The film was made in 1992, just as the Japanese asset price bubble burst. In fact, a dominatrix asks her client how his real estate business is doing in these tough times, and he replies that he's weathering the storm pretty well. Later on she tells us that Japan is rich, but that Japanese men remain anxious about their wealth, and this fuels their depravity. For the masochists this may be a yearning for order to be imposed by an imperious great mother. Perhaps the sadists lord over whores in order to feel a sense of control over their lives.
Ai ("love" in Japanese) is the meek doe-in-the-headlights protagonist learning her way around decadent Tokyo. She lacks confidence, believing she has no distinguishable talents, and she is hung up on a guy who left her. The dominatrix who befriends her after their session together is far more independent. She talks about having the blood of the first creatures that crawled out of the oceans, and how she also wants to evolve so that she can survive in many places. But then she puts on a karaoke show in which she runs through a pastiche of feminine poses. While she exploits her clients, she is also reliant on them. At the beginning of the film, a John describes the wives of lawyers and politicians as the "real whores". Marriage is servitude, the film seems to suggest, but whoring offers some independence.
Another discarded lover, decaying in front of our very eyes, sings to Ai near the end of the film, it seems about their mutual doom. Relying of fantasies of powerful gentlemen who can take you to London and care for you leaves women in the gutter. The courage pill the dominatrix gives Ai doesn't result in the disorientating surreal quest, it gets all of that crap out of Ai's system, magic rings included. Stained white dress, face caked in mud, Ai has to face the music. And at the very end of the film, the music cuts out as Ai stares coldly at the bathroom mirror, turns sharply and pushes past us with a new sense of purpose. All innocence gone, she's ready to make the most of what decadent Tokyo has to offer.
It's a bleak picture. Empowerment isn't possible because chaos turns us all into savages or simpering cowards, and women have to carve out a space in these dark days by seeing themselves truly, with all illusions stripped away. The film is at its best in that final arc, where the fantasy takes flight and there is still some mystery and wonder in Tokyo. Everything else is grim, unpleasant and frightening.