didn't see immediately, but wondered about, was the appearance at the end of the video that the dance was a compensated transaction. When I read Ivy Oldford's blog post, I got confirmation that was the intention.

Enjo-kosai, or compensated dating, while it has been occurring for quite a long time in Japan, is starting to alarm even the Japanese media. In Japan, prostitution is a very tangled issue with nebulous laws and it doesn't have the same stigma that it has in the United States. In a few important ways (that would take too long to address here) I think Japan is somewhat more realistic in its views on sex. Yet no one can deny that several factors in the culture are creating a generation of "young girls who view sex as a clear form of acceptable capitalism." (1)

That is when I wondered whether I should post video.

While the music and the dancing are compelling, the context of the situation is very controversial. Should I try to separate the dance from the story? Of course not. How could anyone? I've read manga and watched anime for over two decades, so these themes hardly stun me. Yet I wondered (and still wonder) who I will offend. However, if I never learn anything else from my tango journey, I have learned this - the dance always tells a story - intentional ones and unintentional ones.

So watch video. Take or leave as much of the context as you like. Let me know what you think. Does it bother you to see tango viewed as in some way transactional? Does it call on tango's own supposed historical themes and connections to prostitution? How does knowing the more complete story change how you look at their dance? Or does it?

More articles on "compensated dating" in Japan can be found here:

(1) Prostitution in Japan: A Young Body Worth a Profit: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rhetoric/105H17/nnguyen/cof.html
Japan for the Uninvited: http://www.japanfortheuninvited.com/articles/enjo-kosai.html

(not tango-related, so feel free to skip this if the topic holds no interest)

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise." ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

I should have expected that comments would come via email, rather than get posted on the blog post itself - but I didn't expect this many emails so soon.

I'd like to address some of the questions here, rather than answering the same questions over and over via email. The topics of underage sex and prostitution are well outside the scope of this blog and so I'm hesitant to launch into essays on the subjects, but I do have a couple of "short" (well, short-ish. Shorter than dissertations, anyway) answers for the questions that came up most often.

"Aren't you offended by men being attracted to women in school girl uniforms?"

Well, how about cheerleader uniforms, as is more the case over here? Should I be offended by women being attracted to men in UPS uniforms? Or firefighter uniforms? Let's drop the uniform question, because I think we can agree that isn't really the issue. The age, or the perceived age gap, is the issue. I address that later in these comments.

"So what is your position on Enjo-kosai? You never really say in your post."

There was a reason for that. My position will likely change depending on when you ask me and the context within which we are discussing it. I do have a few thoughts about it though.

First, if the prevailing attitude (worldwide) tells young women (and young men) that they are only valuable, attractive and accepted if they have money and material goods - and that obtaining those things is more important than showing good judgment regarding their physical, mental and emotional health, how could you expect to avoid this scenario?

Second, if you think the "my body is my currency" attitude only prevails in Japan, which was the attitude in a few of the emails I received, you should work in a women's health clinic on any major college campus in the US (and increasingly, sad to say, high school health clinics.) Or turn on the TV for that matter. The attitude, in various forms and to various degrees, is everywhere.

Third, if the legal system charges only the sellers and not the buyers in the sex trade, as in Japan, the system is broken and the laws will never stop the trade.

"Do you think prostitution should be legal?"

If we lived in an ideal world, filled with ideal people all living in ideal circumstances, than perhaps prostitution could be a victimless "crime". Or even better, prostitution would find no market. But the world being what it is, and people being what they are - prostitution has quite a market and it certainly has victims. Most importantly, it has victims before money ever changes hands. So my answer is hypothetically maybe, realistically, no. The letter of the law versus how the law is actually enforced however, is a whole other issue, and again, well outside the scope of this blog.

May-December Relationships

If the issue, as one email suggested, is with the "appropriateness" of the May-December romance, I would sugggest focusing on what makes you personally happy and fulfilled, rather than judging what makes others happy. I know several loving, devoted couples, both where the man is older, and where the woman is older. Love and attraction are rarely predictable or convenient and frankly, if both people are adults, what makes them happy is their own affair. Who can say what body one's soul mate should arrive?


Unknown said...

This video is just wrong...in so many ways.

Marika said...

Milonguerobill -

"in so many ways . . "

Could you elaborate?

