Yuji Tajiri and Shinji Imaoka were two of the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink” — a group of young pinku eiga (erotic film) directors who were hailed as the genre’s hope after they rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s.
That hope has since faded. Once made in large quantities for specialized theaters in Japan’s many entertainment districts, pink films — short features peppered with scenes of simulated sex — have been swept away by the flood of Internet porn. At an interview with The Japan Times at K’s Cinema in Shinjuku — where Tajiri’s new film “Koppamijin (Broken Pieces)” is currently playing — the two directors struggled to come up with the names of more than three pink theaters still operating in Tokyo.
K’s, which programs indie films from Japan and abroad, is not one of them. Neither is Theatre Shinjuku, where Imaoka’s new film “Tsugunai: Shinjuku Golden-gai no Onna (Unlucky Woman’s Blues)” is screening.
As Imaoka explains, the pink-film company that he and Tajiri both worked for, Kokuei, “has almost stopped production — they may not last much longer.” Imaoka laconically adds that he made “Unlucky Woman’s Blues” with “different methods” from the usual pink film.
That difference began, Tajiri explains, with Kyoko Hayami, a former pink-film actress who manages a bar in Shinjuku’s district of narrow alleys and cramped drinking holes known as Golden-gai. In “Tsugunai” she stars as the proprietress at one such bar. Hayami approached Kokuei with a proposal for a film set in Golden-gai, with fellow actress and proprietress Shoko Kudo as the heroine.
“That was a long time ago — nearly five years,” Tajiri says. “Then, when Kokuei could no longer make pink films, they revived this project so they could keep production going.”
“Unlucky Woman’s Blues” has the sort of sex scenes usually found in pink films, which artfully suggest real bonking rather than rawly show it, but the film also serves as a promotion for Golden-gai, with district bars providing both settings and actors.
“It’s a kind of successor to pink films. It wouldn’t make sense for Kokuei to do something totally unrelated to pink films,” Imaoka says. “They wanted me to do something that had the pink-film spirit or was like a pink film, but in a different form.”
“Pink films are rated R-18 in Japan, but (Imaoka’s) is an R-15,” Tajiri interjects. “The fundamental difference is that if you show the lower half of the body in a sex scene you get an R-18.”
“Koppamijin,” a film which Tajiri produced himself, is aimed at a wider, younger audience, so its rating is General — anyone can watch it. Tajiri also came up with the story line: A girl likes her brother’s best friend, but the friend turns out to be gay and is in love with the brother. Not the usual material for a pink film, or a Japanese commercial film for that matter, since investors in the latter want a proven property, be it a manga, novel or TV series, not an original script.
“I took it around, but in the end I had to make it with my own company, Boukenou (literally: Adventure Kings), Tajiri says. “With indie films now it’s hard to do it any other way.”
At this point Imaoka chimes in: “With this sort of story, you could have written in sex scenes, right? But there are hardly any in the film — maybe one. Didn’t you think about that?”
Tajiri says he spent three years going through eight drafts of the script. “Those sorts of scenes were in the second and third drafts, but I finally cut them.” One reason was casting. “If you make those kinds of scenes, you are limited in who you can cast. I didn’t feel they were necessary,” Tajiri says. He contrasts himself with Imaoka, whose backers requested R-15 sex scenes as a sales point.
“I didn’t have that kind of sponsor. That is, no one was telling me to include those kinds of scenes, and I didn’t want to do them myself, so from the start I saw absolutely no need for it. Even kids can watch this movie,” he adds with a laugh.
“Kids wouldn’t get it,” Imaoka shoots back.
“Kids in the upper elementary grades would get it, say, 12-year-olds,” Tajiri ripostes. “Not younger ones, though. But I think middle school kids would definitely get it.”
This launches Tajiri on a long disquisition on gay people, beginning with their supposed ability to feel “pure love,” as opposed to heterosexual relationships, which are influenced by “genetic imperatives to propagate.” He then segues to how prejudices again homosexuality — from theaters reluctant to screen gay-themed films to stereotyped depictions of gays on television and in films — are fading in Japan.
But Tajiri also points to a self-censorship in current depictions of gay characters that, in his view, is just as deplorable.
“You get two approaches now. One is to treat gayness as some sort of social issue. The other is to use gay people as an accent, like using a fat comedian to get laughs. I really hate both. I wanted a gay character in the film without making a fuss about it. I didn’t want to make his sexual orientation the main subject, as a gay movie might. One of the four main characters is gay — that’s all.”
One way out of the restrictions, commercial and otherwise, that both directors face in Japan is to appeal more directly to foreign audiences, as Imaoka attempted with his 2011 so-called pink musical, “Onna no Kappa (Underwater Love),” co-produced by Kokuei and German producer/distributor Rapid Eye Movies. The film was screened widely abroad, though its take at the domestic box office left something to be desired.
“It would be really interesting to do something abroad,” says Imaoka. “But I feel I haven’t found the way to do it yet. What I do kind of understand is the mini-theater market (i.e., independent theaters) in Tokyo — that’s about as far as I can see now. ‘Unlucky Woman’s Blues’ is not for overseas audiences.”
“But it’s got a lot of scenes with Hayami’s character wearing kimono,” Tajiri interjects.
“You’re joking, right?” Imaoka replies.
“No, not at all,” says Tajiri, “That sort of thing looks cool.”
“It draws the audience in, I guess,” Imaoka concedes.
“When I watch an old Japanese movie and see geisha performing, it’s really wonderful. That alone makes it worth watching,” Tajiri says.
I imagine Tajiri making a 1950s-style geisha drama, but he says his dream project is an action movie: “Something like a French noir. An ordinary person is mistaken for a criminal. But I can’t raise the money for it.”
Imaoka has no such definite plans. “I’ll shoot something,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got to keep going … or else.”
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