At its peak of popularity roughly four decades ago, the form of soft-core pornography known as pinku eiga (pink films) utilized more than 1,000 theaters to screen short, low-budget, erotic films churned out mainly by independent studios.

“Around each station of private rail lines there was a pink theater,” chuckles industry veteran Akira Mori, the general manager of distributor Shintoho, who, facing a room jammed with stacks of silver film canisters, chats from his offices in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

Though currently in their twilight years, pink films, initiated by the introduction of home video in the 1980s, provide a colorful look back to an important period of Japanese cinema. As a tribute to the genre’s 50th anniversary, Ginza Cine Pathos in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward is offering “Pink Film Chronicle 1962-2012,” a 28-film retrospective extending through Sept. 9.

Shintoho is contributing multiple offerings to the festival, including “Obscenities of Japan,” a picture that commemorated the company’s 30 years of business at the time of its release in 1993.

Mori describes the film as something akin to a pink-tinged version of a historical epic. “It had a huge budget, twice what was standard, a lot of actresses, and it introduced Japan’s erotic past from the Taisho Period (1912-26),” he says.

Pink films, traditionally shot in three days on a budget of roughly ¥3 million, differ from conventional porn flicks in that they have significant story lines. Yet it is generally understood by directors that over each picture’s 60-minute running time, a half-dozen sex scenes would be necessary — and while not considered the usual porn, these often included hard-hitting scenes of bondage, rape, and public molestation.

“The films are easy to watch,” says Mori. “The theaters screen three titles each day, and moviegoers can come and go as they want for one price. It is cheap entertainment.”

The lead actor in “Obscenities of Japan” was Shinji Kubo, the self-described “prince of porn,” who claims to have starred in more than 800 features.

Over a cup of coffee at a shop just outside JR Shinjuku Station, Kubo, attired in a white T-shirt decorated with black skulls, conveys another distinction between pink pictures and standard adult video (AV) features that are popular today.

“It was about whether the actress would actually do it or not,” says the actor, puffing on a cigarette beneath a dark mop of hair. “In pink films, it was usually that she did not, but sometimes things happened ‘naturally’ under the futon.”

Some AV actresses would become smitten with the free-form nature of pink productions — Mori specifically cites the ability to “play,” as in have an enjoyable experience — and switch over, the most famous possibly being Yumika Hayashi, one of the stars in “Obscenities of Japan.”

Before her mysterious death in 2005 — her body was found in her home, presumably the result of a night of heavy drinking the day before — Hayashi won multiple awards at the Pink Grand Prix, an annual event sponsored by industry periodical PG that honors the finest in pink films.

“She had so many fans,” says Mori, who attended the funeral of the 34-year-old actress. “In fact, she caused many of her fans to shift from AV to pink.”

Kubo found Hayashi’s versatility in performing various acts — most of which are not suitable to describe in a family newspaper — to be unbelievable. “She could take on any type of role,” says the actor. “These multi-faceted types of actresses do not exist today.”

While the roots of pink films are typically traced back to director Satoru Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white torture production “Flesh Market,” the first non-stag film in Japan to introduce nudity, Tetsuji Takechi’s fantastical trip to the dentist in “Daydream” from two years later is often considered more inspirational due to its sizeable budget, mainstream release, and battle with government censors over visible female pubic hair.

In 1965, Takechi’s followup film, “Black Snow,” was met with similar resistance, and the director was subsequently arrested on indecency charges. Directors such as Kan Mukai, who debuted with “Flesh,” and Koji Wakamatsu, whose story of housewife infidelity, “Secrets Behind the Wall,” screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, would that same year become key players in an industry that saw nationwide distribution exceed 200 films.

Nikkatsu, Japan’s longest-running studio, started a second wave of pink films in 1971, when it created its own subgenre dubbed “roman porno,” a label that would eventually be attached to a whopping 1,133 features up until its demise in 1988. Studio Toei followed suit the next year with its “pinky violence” brand — films featuring women seeking revenge, such as the sword-wielding femme in “Sex and Fury.”

Mori joined Shintoho in the early 1970s. “University students were eager to turn 18 years old so they could watch pink films,” he says of those days. “Sometimes they’d lie to get inside the theater.”

Problems over censorship and the introduction of AV productions for home viewing during the following decade resulted in the industry’s steady decline to the point where less than 80 theaters exist today.

The genre’s legacy, however, is still very much intact. Many pink directors went on to success in mainstream cinema. “Departures,” the winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2009, was helmed by Yojiro Takita, whose lengthy pink career included “Molester’s Delivery Service” in 1986. Wakamatsu, known as the “Pink Godfather,” returned to the Berlin festival in 2010 with his war film “Caterpillar.”

Attempts at a rebirth have come and gone. In 2010, Nikkatsu reworked two of its roman porno classics: “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair” and “From the Back, From the Front,” in which a female taxi driver does much more for her passengers than simply man the wheel. That same year, the Ueno Okura Theater, Tokyo’s top adult venue, moved into a new building to replace the aging structure that first opened in 1951.

Kubo, who famously operated a short-lived “adult” training academy a decade ago, would prefer that the genre fade into the sunset, explaining that current trends toward flamboyance and excessiveness have lost the spirit of the old days. His ideal vision includes, perhaps, a setting in a bathhouse, a smattering of simple dialogue, and a slow transition to … .

“The basics should be nudity,” the actor says. “A pink film should reflect what it means to truly be a human being.”

“Obscenities of Japan” screens from Monday through Thursday and “Flesh” between Aug. 17 and 18 at Ginza Cine Pathos. www.humax-cinema.co.jp/cinema/top_ginza.html (Japanese only). Brett Bull is the editor in chief of The Tokyo Reporter, www.tokyoreporter.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.