Since it launched here in September 2015, Netflix has built a long list of Japanese programming, from the hit reality series “Terrace House” to the manzai (comic duo) drama “Hibana: Spark.” Mostly, though, it’s the sort of fare you can find on network TV or in your local multiplex.
But “The Naked Director,” which drops on Netflix on Aug. 8, challenges the taboos of local television so frontally that it’s hard to imagine any network executive here giving it their hanko (stamp) of approval, even for the latest of late-night slots.
Based on Nobuhiro Motohashi’s reportage about the career of pioneering adult video director Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada), the series portrays the AV industry of the 1980s and early ’90s with unabashed eroticism, including steamy bed scenes that show exactly why Muranishi’s videos had customers lining up around the block.
In the opening episode, set in 1980, we meet Muranishi as a hustling, fast-talking English textbook salesman whose employer’s bankruptcy throws him out of work. Then, his wife’s infidelity, which he witnesses in flagrante delicto, ends his marriage. Shattered and adrift, he finds a lifeline in a chatterbox chimpira (apprentice gangster) played by Shinnosuke Mitsushima, who tells him about the money to be made in binibon — plastic-wrapped adult magazines.
Smart, ambitious and fearless (or rather reckless), Muranishi is soon churning out binibon that push boundaries — and attract eager customers. But as he climbs the ladder of porn success, he draws the attention of a jaded police detective (Lily Franky) and powerful business rival (Ryo Ishibashi) who together plot his ruin. The feisty Muranishi refuses to fold, especially after he discovers an even bigger money-maker: video.
Enter the bold-eyed Megumi (Misato Morita), who comes from a middle-class background, entered an arts college and dreams
of studying art in Italy. But she also wants to act in AV and, with Muranishi serving as director and cameraman in his trademark white briefs (the show’s title is no literary allusion), and with a new stage name — Kaoru Kuroki —the uninhibited actress soars to stardom in her first video. She goes on to become a national celebrity, serving as an eloquent, if eccentric, spokeswoman for her own brand of female empowerment. Her expression of that empowerment is her unshaven armpits, which she happily flashes for the TV cameras. But her director’s troubles are far from over.
Supervising the filming of this decade-spanning, multilayered story is Masaharu Take, a veteran director best known for the hit 2014 boxing movie “100 Yen Love.”
“It would be hard to do this for Japanese television,” he tells me in a Tokyo hotel room. “For one thing, the nudity would be a no-go. Without Netflix, this project would never have happened.”
Muranishi, who now blogs and sells his classic AV from his own website, gave his blessing to the project.
“Muranishi told us to be as free (with the facts) as we wanted,” Take says. “So the story is a mix of what really happened and what we made up. We changed a lot. But he said he didn’t care as long as it was interesting.”
And Muranishi himself is “an interesting character,” Take says. “He was the one who came up with the idea of the director appearing in the video, holding the camera. Back then they were called ‘ero (erotic) videos’ and male actors were not wanted in them. It was just women on camera. But Muranishi was such an interesting guy that my school friends and I wanted to watch him. It was a form of comedy. And it had a big impact.”
Take adds that the show’s appeal goes beyond nostalgia for the erotica of his youth.
“For Japan that era was a crazy time, but it was also an interesting time, a powerful time,” he says. “I wanted to do a story set in the 1980s, but I never thought it would be a story about Muranishi.”
Once he took on the project, in which he shared directing duties with Hayato Kawai and Eiji Uchida, while serving as supervising director, Take immersed himself in AV industry history.
“There was a prejudice against adult videos back then,” Take says. “They weren’t things you should watch or make your job. But now you have this job called ‘adult videos.’ And you have ‘sexy actresses.’ They don’t call them ‘adult actresses’ any more. It’s become this ordinary thing. Back then it was not ordinary, but there was this vitality, this energy to push back against the negativity. People (in the AV industry) had to be survivors.”
But there were also exploiters and abusers. And though Muranishi is presented as something of an exception — on camera he addresses his actresses in formal Japanese (even while he is having sex with them) and off camera treats them with straight-faced respect — he is also no angel, with multiple arrests on his rap sheet for employing underage actresses.
“To make this show work in the current era we definitely needed to write in a figure like Kuroki,” Take admits.
Played by Misato Morita, who was cast in an audition, Kuroki despises her prim-and-proper single mom (the single-named Koyuki) for living off the largesse of her married lover and sees AV as a way to not only assert her financial independence but also to express her true sexuality. She applies directly to Muranishi and his astounded co-workers for the job of AV actress and has no qualms about publicizing her line of work.
“She was upfront about it,” says Take of the real-life Kuroki. “It was a job that people did in secret then, but she let everybody know. Kuroki would say, ‘I’m completely fine with it.'”
And Morita, he adds, “totally became Kuroki in her mind. She didn’t resemble her, but her voice became exactly the same. I didn’t tell her to do that, but she gradually came to resemble her. She surprised me in that way.”
Meanwhile, the casting of Takayuki Yamada as Muranishi helped the project become a reality. Though an A-list star since playing a love-struck otaku (nerd) in the 2005 hit romcom “Train Man,” Yamada has often followed his artistic passions rather than pursue conventional box office success — and “The Naked Director” falls in the former category.
“Yamada was on the project from the beginning,” says Take. “I thought that if Yamada was involved it would be an interesting (job), so I accepted it.”
Muranishi was a big thinker and bold risk taker who had many failures and made many missteps, including an arrest in Hawaii and an indictment for sex-trafficking offenses. But, for Take, his story is more than a cautionary tale: “The sort of things he experienced, a lot of people experienced then, both good and bad. He is a symbol of the era.”
“The Naked Director” will stream exclusivlely on Netflix from Aug. 8.