Behind the Pink Curtain
- 22 August 2008
Steamy, subversive, exotic and bizarre!
Behind the Pink Curtain - The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema — The new book by Jasper Sharp
Behind the Pink Curtain takes the reader on a wild joy ride deep into the hinterlands of Japanese culture, society and radical politics by way of the weird and wonderful world of the Pink Film and Roman Porno genres.
Behind the Pink Curtain is available now from FAB Press
In 416 lavishly illustrated pages, Behind the Pink Curtain focuses on the art and industry of one of the most notorious sectors of Japanese filmmaking, the erotic Pink Film, or pinku eiga genre, and the closely related Roman Porno films produced by Nikkatsu studios from 1971 to 1988. A phenomenon distinct from the cheaply-produced hardcore Adult Video (AV) market, from the early 1960s onwards major Japanese film studios and independent producers alike have kept up a conveyor belt level of output of pornographic features intended purely for cinema release. Still today, just short of 100 such titles are shot on 35mm every year intended for screening in a specialist network of adult cinema across the nation. In recent years, many have found themselves released on DVD in the West or screened at international film festivals, while many of Japan's most noted filmmakers today have cut their teeth in this industry.
Just how close are the links between the arthouse and the grindhouse in Japan? Read about the ins and outs of Japanese censorship from the wartime onwards, and how topless deep sea diving girls came to woo local audiences in the 1950s. Learn how a TV nature documentary maker ended up helming nude female Tarzan movies, and how 1960s mavericks Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi met up with John and Yoko at Cannes while on the way to the Golan Heights to make a film about Palestinian revolutionaries. How Deep Throat's Harry Reems wound up in Tokyo starring in a zany sex comedy about a penis transplant gone awry, and how one of Japan's most famous literary figures ended up the subject of the country's first gay porno movie. How one of Nikkatsu's leading directors went it alone to make a film about powerboat racing and ended up in the bad books of the yakuza, and how the anti-Bush sex farce Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice came to be re-titled as The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai and became one of the most talked-about Japanese films of recent years, playing at over twenty international film festivals.
Based on extensive interviews with many of the leading figures in the field, Behind the Pink Curtain is a colourful and exhaustive trawl through Japan's most vibrant and prolific filmmaking sector.
Behind the Pink Curtain is available now from FAB Press
About the author
Jasper Sharp is the co-editor of Midnight Eye and has curated for London's Raindance Film Festival and acted as an advisor for the Japan Foundation UK's annual touring season since 2005. His critically acclaimed book The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, joint-written with Tom Mes, was published by Stone Bridge Press in 2003. His writing has appeared in numerous countries, including the USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia, Hong Kong and Holland. He contributes liner notes and audio commentaries to DVD releases of Japanese films worldwide, and has written chapters for several anthology collections including 24 Frames: Japan and Korea (ed. Justin Bowyer), Film Out of Bounds: Essays and Interviews on Non-Mainstream Cinema Worldwide (ed. Matthew Edwards), TokyoLife: Art and Culture (ed. Ian Luna) and Dictionnaire mondial des images (ed. Laurence Gervereau).
Interview with Jasper Sharp
by Tom Mes
Why a book on Japanese erotic films? Hasn't this topic been covered quite exhaustively and exhaustingly enough already? What more is there to be said?
There's been a few books on the subject already, the best being Thomas Weisser's Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films. The others I've read are sort of redundant, just scene-by-scene descriptions of what you see on screen without any sort of context or insight. Weisser's book is pretty exhaustive, but it is basically a reference guide. It tells you what's out there, and details about the cast, directors etc. It is a good book though. It does what it sets out to do pretty well.
But I was always more curious about the industry as a whole - when did it all begin, why and how did the pink film get so popular in the first place, who makes the films, who watches them and where do they watch them, and why is Japan still making sex films for the cinema when no other country seems to be - these kinds of questions. I knew when I first started looking at them that a lot of pink films had political elements or that you needed a certain background context to understand what they were really trying to say - I'm thinking specifically of the films of Takahisa Zeze and the other Four Devils directors, but this applies just as much to older directors such as Koji Wakamatsu. It was also clear that from the beginning pink directors were making films that reacted against the type of films being made before, both in and outside of the genre. There's always been something punk-ish about the whole industry. Anyway, clearly to me there were a whole lot of questions that remained to be answered. I guess the best thing to say is that Weisser pioneered the subject; he first marked out the boundaries on an empty map, and I've come back to draw in the contours and put up signs to other areas on it that might warrant further investigation.
