Sex, Violence and Politics – Japanese Style

By Jasper Sharp

koukotsu-no-nioi-kaoru-umezawa.jpgSurviving scenes from Tetsuji Takechi’s lost 1964
adaptation of Crimson Dream

A peep into the pornographic underworld of the Pink Film

In a quiet corner in one of the tiny nomi-ya drinking establishments in the crowded warren that is Tokyo’s Golden Gai area, I sit listening attentively to the greying figure seated opposite. He avoids eye contact, staring into the middle distance as he talks yet remaining attentive enough to ensure my glass is kept generously topped up from the shochu bottle by his side. His conversation wanders through details of a life of almost seven decades, of experiences more than a lifetime removed from my own: a brief spell in Hachioji Prison during the early 60s following his involvement with a local yakuza group shortly his arrival in Tokyo from his small provincial hometown in the north; the quirk of fate that led to Secret Acts Behind Walls , the low-budget sex film he directed being screened at the 1965 Berlin International Film Festival, causing a succès de scandale back at home that saw him becoming one of the most successful independent producers of the decade; his difficulties sneaking the notorious pro-Palestinian documentary PFLP: Declaration of War past the authorities and onto university campuses during the early 70s; his time spent hanging out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the 1972 Cannes film festival where he was accompanying Nagisa Oshima as part of the Japanese delegation, and how this in turn led to his role as one of the producers on Oshima’s best-known film, the controversial French-Japanese co-production of The Realm of the Senses that saw its director on trial for obscenity in his home country.

My first encounter with Koji Wakamatsu, or the name at least, was when I chanced upon his 1969 film Violated Angels on a double bill with Shohei Imamura’s Ballad of Narayama at London’s sadly-defunct Scala Cinema sometime in the late 80s. It was a typically eclectic piece of programming for this legendary venue: on paper at least there seemed little to link the two films. One was a big-budget period piece based on Japanese legend, produced by Shochiku and the recipient of the 1983 Cannes Palme d’Or. The other was a minimally-budgeted exploitation flick from 1967, set in the claustrophobic confines of a single room and shot mainly in monochrome, though bursting into vibrant colour in its more lurid moments.

Aside from their surface exoticism and an approach to narrative that seemed alien and perplexing to me at the time, the two films shared one major aspect in common, something of a consistent theme in both their directors’ oeuvres and, if one’s honest, a lot of Japanese movies; namely a discomforting fixation with matters of sex and death. Much of the running time of Ballad of Narayama is given over to earthily matter-of-fact scenes of grubby peasants engaged in rambunctious, often humorous attempts at procreation as they prepare to carry off the 70-year old village matriarch to the top of the mountain where, as the local custom of this isolated rural community dictates, she is to be left to die to make way for the new generation. Wakamatsu’s film depicts a disturbed young man breaking into a nurse’s dormitory where he proceeds to rape and massacre them all: it was apparently inspired by the real-life killings perpetrated by Richard Speck in Chicago the previous year. Sex was central to Ballad of Narayama, yet the film was really not at all explicit. Violated Angels was indeed very explicit, but ultimately it didn’t really seem to be about sex.

go-go-second-time-virgin-koji-wakamatsu.jpgGo, Go, Second Time Virgin, 1969

As a tender 18-year-old ignorant of much of the outside world, this cinematic encounter proved a particular memorable one. Both films were strangely beautiful in their own ways, but there was something disturbing going on beneath the surface of Violated Angels that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. What kind of nation could produce such a bleak and nihilistic film? Who was the original target audience and what was their reaction? Was it any different to mine?

Some twenty years on saw me living in Tokyo, where a series of chance encounters saw me revisiting Violated Angels in a different context. My original questions still stood, but finally I was in the position to search for answers. And hence the book project Behind the Pink Curtain was conceived.

The title refers to what is nowadays referred to as the pinku eiga or ‘pink film’, and the sphere in which Koji Wakamatsu predominantly operated, contributing almost a hundred films during the 60s and 70s with titles including Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, Chronicle of an Affair and Ecstasy of Angels . When Wakamatsu first made his mark, the films were referred to as eroduction, short for “erotic production”, or occasionally rather sneeringly as sanbyakuman eiga (“three-million-yen films”) due to their shoestring budgets. By the Seventies these independently-produced low-budget program pictures were accounting for almost half of Japanese film production, and their contents had settled into a comfortable formula of around five of six nude or sex scenes within a running time of roughly an hour. Even now, while the pornography of almost every other nation has long since progressed onto other mediums, Japan is still producing such films shot on 35mm for the theatrical market. In 2003 alone, 89 out of the 287 domestically-produced films screening in Japanese cinemas fell under this category.

seijin-eiga-ayako-hitomi.jpg60s Glamour girl Ayako Hitomi on the cover of pink film specialty magazine Seijin Eiga

The sex movie genre is one to which writers have traditionally given a wide berth, perhaps not unsurprisingly. The assumption has always been that images of simulated copulation, nudity (predominantly female) and misogyny are the be all and end all of such works, and there’s little else of interest within them.

But foreign scholars of Japanese film are now beginning to realise that it is pretty difficult to get a decent handle on the broader Japanese film industry if you ignore around half its output from over the past forty years or so. Though the pink film scene represents an entire production-distribution-exhibition network quite separate from the major studios, it has brushed shoulders with the mainstream on numerous occasions. Significantly, there’s a whole generation of filmmakers currently working in the commercial sector who owe their careers to their early training making independent sex films, directors like Ryuchi Hiroki (Its Only Talk), Yujiro Takita (Ashura, When the Last Sword is Drawn ), Hisayasu Sato (Rampo Noir) and Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?)