These two dancers, who are not professional actors, are telling at least 4 stories:

1. The most obvious and immediate (intentional) story, told by their costumes (school girl uniform, business suit, briefcase), is the "Lolicon"/Lolita story.

2. The second story, also an intentional story, made most evident by the end of the film, is the overlapping enjo-kosai, the transaction displayed.

3. The most compelling story from my viewing is probably unintentional, and is most evident in the dancers' looks and their embrace. This third layer is actually the story of a tanguero (Mocky) dancing with a well-respected tango teacher (Kyoko) that he is intimidated by. It shows in the way that he holds her and the expression on his face throughout most, though not all, of the dance.

4. Last, there is always the intentional and unintentional story two people tell when they dance - no matter who they are. I think there are only glimpses of this when Mocky becomes more comfortable leading her and really immerses himself in the dance.

So is it one, some, or all of these stories that is "wrong"? Is it the social context? The cultural elements that create this disturbing state of affairs? Is it the dance technique? The music? The awkward choice of footwear? The cinematography? The blocking? All of it?

I was hoping people would discuss any or all of the abundant material rather than make blanket statements that close down the discussion. I'm getting great discussions and comments via email and Facebook messages, but it would be enlightening to see such thought-provoking comments here on the blog-post. I allow anonymous comments for that very reason.

Within the greater questions of how the situation depicted in the video came to exist, are smaller questions within this small story itself. Why did the director have Kyoko initiate the embrace? Why does the girl leave the handbag behind at the end? Did Ivy Oldford choose Argentine tango to represent this scenario for the seemingly obvious sexual connotations, or for some other reason?

Again, I think there is so much here to question on the micro level of the video itself, and the macro level - to the social situations being represented.

The Accidental Tangoiste said...

I mostly found it quite sad, the yearning for genuine human connection that I read in their faces--and that probably is at least part of why many of us do dance tango. And why some people use their sexuality the way they do, and why some people are willing to pay for the company (or the "company") of others? Maybe...

The common belief about tango's origins in the brothels (I don't want to try to say whether that is true or not, but we must grant that it's widely believed) added really interesting layers to the Japanese cultural context. And it put me in mind of some of the things I've heard secondhand or personally observed about how people may work to exchange their skill in tango for monetary gain, in ways that may be legitimate or less-than.

I also couldn't help thinking of how often one sees older men--professionals, teachers, acclaimed milongueros--dancing with significantly younger women. I'm sure none of us have to think very hard to come up with examples of that. I won't try to pretend that a woman in her twenties dancing with a much older man (whether or not she is also his lover) is truly the same as a girl ostensibly in her teens dancing with an older man as a very clear stand-in for sex--no matter how badly I want to compare kneesocks with fishnets. ;) But it makes me wonder about a number of things. I'd also been thinking recently about very young girls, preteen and younger, who make themselves up (or are made up) like tiny little adults.

To return to my first impression, of the longing for genuine human connection, that desperate sadness was alleviated by the girl returning the bag--at least a gesture of sympathy, it seemed to me, and perhaps remorse, if not absolutely affection. But, for me, that reopens questions about the healthiness of the relationship for both of them.

Sorry for my long-windedness; you wanted responses... ;)

It's an interesting and challenging little film, in many ways. Thank you for sharing it, and your own analyses and insight on the Japanese cultural context.

Unknown said...

Hi Mari,
I don't think that one comment (mine) constitutes a discussion.
I saw this video on another blog the other day, I didn't like it then and I still don't like it.
I guess my problem is that I raised a daughter on my own a few years ago, and if you leave the tango out (I think it's a metaphor anyway because of the way the story ends) all you have is fetishism (wrong)...or worse, a representation of child Internet predation (wrong) for material gain (wrong) with sexual connotations.
If you want to check my theory out just search "Japanese schoolgirl" on google and see what pops up.
Even sadder is the fact that this type of thing happens quite often in this ugly world, of course not for tango. I don't have a problem with paid escorts, prostitution, or taxi dancers, but men that get turned on by under aged girls or women that dress to represent those girls, are sick, in my opinion (just because something is acceptable in a culture does not make it right).
It's the lack of eye contact until the end and the guilt/fear reaction that spark the feelings in me that something wrong has gone on.
Of course the makers of this film knew what they were doing and also had their own reasons for producing the short.

I won't comment on the dancing.


Iain said...