This was also a big part of the appeal for me. It is very rare when you are writing about cinema that you find an entire substrata of films that can be grouped by their content, their makers and their production circumstances and that haven't been covered in any real detail before. It was like discovering a lost continent - there's been at least 5000 films made in the pinku eiga genre, and this isn't even counting Nikkatsu Roman Porno, and only a small trickle of these have made it through to the West before. And owing to the films' erotic or violent content, the field has never really been seen fit as a subject for scholarly research, analysing how these films fit into the cultural climate of when they were made and what they actually mean.
More importantly though, when I was living in Tokyo, just getting to know Japanese cinema better in general and getting to meet other fans, researchers or people in the industry, I ended up getting pretty close to some of the filmmakers working in pink cinema, and talk to them about what they were trying to do within it. And at this time, Masao Adachi was just released from prison and there were retrospectives all over the place of his work, so after finding out a little more about this almost forgotten figure with links to Middle Eastern radical politics and tracking down a few of his earlier films on video, which I really loved, I realised there was a whole hidden story here which no one really had recounted in full before. I hope what comes across in the book is that there are some fascinating characters who've worked in pink. This book is as much about them as their films.
The usual explanation for why these films have never really taken off in the West is that they're too hard to qualify as softcore and too soft to be hardcore. Would you agree with that and do you see these films still catching on here beyond a small circle of devotees?
Actually back in the 1960s there were a surprisingly large number of these films circulated in sex cinemas all over the world, but most slipped under the radars of the critics. There was evidently quite a big interest in "oriental" flavour exoticism. In the VHS age of the 1980s and 90s, I think a lot of the films were generally perceived as too strong in terms of the violence and perversity to get released - I think the violent aspects of Japanese erotic cinema do tend to get overplayed though.
But maybe their popularity now has something to do with the general problem Japanese cinema faces, in that Japanese companies aren't very good at selling their films abroad and that foreign audiences don't know what's good if they haven't seen it or know anything about it. Most people don't know what's out there and most of the pink producers are small companies and far more focused on the domestic market.
If we're talking about the films as sex films and not for their other points of interest, then I believe that even in the days when anyone can download hardcore porn off the internet for free at the click of a mouse button, there is still a market for not-so-explicit, and genuinely well-made erotic films with a story. Who was it that once said "Erotica is using a feather, pornography is using the whole chicken."? Well, I'd say pink films fit into the feather rather than the chicken category.
There are a lot of striking images in the book. How did you go about getting hold of these?
I was lucky because I had a lot of cooperation with studios like Shintoho, Nikkatsu and Wakamatsu Pro, who actively wanted people outside to know more about their films. Also I had a whole load of earlier magazines from the 1960s with some fantastic ad material. Yes, there's some great images in the book.
You said you got to meet a lot of directors, but did you talk to any of the performers? What is their general attitude toward their work? Are women who were Roman Porno starlets in the 1970s still eager to talk about those days or would they rather forget?
Yes, I met a couple still working now in the industry - Yumeka Sasaki, Yohta Kawase and Hotaru Hazuki. They see themselves as actors primarily, and have appeared in other film, TV or theatre work. There's another older guy I met when I was on the set for Zeze's A Gap in the Skin, Daisuke Iijima, who was regaling me of tales of wrestling with Tom Conti when he played the role of one of the soldiers in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Lots of actors in the 1980s came from this background, for example Tomorowo Taguchi and Ren Osugi. They certainly don't deny it. Remember that in the 1970s and 80s this type of film was what kept the industry afloat. It's actually not so different from Britain or France maybe - actresses like Joanna Lumley and Rula Lenska were in all these British softcore films in the 70s. I didn't really meet any Roman Porno performers, but many have gone on to other careers, including a couple of TV presenters.
In the interviews with pink and Roman Porno directors that you've done for various DVD releases, the general attitude is that the genre allowed these filmmakers to talk about human behaviour. This suggests there is more to these films than just stringing sex scenes together. From your experience, is there a basis of truth in these claims of artistic merit or are they just making fancy excuses for having done skinflicks?