The beginnings of pink cinema present the researcher with the same challenges as the silent film, in that though literally hundreds were produced on a yearly basis, no one at the original time ever considered them worth saving for prosperity. We know the basic facts – that its first title Flesh Market directed by Satoru Kobayashi was impounded by the police and cut to shreds so that only a 20-minute fragment survives today, and that from a meagre handful of four titles released in 1962, the genre rapidly proliferated to a staggering 250 titles released in 1969 – many are described in contemporaneous fanzines like Seijin Eiga. But as for the films themselves from this first decade, only about a dozen are available on video or DVD (including such provocative titles as Flesh Futon and Blue Film Woman), and it would appear that most of the prints and negatives have long been junked. This all means that barely anything of the work of directors like Kan Mukai, Mamoru Watanabe and Kinya Ogawa, who each directed literally hundreds of films exclusively within the genre, is available for viewing today.

blue-film-woman-kan-mukai.jpgAdvert for Blue Film Woman, 1969

There was often much more to the pink film than mere sex to disturb the status quo. From the very outset, much of it took on a distinctly political hue, and predominantly red; left-leaning, anti-American and fiercely critical of the Japanese Emperor system that had led the country into war. Most of the eroduction’s practitioners came from humble backgrounds. While the major studios cherry-picked and groomed their new filmmaking talent from Japan’s most prestigious universities, the world of program picture production at least afforded those directors born on the wrong side of the class divide to get their viewpoint across in film.

Few were as bloody-minded as Wakamatsu and the team of directors who assembled around him as part of Wakamatsu Productions in the late 60s. Student riots and anti-Vietnam war protests intermingled with drug-fuelled orgies to depict a young generation teaming with sexual urgency and revolutionary zeal, eager to overthrow a corrupt establishment in cahoots with the Americans. Rape was a recurrent trope, usually in a metaphorical role to represent patriarchal oppression and the US military’s involvement in neighbouring countries on the Asian mainland.

One often comes away with the impression that the strong political posturing in Wakamatsu’s films was more due to the realisation of the size of the potential audience of young male blue-collar workers drawn freshly drawn to the city from more distant regions, like Wakamatsu himself. One of Wakamatsu’s regular collaborators however, Masao Adachi, the director of experimental eroductions like High School Guerilla (1969) and A Fifteen-year-old Prostitute (1971), was more keen to put his politics into practice. En route back from accompanying Wakamatsu to Cannes, he made a life-changing visit to the Middle East. It resulted in the aforementioned PFLP: Declaration of War documentary and Adachi’s thirty-year spell of self-imposed exile from Japan, the exact details of which are still unclear. Yes, it’s little remembered today that Japanese guerrilla groups were pitching their lot into the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to bring around their vaguely-defined goal of a “worldwide revolution”, nor that the adult theatre was almost as much a recruiting ground for leftist paramilitary groups as the university campus.

koukotsu-no-nioi-kaoru-umezawa-poster.jpgAdvert for The Smell of Ecstasy, 1969

The early-90s in particular, a time when hardcore pornographic video looked set to kill off the theatrical sex film in Japan for good, saw the emergence of group of directors collectively known as the shitenno (or Four Devils). Kazuhiro Sano, Toshiki Sato, Hisayasu Sato and Takahisa Zeze. Their unorthodox, experimental and downright provocative work saw them damned by traditional pink movie patrons while simultaneously feted at foreign festivals. Zeze’s Tokyo X Erotica (2001) mixed futuristic cybersex with references to the Aum cult’s gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Hisayasu Sato’s often violent but highly visual works utilised a multitude of multimedia devices to reflect upon issues such as the power of the gaze, the dehumanising effects of technology and the loss of the individual’s sense of “self” that accompanied Japan’s period of economic boom in the late 80s.

At a time when even Hollywood blockbusters are being shot digitally, the continuing use of the high-cost 35mm film medium to make disposable sex films seems even more anachronistic than it did even five years ago. Clearly the days of the theatrically-exhibited pink film are coming to an end.

In the meantime, sex may be a long way behind the first generation of pink film directors, but they’re sticking with the controversial politics. Masao Adachi has in recent years returned to Japan and just completed his first title in over 35 years, entitled Yuuheisha (Terrorist), based on the Japanese Red Army member Kozo Okamoto responsible for the massacre at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport in 1972 that left almost 30 dead. Koji Wakamatsu, at the time of writing, is shooting a film documenting one of the most notorious incidents in post-war Japanese history, in which an extreme faction of the Japanese Red Army violently imploded in the early 70s, in a gruesome attempt to purge itself of its less radical members (see Location, Location on page 15). With both directors having lived so close to the events they are depicting, the results are sure to be a fascinating insight into a world of which Western viewers are barely aware.

Jasper Sharp is a freelance writer and the co-founder of the Japanese film specialist website Midnight Eye . His book The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, joint-written with Tom Mes, was published by Stone Bridge Press in 2003. As well as curating the Asian section of London’s Raindance Film Festival, he is currently working on a book about the Japanese erotic film entitled Behind the Pink Curtain, to be published later in 2007.