/

Historic ‘pink’ theater hopes to put ladies on seats, not just screens

by Brett Bull

The Kabuki-za theater in Ginza is not the only notable Tokyo structure dating back to the 1950s that has shut its doors this year.

With large illuminated lettering affixed to its pasty white facade proclaiming “Adult movies,” the all-night Ueno Okura Theater, located in Taito Ward close to Shinobazu Pond and at the edge of Ueno Park, has been entertaining fans of erotic cinema for nearly five decades.

The two-screen building, however, closed Saturday due to safety concerns and aesthetic problems resulting from its aged interiors. But the theater widely regarded as Japan’s top outlet for soft-core “pink” pornographic films will continue inside a new complex across the alley and begin targeting a different type of cinemagoer: women.

“Female customers can’t typically come to this kind of place because they feel embarrassed,” says the theater’s bespectacled general manager, Hidekazu Saito. “But we want them to come without hesitation.”

Due to unfold Sunday in the new theater complex was a special “ladies only” event (“Female-ing”) featuring a speaking engagement with three adult-film actresses (Chisato Shoda, Maki Tomoda and Riri Koda) and the screening of two new films. These include director Tetsuya Takehora’s “Shiofuki Hanayome no Sei Hakusho” (“White Paper on a Gushing Bride’s Sex Life”), a coming-of-age story about a young woman seeking love that costars Koda.

To stand outside the darkened lobby of the old Okura was to see a steady procession of middle-aged males passing quietly through the doors leading to the main screen and the entrance leading downstairs to the much smaller Ueno Chika Tokusen Theater in the basement.

But Saito senses a shift. “I know that there are so many women who want to see these kinds of films,” he says.

The new building is accommodating to female sensibilities. With a well-lit lobby and bright red and blue signs covering its sloping concrete exterior, the new Okura creates a more modern atmosphere compared with the drab tile flooring and faded earth-tone wall coverings of the old structure.

Pink films, or pinku eiga, date back to the 1960s. These short films (usually running for 60 minutes) are made by small companies, most notably Okura Eiga, which operates the Ueno Okura, and differ from conventional porn flicks in that the story lines are generally more broadly developed.

Originally the Okura opened under the Toei film company in 1951. It was 11 years later that it screened “Flesh Market,” a tale of torture and bondage directed by Satoru Kobayashi that is typically considered to be Japan’s first pink film. By 1971, it was entirely dedicated to the pink genre.

Around that time, the Okura was one of eight theaters in Ueno offering erotic entertainment. That number slowly dwindled over the next few decades as home video crept into the market.

But with the motto “Every day, all night,” the Okura persevered as the industry’s iconic venue, with experts seeing its longevity as a metaphor for the industry. “The passion for pink films does not fade. It is a culture that perseveres,” explains Yoshiyuki Hayashida, founder of the pink-film publication PG.

Longtime fans should not be disappointed with its reincarnation. The number of screens has increased by one to three, the former basement theater has been relocated to the second floor, and a wheelchair space and headphones for the hearing impaired are provided.

Perhaps crucially to many, one carryover from the original venue is the policy of changing the sanitary sheets over each seat’s headrest on a daily basis.

The recent closing of numerous long-running theaters in Tokyo was not a deterrent in deciding the fate of the Okura. Saito believes that if the theater were simply closed the genre would slowly die. “If we lose this, we’ll lose pink films,” he says. “This is to save them.”

Doors open for “Female-ing” on Aug. 1 at 1:30 p.m. Regular all-night screenings begin on Aug. 4. On Aug. 8 and Aug. 15, additional talk events will feature various actresses and directors from the industry. For more information, call (03) 3831-0157.