I met quite a few of the Nikkatsu directors for the Artsmagic Angel Guts interviews, and the impression I got was that in the early days at least, Roman Porno was trying to do something very different from pink films. This was to talk about adult sexuality, and as you say, human behaviour, in a more open fashion. If you look at the Roman Porno films from the first five years, the best films by Noboru Tanaka, Tatsumi Kumashiro and Chusei Sone, I don't think they're particularly explicit, and there's certainly a lot more going on in the films than just sex or nude scenes. These directors were all contracted to Nikkatsu, and the Roman Porno line really just allowed them to make the type of films they wanted within a certain formula. Certainly none of them seemed like they were ashamed of their work, nor were making excuses for it, and I would say that films like Watcher in the Attic or World of Geisha do have considerable artistic merit.
The pink film was a little different. Obviously the bulk of this was intended as exploitation, but this sub-industry soon developed a highly efficient production and exhibition network of its own, and it allowed many directors who wouldn't have been employable by the major studios to make the type of films they wanted, produced through their own companies. Wakamatsu is an ideal case in point, because he always said he was never interested in sex films, but in dealing with subjects that were of interest to youth audiences. He just exploited the distribution possibilities that the pink industry provided, and his works clearly stand out from the others of the period.
In the 1990s things came full circle. For several decades pink was just considered a very profitable genre in which it wasn't really necessary to make great artistic statements, but it was a way for new directors to at least make films - and quite a number of directors working in mainstream or art cinema today entered the industry via this route. At a certain moment the pink film started losing popularity to straight-to-video pornography. The pink companies were still making films, and still had this established distribution network, so directors like Takahisa Zeze and Hisayasu Sato saw again that this was a way in which they could make the kind of artistic statements they wanted and get them screened. And again, it goes back to the sort of anti-establishment "punk" attitude I mentioned - you could talk about social or political taboos that weren't permissible in mainstream film.
I think the key is not to dismiss either pink or Roman Porno as just skinflicks. The industry as a whole has co-existed alongside mainstream Japanese cinema for almost 50 years now, and really operates as an alternative distribution network, with some directors going on to greater things and others staying to enjoy the comparative artistic freedom - pretty similar to V-cinema for example. These are still films being shot on 35mm and projected in cinemas, so it seems bizarre for anyone with an interest in film culture to overlook a whole swathe of titles just because they are catering to a specific audience. Certainly the directors themselves don't see any real division between whether they are making pink or mainstream films.
So yes, the best of these films certainly have more to them than a string of sex scenes. That said, the main bulk of these films, by jobbing directors who have no real ambition of making a career outside of the industry, probably don't have great artistic aspirations. I am thinking in particular of the company Xces, whose films pretty much deliver what you'd expect.
Which films, directors or stars do you feel are most in need of wider recognition?
Wakamatsu is definitely going to enjoy a lot of exposure in the coming year or so because of his new film, United Red Army, which is the most exhilarating viewing experience, Japanese or otherwise, that I've had in a very long time. But the real discovery was his collaborator from the 1960s, Masao Adachi. These films have a freshness, a sense of ambition and an engagement with real world issues that I haven't seen in a long time. From the same era, Kan Mukai has been very much neglected, but I've managed to get a new print of one of his old films Blue Film Woman made up for a special tour, and it's pretty wild - one of the first ever full-colour pink films from the 60s, and boy is it psychedelic! Sadly he died a few months ago, so didn't get a chance to find out about this. Mamoru Watanabe also made some really good stuff around the same period. From Nikkatsu, definitely Chusei Sone and Atsushi Yamatoya - Yamatoya is definitely very interesting. He was mainly a scriptwriter, not a director. He wrote the script for lots of Seijun Suzuki's films, including Branded to Kill, and made a pink film called Dutch Wife of the Wasteland around the same time which is really similar, just as surreal.
From the 1980s, I think Yojiro Takita's sex comedies are very funny and entertaining. He of course is well known for his more mainstream films, especially since the Oscar for Departures, but I think his pink films are more fun. Kazuyuki Izutsu, the director of Pacchigi, is another one who made some really interesting films in the 1970s. Nowadays I'm not so sure where the genre is heading in the long term. It will be interesting to see if there are any surprises left in store.
