Pink thrills: Japanese sex movies go global

While softcore pornography is associated with low-budget, lowbrow fun, Japanese classics are now sweeping film festivals


As the last wave of vengeful female ghosts inspired by “Ring’ “s Sadako fade from cinema screens worldwide, either in their original J-horror manifestations or the obligatory Hollywood remakes, more adventurous foreign-film fans have begun turning their heads Eastward in search of a new frisson. Their next, more carnal, focus is the Japanese pink film, or pinku eiga.

Pink films are softcore sex movies shot on 35-mm film, as opposed to video, and intended primarily for screening on rolling triple bills in specialist adult theaters. It’s a market that has long died out in most other countries in the world, but in Japan it is still in rude health.

In recent years, such films have become an increasingly popular feature in international festival schedules too, including Frankfurt’s Nippon Connection, Udine’s Far East Film Festival and London’s Raindance. In September, Austin’s Fantastic Film Fest played host to a retro of genre high-points with new prints of two early classics — 1969’s “Buru Fuirumu no Onna” (“Blue Film Woman”) and ’71’s “Funshutsu Kigan” (“Gushing Prayer”) — playing alongside the decidedly non-PC “Jigoku no Ropa” (“S&M Hunter”) (1986) and 2003’s bewildering “Yoake no Ushi” (“A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn”). The latter two titles were provided by the L.A.-based company Pink Eiga, which is poised to unleash a tsunami of some 50 such works on an unsuspecting American DVD market early in 2009. And this November, South Korea boasted its own Pink Film Festival aimed solely at women viewers.

The term “pinku eiga” was first coined in 1963 by the journalist Minoru Murai, who playfully suggested a Pink Ribbon award as an alternative to the Blue Ribbon prize for the year’s top mainstream release as voted by the Japanese press, for the new strain of cheaply made productions that were luring audiences from the major studios’ works with the promise of a bit of bared flesh. In their early days the films were sometimes referred to as sanbyakumanen eiga (¥3-million films), their shoestring budgets hinting at their throwaway nature and the lowly aspirations of their producers. Today this figure remains fixed at a similar level, necessitating breakneck shooting schedules and near-impossible feats of ingenuity from their makers. This is independent cinema at its most extreme.

From the brief trickle of titles that followed Satoru Kobayashi’s “Flesh Market” (1962), generally seen as the genre’s genesis, output soared, and within a couple of years accounted for half of domestic production, with a couple of hundred titles a year. By the early ’70s, bolstered through fan publications such as the magazine Seijin Eiga (Adult Film), this upstart industry had developed a self-contained distribution network; its own star system of pinup girls such as Kazuko Shirakawa, Naomi Tani and Miki Hayashi; and a winning formula of five or six nude scenes within a standard running time of an hour.

The films proved so popular in an era of waning box-office receipts that soon the major companies got in on the act. Japan’s oldest film studio, Nikkatsu, famously made an abrupt about-turn and between 1971 and 1988 was devoting most of its resources to its Roman Poruno (Roman Porno) line of feature-length erotic extravagances, with titles such as “Office Lady Diary: Scent of a She-Cat” (1972), “Tokyo Emanuelle” (1975) and “Pink Hip Girl” (1978). The name is often mistakenly described as a contraction of “romantic pornography,” but actually derives from the French term roman pornographique (erotic novels), the literary association intended to give it a more highbrow cachet against its cheap-jack independent rivals.

Even today, plenty of traces remain around Japan of this high-watermark era of the theatrical sex film. Tokyo boasts around a dozen dedicated venues screening both new and old titles in areas including Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Shinbashi, with others in major regional centers including Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. (A specialist gay theater in Tokyo’s Ueno district provided the backdrop for one of the more surreal moments in Michel Gondry’s segment of the recent omnibus film “Tokyo!”) Attendances may be down, but output still hovers well above 50 films a year, produced by the four companies still active in this market: Shintoho, OP Eiga, Kokuei and Xces.

Pink and Roman Porno have been on the radar of more ardent fans of cult movie curios for some time now, with Thomas and Yuko Mihara Weisser’s spotter’s guide “Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films” published in 1998. A year ago, director Quentin Tarantino sang the praises of Japan’s sexy cinematic legacy in an interview with The Japan Times, gushing enthusiastically about “the whole Nikkatsu Roman Poruno thing. I almost can’t believe that that existed in cinema! The way they did it in the ’70s, where they’re real movies with real actors.”