With regard to the small questions Mari asked, my feeling is that Kyoko initiates the embrace because she is the one providing the service (tango as a metaphor for compensated dating). And she leaves the handbag at the end, because, despite the wrongness of the situation and how she feels about herself, the dance moved her and for a moment made her feel loved. There's an interesting feel to the elevator scene at the end, and I'm not sure whether she's feeling guilty about depriving herself of love by making the transaction a commercial one, or there's some other element of subversion about just who is being exploited.

I liked it. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but there's a lot more to it than cheap lolicon thrills. The dancing is excellent, and isn't the purpose of art to make us think?

Marika said...


Thank you for elaborating and sharing your thoughts. I value your opinions very much and your experience as a father. I also have very strong feelings about several components of the film and while I left out much of that to encourage discussion without people feeling caged in by what I had written, I think it might be a good time share some thoughts as they pertain to your comments.

Regarding fetishism, it's been around pretty much as long as sex has been around and since I live in a country that attaches sexual meaning (and a corresponding material value) to damned near everything, I don't feel I have much room to judge anyone's preferences regarding that.

Regarding your comment: "If you want to check my theory out just search "Japanese schoolgirl" on google and see what pops up."

Several people (via email and PM) have outright said, and your comment implies, a direct association with the 'school girl/school girl uniform" fetish with the Japanese in particular. While they may be more open in their media about these things, it's hardly a Japanese phenomenon. In fact all you have to do is type in "school girl" (without attaching a country to it) and the costumes and stripper sites come up. Japanese sites aren't even in the top 10 results.

Remember Britney Spears?


The film takes place in Japan, and the dancers are Japanese - but the "fetish" is pretty much everywhere.

This comment, "men that get turned on by under aged girls or women that dress to represent those girls, are sick," is what I feel I need to address most. On a lighter note than what follows, I can't think of a single guy I dated in college who would not have gotten a pretty sincere kick out of seeing me in the school girl outfit... or a cheerleader outfit ... or a candy striper outfit (do they still have candy stripers?)

The real problem however is that equating a guy that "likes women dressed up in school girl uniforms" with "a guy that likes school girls" is a dangerous, and erroneous, generalization that won't keep kids safe from predators.

I also wonder, while there is so much outrage that grown men would pursue underage girls (as there should be), that comparatively, there seems to be so little outrage that there is a generation of girls (and boys) who believe that it's okay to treat their bodies and youth as finite, marketable commodities. They didn't learn that from sexual deviants. They learned that from us - meaning business, media and entertainment outlets that we, as customers, support those entities with our attention and our money. Where is the outrage over that?

You wrote: "It's the lack of eye contact until the end and the guilt/fear reaction that spark the feelings in me that something wrong has gone on.
Of course the makers of this film knew what they were doing and also had their own reasons for producing the short."

You're right that they (actually Ivy Oldford, the writer, director, producer) did have her own reasons for producing the short. Which is why I linked to her blog - it was precisely to draw attention to the uncomfortable and, for most Japanese, quite alarming trend of young women trading affection/attention/sexual favors for money and material goods without believing that there are any negative consequences. I believe that Ms. Oldford deliberately made the film ambiguous in several areas to get people to think about it.

I perceive the end slightly differently - but that's material for a separate post.

Marika said...

Accidental Tanguiste - thank you a ton for your comments - and for being so long winded!

My thoughts ran quite similarly. I kept wondering how I would have thought about it if they had used a different dance instead - but that's the point, I think. It's because it's tango that the points Ms. Oldford is trying to get the audience to think about come across as strongly as they do. And trying to hold in my mind such conflicting thoughts about it at the same time has been challenging. Appreciating several artistic aspects of the video, not the least of which the music, is difficult when the context is so disturbing. Ms. Oldford is certainly not the first director to attempt to use an art form to attract and repel at the same time - but her inclusion of tango makes it even more complicated a lens through which to look. I wonder if Tina Turner would have gotten more controversy if she'd used a teenager as the main character in her Private Dancer video?

I was also reminded of so many comments I hear and read regarding the stereotype you mentioned of older/well-respected milongueros dancing with younger partners. Even though there are loads of contrary examples - the stereotype remains strong.

I agree about the ending - the part most open to interpretation. There seems to be so much going on and because there's no dialogue - there is so much room to fill in the gaps. A more concrete ending would have made the film "easier" - but far less compelling.

Marika said...

