Makers of soft-core porn have big dreams

Shooting on a shoestring, directors hope to shake up mainstream film

by Yoshihisa Kato

Kyodo News

Beneath an overpass of the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district, the Shinbashi Roman Theater, which specializes in pornographic movies, quietly opens its doors.

Despite it being the middle of a weekday, men occupy about 60 percent of the theater’s 96 seats. Some are sleeping, while others look at the screen with the sound of trains rumbling overhead.

“I drop in whenever I’m free,” says a 58-year-old man who comes to the theater once a week. “With a rich variety, each movie is interesting.

“It is better to see a movie on a large screen,” he adds.

In fact, opportunities are increasing for general audiences to see soft-core porn.

Soft-core porn has its roots in ‘roman porno,’ as it’s known in Japan. Roman porno is the shortened Japanese-English form of “romantic pornography.”

In the 1990s, films and stories by a new generation of directors, called the “Four Heavenly Kings” of porn movies, including Kazuhiro Sano, attracted attention.

Since then, the number of such movies shown in minitheaters has been increasing, and demand for software broadcasts via communications satellite has been growing.

Director Mitsuru Meike, 36, has twice held a film “tournament” involving audience voting called the “P1 Grand Prix,” to put soft-core porn movies on their feet. The venue was packed with people who had never seen such movies before.

Meike decided to become a director when he saw Sano’s movies while a university student. “There was a freedom and stimulation not found in ordinary movies.”

These elements are the very feature that make roman porno movies what they are. Yoshiyuki Hayashida, 34, of soft-core porn magazine PG, said, “The ‘principle of writers’ in which everything is permitted if there is nakedness has been handed down from porn movies that began in the 1960s to the roman porn movies and now to young directors.

“If we produce interesting (soft-core porn) movies, general movies will come to have a sense of crisis,” he said. “We would like to shake the whole Japanese movie industry from its foundations.”

The theater under the Yamanote Line in Shinbashi, charging 1,300 yen admission, shows three old-school roman porno movies and newer films, changing the lineup on a weekly basis.

Manager Yoshio Matsuzaka, 56, said patrons are chiefly middle-aged and elderly people, and their numbers tend to increase the day after pensions are paid.

Japan’s first roman porno movie, produced by Nikkatsu Corp., was released in 1971 when the movie industry as a whole was feared to be in decline due to TV’s rapidly growing popularity. “When (popular female singers) Jun Mayuzumi and Midori Satsuki appeared in roman porno movies, there were so many customers that we couldn’t shut the doors to our theater,” Matsuzaka said. “Now, the number is about 100 a day.”

“In 1971, youths like university students were drifting into stagnation after the failure of their social movement,” 62-year-old movie critic Reiko Kitagawa said. To them, soft-core pornography meant “freedom of expression.”

The films “had narrative, not simply sex scenes,” she said.

Nikkatsu produced about 1,100 roman porno movies until 1988, when adult movies were at their peak. Although soft-core porn films are said to have declined since then, about 90 are still produced every year, according to industry insiders.

In an apartment in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district in January, the shooting of a new soft-core porn movie was carried out at midnight with a crew of less than 10, including the director. The shoot took less than a week with a budget of only about 5 million yen.

The main actress was Mayu Asada, 30, playing a woman living independently of men. She said she had thought porn movies were “dark and terrifying” until a friend took her to a theater to see one for the first time. She has since performed in seven of them.

“Many theater audiences give me various impressions,” she said. “They see movies as important productions, and I feel I am doing something worthwhile.”

She said she would like more people, especially women, to see these movies.

“I know men see them because of their sexual interest, but even women should not dislike them.”