Viewers eager to dabble in the pink experience in situ but who feel intimated by the rough-and-ready environment of the films’ primary outlets — it’s not only members of the fairer sex who might find the lack of sanitary toilets and the roving hands of fellow audience members a turnoff — have classier options if they want to get a better idea of what is currently de rigeur in this strange cinematic subculture. Arthouse venues such as Shibuya’s Euro Space and the Pole Pole Higashi Nakano have been known to air the works of pink’s more progressive practitioners occasionally, under the more enigmatic original directors’ titles rather than the salacious names under which they do the adult-cinema circuit. (Toshiya Ueno’s 2004 film “Aimai” [“Ambiguous”], for example, played pink theaters as “Waisetsu Netto Shudan Ikasete!!” [“Obscene Internet Group: Make Me Come!!”])

But the high point of the pink fan’s calendar has to be the annual Pink Taisho Awards every April, an all-nighter held at the Shinbungeiza theater in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district that screens the Top 5 of the year as voted for by readers of the fanzine PG. This friendly event attracts an eclectic range of viewers of both genders, from industry figures to hardcore cinephiles and the casually curious.

When viewed as pornography, pink film is pretty tame. Its strengths in part stem from the relatively strict censorship imposed by the film-industry watchdog Eirin, which has meant that until quite recently, even fairly innocuous shots of pubic hair were barred from the screen, and more graphic depictions of unsimulated sexual activity have remained a definite no-no. Filmmakers have therefore had to develop a cinematic shorthand to stimulate their viewers’ desires, offering something quite distinct from the more down ‘n’ dirty antics to be found in the home-viewing market represented by AV (Adult Video). As films in which narrative plays a substantial role, their eroticism derives as much from their actors’ performances and their scenarios as what they do or don’t show on screen. The fact that they are intended for cinema viewing encourages a greater emphasis on plot, dialogue and character.

Many are surprised to find that pink’s most prominent performers can actually act. In the past decade in particular, imaginative directors such as Shinji Imaoka and Yuji Tajiri have recognized a sizable female market for their works on video. Tajiri’s “Fuwafuwa to Beddo no Ue de” (“No Love Juice — Rustling in Bed”) (1999) focuses on a relationship between a 26-year-old office lady and a younger college student she meets while catching the last train home. These directors have placed a fuller emphasis on the emotions of their women protagonists, with surprisingly moving results.

However, the subversive political content of certain titles can’t be ignored either. Koji Wakamatsu, the towering giant of the early scene — whose epic docudrama “Jitsuroku: Rengo Sekigun” (“United Red Army”) charting the violent implosion of the radical leftwing group in the early ’70s, was released earlier in 2008 — rapidly became notorious for this sort of thing. After earning a name for himself with his Molotov cocktails of pop-art stylistics and punkish defiance in titles such as “Kabe no Naka no Himegoto” (“Secret Acts Behind Walls”) — which was labeled “a national disgrace” by the press after it played at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965 — “Okasareta Byakui” (“Violated Angels”) (1967) and “Seizoku” (“Sex Jack”) (1970), Wakamatsu and his screenwriter Masao Adachi spent a couple of months in the Golan Heights filming Palestinian guerrillas. This footage ended up as the basis for a recruitment film for the Japan Red Army. Adachi went that one step further, remaining in Beirut for some 30 years before returning to Japan under police escort.

Political comment can still be found among the more routine sex flicks that comprise the bulk of the genre’s current output, though nowadays it’s more satirical in intent than polemic. A recent example is Mitsuru Meike’s freak breakout hit “Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai” (“The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai”) (2004), which reminded overseas audiences that the genre is still alive and kicking in the new millennium. A delirious lo-fi comedic romp in which a dim-witted call girl attempts to avert nuclear Armageddon while being menaced by North Korean spies and a man in a George Bush mask after a rubbery replica of the American president’s trigger finger falls into her lap, the film played some 20 international film festivals before its U.S. theatrical release in 2006 — and was seen by considerably more people outside Japan than Takeshi Kitano’s last three works.

Meanwhile, the rash of older titles flooding onto the foreign market continues unabated. Alongside Pink Eiga’s upcoming releases, another company, Mondo Macabro, has cherry-picked a handful of Nikkatsu’s finest outings for DVD distribution in America, while Rapid Eye Movies continues to pioneer the German market. Throughout December, the British Film Institute is paying tribute to Japanese erotic cinema with a series of classics from the ’60s and ’70s set to tour around the U.K. Even more bizarrely, there’s currently talk of a Hollywood remake of Meike’s film. Perhaps it’s not too long before Sachiko follows Sadako into the multiplex.

Wild Japan: The Erotic Art of Cult and Classic Japanese Cinema runs Dec. 1-30 at the BFI Southbank in London. See for more information. Jasper Sharp is the coeditor of the Midnight Eye Web site ( and author of “Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema.”