Revealing artistic shades of pink in Japanese cinema

by Mark Schilling

Porno gets little respect as a film genre in the West, with its makers relegated to a ghetto that few escape. How many A-list directors in Hollywood, past or present, started by making even the milder sort of sex stuff seen on cable?

BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp. FAB Press, 2008, $37.95 (paper)

In Japan, however, the situation has been quite different, as Jasper Sharp’s excellent, exhaustive study “Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema” makes clear. Many of the leading directors in the Japanese film industry today, especially those who entered it after the studio system collapsed in the early 1970s, learned their craft in the porno industry.

One is Masayuki Suo, whose 1984 “Hentai Kazoku: Aniki no Yome-san” (“Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride”) is a porno parody in the style of Yasujiro Ozu. Suo went on to direct “Shall We Dance?” (1995), a dramedy about a salaryman who takes up ballroom dancing that became the most popular Japanese live-action film ever released in the United States. Another is Yojiro Takita, who made a series of soft-core comedies about commuter train molesters in the 1980s, but went on a mainstream career that has culminated with “Okuribito” (“Departures”), a hit drama about an apprentice undertaker that is Japan’s nominee this year for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

But as these examples suggest, and as Sharp explains in thoroughly researched, fluently written detail, Japan’s adult film industry has long since passed its two-decade heyday, which began with the migration of the movie audience to television and the subsequent loosening of on-screen restrictions on sex and nudity in the 1960s, and ended with the rise of video in the 1980s, which sent erotic films for theatrical release into a long, irreversible decline.

It is Sharp’s examination of this heyday that forms the core of the book and is its chief value, since few researchers, foreign or Japanese, have gone so deep — from descriptions of “ero-ductions” (a now obsolete Japanese-English term combining “erotic” and “production”) of the 1960s, most long since vanished into the ether, to the byzantine workings of the porno film business, with its denizens often working under pseudonyms and its companies often operating in the shadow of the underworld.

Sharp also makes a strong case for many of the films as not just markers of changing social mores but ground- breaking, taboo-challenging works of cinematic art. He is hardly the first. When “Kabe no Naka no Himegoto” (“Secret Acts Behind Walls,” 1965), Koji Wakamatsu’s raw depiction of gamy deeds behind middle-class facades, was selected for the 1965 Berlin Film Festival over the work of senior Japanese directors considered more worthy, local critics howled their outrage, but their successors now regard Wakamatsu as one of the era’s key experimental filmmakers. He is also one of the few who has maintained control over his films of the period, many of which are now available on DVD.

Contemporary Japanese critics also praised the films of Chusei Sone, Masaru Konuma, Tatsumi Kumashiro and other directors of the Nikkatsu studio, which turned over the bulk of its production to erotica from 1971 to 1988. “Nikkatsu Roman Porno,” as the studio’s products came to be called, not only had bigger budgets and longer shooting schedules than the (admittedly low) industry standard, but also had real stories that explored the stranger, darker reaches of the human psyche, sexual and otherwise. Nikkatsu films regularly appeared in the Kinema Junpo magazine’s Best Ten list — considered the industry’s most prestigious honor — throughout the 1970s.

In the past two decades, the adult film (as opposed to adult video) industry has solidified — or rather fossilized — into a small circuit of specialized theaters supplied by a small number of companies. The makers of what are now called “pinku eiga” (pink films) have developed a rough formula that Sharp carefully defines, but essentially amounts to a one-hour running time, with scenes of simulated bonking tossed in every 10 minutes or so.

Some of their directors, notably those working for the Kokuei company, have experimented freely with this formula and have won critical and popular recognition at home and abroad, including Takehisa Zeze, Shinji Imaoka and Mitsuru Meike. Compared with some of their porno predecessors, however, such as Nagisa Oshima, whose hard-core masterpiece “Ai no Corrida” (“In the Realm of the Senses,” 1976) generated a major scandal locally and became a big hit internationally, they are still relatively minor figures, working on the industry fringes. Their future — and that of the pink film business as a whole — is cloudy, if not yet black.

Sharp makes a scattering of errors. He identifies Shun Shibata as “the president of a French film company”; he in fact heads France Eiga-sha, a leading importer of foreign art-house films for more than three decades. He states that Yujiro Ishihara, Nikkatsu’s biggest (non-Roman-Porno) star, started his own independent production company in 1968; the correct year is 1963. He identifies Moe Sakura, the star of Zeze’s “Raigyo” (1997), in a picture caption, but does not mention her in the text or index — a strange omission.

All in all, however, Sharp has written a monumental work in a long-neglected field that no one will probably feel the need to expand on significantly for years, even decades. “Behind the Pink Curtain” is as close as a book comes to being a category killer.

Mark Schilling is a film reviewer for The Japan Times.