Iain - your response got me thinking - I also wasn't sure what to think of, or how to categorize the elevator scene. Her expression and body language could be interpreted several ways - though every way I can think of would almost certainly be negative. As I've said before in the other comments, I think that it was Ms. Oldford's intention to leave those questions unanswered.

What has surprised me is that several people seem to be more outraged at the messenger, than at the message (that this situation exists). Maybe if she'd made a documentary instead, people wouldn't have speculated if she was somehow endorsing it. But then would as many people watch it and ask so many questions?

(It would be interesting to know what the automated elevator messages mean - who knows. Just caught myself wondering about that. )

Iain said...

I guess people are reacting to an assumption that by making this beautiful film, the maker is condoning/glamourising the practice. It's certainly a sympathetic portrayal in some ways, but I agree with you that the maker is deliberately leaving space for the viewer to fill in their own thoughts about the situation, the character's motivations, etc.

The automated elevator messages are just "Doors closing" (Doa ga shimarimasu) and "First Floor" (Ikkai desu) - I'm not sure that they're significant. What I did start to wonder about now was the music. What did they dance to on the platform? Was it the piece chosen as the backing track for the film, or something else, or nothing at all? Where does the music come from? If the music is all in their heads, what does that say?

Marika said...

@Iain - Thank you for your comments and the translation - it's silly, but it was bugging me not knowing lol. I'm passing along your questions regarding whether Kyoko and Mocky danced to that particular music at the time of filming or if that was added later.

Jane Prusakova said...

What bugs me the most about this discussion (not the video) is that Mary says the comments come by email, rather than as blog comments.

Think about about: people choose to express their outrage directly to Mary in private emails, rather than participate in public discussion on the blog. This controversy is hardly private to anyone watching the video and reading this blog. The blog invites the discussion, but private emails to Mary are not about the controversy itself - they are more about punishing Mary for bringing up a controversial subject.

Mary, thank you for posting this video, stating your opinion, and inviting others to participate in a public discussion. Please keep doing that on your great blog, and do not be afraid to bring up controversial subjects - many of your readers appreciate it.

Marika said...

Jane - thank you so much for your comments, I really appreciate them. The rants have died off for now I think. I too was very surprised at the intense anger in some of the messages I received. I was hoping people would (openly) discuss it, argue about it - that was the point. I didn't want people to feel like they needed to agree with me to be able to post on the blog - it's a very complex issue and there are so many layers to what's being shown and how one may view it. It did generate a lot of discussion here and on the Facebook post, so that was good. Thank you again so very much for your comments and support.

Anonymous said...

Heyhey. I came upon your post looking for enjokosai articles and was pretty intrigued by the short and comments.

I think the short is a good effort, but not all of the pieces fall into place for it to be an excellent film. The filmmaker needed to make stronger commitments to themes but wound up making something pretty vague.

For starters, I don't agree with the whole notion of enjo-kosai mixed with tango. The passion of that dance vs. mutual exchange based on materialism. These two ideas are not real complements or contrasts and the rationale behind them is based on two different lines of logic.

It's trying to mix too many ideas that do not work with each other. The female dancer does not typify the stereotypical image of a highschooler. She doesn't look innocent, nor does she have the soft lines of a teenage girl. On a conceptual level on her appearance alone, she would be an exception, someone who defies the conventional symbolic understanding of enjo-kosai. And by doing that, it also brings up background questions and the nature of their relationship. Some people might like that type of thing, but I personally think it muddies the thematic waters. I mean once the scope of the film goes into the nature of their personal relationship, then the dance makes absolutely no sense because once it has to start accounting for realism instead of staying in the realm of symbolism and idealistic fantasy (which is one of the backbones of enjo-kosai). The dance itself is meant to be a showpiece that stands on its own. It's too adult and smooth and sort of works in a different realm of adult passion/fantasy. It had to choose one or the other or to mesh them in some sort of way, and the film was just way too simple for that. There's really no real reason for the Enjo-kosai to be there otherwise. It would have made more sense for an adult prostitute to be there, but the filmmaker intentionally chose take the symbolic, recognizable benefit of the school uniform without even justifying it or accounting for youth.

Better filmmakers don't have scope issues. I mean it's a simple film, with potentially interesting ideas, but it has to be a little more explicit with what it wants to be.

Anyway, thanks for the head hurt. cheers!