The Nikkatsu studio is the Japanese film industry’s oldest — it will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2012. In the 1950s and early 1960s it was also a box-office leader, turning out hit after hit with Japan’s biggest postwar star, Yujiro Ishihara. By the 1970s, however, Nikkatsu and the rest of the industry were struggling, as audiences deserted theaters for television.
In 1971, the studio was staring bankruptcy in the face, but instead of calling its lawyers, it decided to switch the bulk of its production to softcore porn. Churned out by the hundreds by indie production companies, “eroductions” — the then-current Japanese-English term for adult films — were drawing fans by offering them something they couldn’t get on the small screen.
Over the next 18 years, until 1988 when adult videos basically finished the genre off, the studio released 1,133 so-called Nikkatsu Roman Porno (a contraction of “romantic pornographique”) films. These softcore features were made with bigger budgets and more studio resources than the adult industry norm. Also, directors were given wide latitude to tell stories and develop characters, as long as they fulfilled the minimum requirement of a bed scene every 10 minutes or so. In the 1970s Nikkatsu Roman Porno films were regularly ranked in critics’ top-10 lists, while launching the careers of many young directors who went on to mainstream success, including Yojiro Takita, director of the Oscar-winning “Okuribito” (“Departures,” 2008).
Now Nikkatsu is reviving Roman Porno in the form of two new films — “Danchizuma: Hirusagari no Joji” (“Love in the Afternoon”) and “Ushiro kara Mae kara” (“From the Back or from the Front”) — the former playing Feb. 13-26; the latter Feb. 27-Mar. 12 at Eurospace in the Shibuya district of Tokyo.
The films are reworkings (not remakes) of Roman Porno classics from the 1970s, with the target audience being, not horny guys logging onto Internet porn sites, but both men and women, whether dating couples or no.
The first, Shun Nakahara’s “Love in the Afternoon,” based on the first-ever Roman Porno film, certainly offers equal-opportunity eroticism. Sayaka (Sakiko Takao) is a bored young housewife in a big apartment complex. Her workaholic hubby is always away and her one “friend” is a middle-aged busybody. Then a handsome water-purifier salesman (Masaki Miura) comes calling.
The setup is a cliche, but Nakahara, who apprenticed in Roman Porno before embarking on a successful straight directing career with the high school drama “The Cherry Orchard” (“Sakura no Sono,” 1990), tells his simple story with a winning combination of eroticism and realism. Sayaka and the salesman are both lonely souls who find in each other, not just sexual release but a warm kindred spirit in a cold world. At the same time, they know that prying eyes are about — that real life, with its insistent claims, is right outside the bedroom door.
Also, in contrast to the mechanical or even brutal nature of the sex in so much Japanese porn (including, it must be said, so-called classics of Roman Porno), the futon gymnastics in Nakahara’s film are playful, tender and hot.
Shoichiro Masumoto’s “From the Back, From the Front” is a comedy of the lewd, decidedly non-PC sort. Momoko (Tomomi Miyauchi) is struggling to make her quota as a cabby until Ranko (Kotono), a cute, successful colleague, lets her in on a secret: Sex sells. Soon Momoko is giving “special services” to her male clients — and reaping the happy financial rewards.
Then the cops catch her in the act, give pursuit and she picks up her “last ride”: a nice, if mysterious, guy (Yoshiki Kanahashi) on a private mission.
The story is little more than a series of porny incidents, played for laughs, while the two female leads are amiable sorts with minimal acting skills. Nonetheless, the film rattles along entertainingly enough, with moments of pathos here and wacky erotic invention there.
Both films are cast with talented male actors — such as Masaki Miura in “Love in the Afternoon” and Yoshiki Kanahashi in “From the Back or from the Front,” with long lists of straight film and TV credits. It’s hard to call their work in these revivals art, but they make the viewing experience a lot more pleasurable — especially while sitting through those 10-minute passages of nonerotic exposition.