How many hours of Japanese porn do you actually have under your belt by now?
"Under my belt"? That's an interesting way of putting it! Far too many, as a glimpse at the filmography at the end of the book will reveal. Yes, it all became a bit too wearing towards the end….
Behind the Pink Curtain - Contents
Chapter 1: The Japanese Sex Film: Art or Industry?
An introduction to the world of pinku eiga, some facts, some definitions and a brief historical overview, looking at the state of the modern distribution network and who actually watches these films.
Chapter 2: Sex, Censorship and Other Positions of Power: A New Way of Looking
Is the pink film art or pornography? What is pornography anyway, and does it mean the same in Japan as over here? An introduction to Japan's obscenity laws and censorship history, within the context of the international development of erotic cinema.
Chapter 3: Ama Glamour and the Rise of the Flesh Actress
An overview of the output of Shintoho in the 50s, who introduced nudity to Japanese screens with films such as those in the Ama, or Girl Diver movies such as Girl Divers at Spook Mansion and Revenge of the Pearl Queen.
Chapter 4: The Birth of the Eroduction
The beginnings of the pink genre in 1962 with Satoru Kobayashi's Flesh Market and Koji Seki's legendary female Tarzan films and the formation of Kokuei, Okura Productions and the new Shintoho.
Chapter 5: Pioneers of the Pink Film
Introducing the early trailblazers of the pink film world and their work - Kan Mukai, Koji Seki, Satoru Kobayashi, Mamoru Watanabe and Shinya Yamamoto.
Chapter 6: Pinkos in Pink
Pink gets political. This chapter investigates how the pink film came to echo the radicalism of ultra-leftist groups on the streets of Tokyo, and details the political landscape of the era.
Chapter 7: Emerging from the Underground - Wakamatsu Pro
We investigate the major role played by Koji Wakamatsu and his coterie in bringing avant-garde pop culture, porn and politics to a wider market.
Chapter 8: Eiga / Kakumei: The Story of Masao Adachi
A survey of the radical films of Wakamatsu's partner-in-crime Masao Adachi.
Chapter 9: The Golden Dawn of the New Porn: Nikkatsu's Roman Porno
The sex film goes mass market in Japan, with the birth of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno line in 1971.
Chapter 10: Roman Porno: The Films, Their Makers and Their Stars
A closer look at some of Nikkatsu's top Roman Porno directors and their films.
Chapter 11: Eros International
International co-productions and international distribution - was the pink film ever a purely Japanese phenomenon?
Chapter 12: I Am Curious (Pink) - An Industry in Flux
The pink film underwent significant changes in the 70s, with the arrival of Roman Porno, and yet its output remained as strong as ever. A look at the major production companies of the decade, their staff and their films.
Chapter 13: The Decade of Excess
Japanese sex films became renowned for their excessive depictions of violence, rape and sadomasochism, but was it always this way, or was this a purely 80s development, and if so, why?
Chapter 14: The Four Devils and the Pink Nouvelle Vague
The renaissance of the pink film in the early 90s, following the death of Roman Porno and the arrival of Adult Video.
Chapter 15: The Devils Themselves....
An overview of the films of the directors known as the Four Devils: Kazuhiro Sano, Hisayasu Sato, Toshiki Sato and Takahisa Zeze.
Chapter 16: Girls and Boys Come Out to Play
The modern-day audience for the pink film is more diverse than one might expect. This chapter looks at female viewers, female directors and the gay sub-sector of the pink film genre.
Chapter 17: 21st Century Girl and the Seven Lucky Gods
The latest new wave of pink directors known as the Seven Lucky Gods, including Mitsuru Meike, Shinji Imaoka and Yuji Tajiri have captured the attention of a new generation of audiences and have had their works screened widely abroad. But are they a continuation of or a reaction against their predecessors the Four Devils?
Chapter 18: Final Curtain?
In the era of DVD and the internet, is there still a market for the theatrical sex films, and where might the industry be heading in the future?
- List of Japanese titles, cast and credits and DVD availability.
- How to translate Japanese film titles.
Behind the Pink Curtain is available now from FAB Press
Behind the Pink Curtain
- Jasper Sharp
- FAB Press