Tetsuji Takechi: Erotic Nightmares

10 March 2001
picture: Tetsuji Takechi: Erotic Nightmares


Tetsuji Takechi is somewhat of an enigma to those of us trying to make sense of the wild and wonderful world of Japanese cinematic history. Primarily a theatre director who in the 1950s successfully staged a number of plays described as “experimental Kabuki” (amongst them, the Mishima-penned The Damask Drum), he is also celebrated as one of the founding fathers, alongside Koji Wakamatsu and Satoru Kobayashi, of what is known as the pink film, a term used to denote the genre of low-budget, independently-produced softcore sex films in Japan that first began to spill over into the mainstream during 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

Prior to this, though increasing amounts of bare flesh had begun creeping into commercial cinema from the late-1950s onwards, sex films themselves had been no-budget, one-reel "stag films", intended for private screenings in the seamy underworld so richly evoked in Akiyuki Nozaka's novel The Pornographers (Erogotoshi-tachi, itself the subject of a loose screen adaptation by Shohei Imamura released in Japan in 1966 under the title of Erogotoshi-tachi yori - Jinruigaku Nyumon). Satoru Kobayashi is widely credited as being the first to set the ball rolling with his Flesh Market (Nikutai no Ichiba, 1962), to be quickly followed by the likes of Koji Seki's Valley of Desire (Joyoku no Tanima, 1963).

In a period before independent production had really taken hold, this grassroots subculture offered a ready-made market for fledgling directors taking their first faltering steps into an industry then still dominated by the five major studios. The oft-mentioned 'Golden Age of Japanese Cinema' of the 50s, represented by the works of the Kurosawa/Ozu/Mizugochi triumvirate and the transatlantic antics of such kaiju eiga celebrities as Godzilla and Mothra, was coming to an end and cinema attendance was falling rapidly under the new threat of television. Desperate measures were called upon to draw in new audiences.

Although Takechi was not alone in this stampede of opportunists, he was certainly one of the most overtly radical when it came to putting the female form onscreen. His first film was the 1963 pseudo-documentary Nihon no Yoru: Onna Onna Onna Monogatari (A Night In Japan: Woman, Woman, Woman Story), at one time released theatrically in the US under the title of Women... Oh, Women! (not to be confused with Takeo Kurata and Kazuo Akutagawa's similarly titled It's a Woman's World / Shin Onna Onna Onna Monogatari released the following year), but it was with The Dream of the Red Chamber (Koromu, 1964) that Takechi first fell foul of the authorities, when the film was heavily butchered by the Japanese censors

In the same year Takechi produced his first significant work, Daydream (Hakujitsumu, 1964), an almost structureless succession of sexy set pieces revolving around a series of fantasies in a dentist's waiting room, loosely based on a short story by Junichiro Tanizaki that had appeared in the September 1926 issue of the magazine Chuo Koron. It was when this independently produced work was picked up for distribution by Shochiku along with a number of similarly salacious titles that nudity began to become a legitimate subject for onscreen portrayal in its own right. A commercial success in Japan, it was released in the US the same year and later reissued there in 1966 with additional footage shot by its distributor Joseph Green, director of the 1962 cult bad film The Brain That Wouldn't Die. As far as the general public was concerned the pinku eiga had arrived, and Takechi was one of its leading lights.

The establishment, however, was not amused. His next film, the Nikkatsu-produced Black Snow (Kuroi Yuki, 1965) was the final straw. In it, after stabbing a black American GI, the son of a prostitute seeks sexual gratification whilst fondling a loaded gun, a kickback against the Allied Occupation of Japan. Coinciding with the furore surrounding the Western debut of Wakamatsu's Skeleton in the Closet at Berlin, Takechi was dragged up in front of the Tokyo District Court under accusations that his film was obscene.

Now it has to be remembered that even though it seems that the Japanese have an 'anything goes' approach to what you can get away with onscreen, there are strict censorship guidelines that often seem quite illogical to the outsider. Despite the strong sexual violence manifested in animes like Legend of the Overfiend (Urotsukidoji, 1989 - Hideki Takayama), or the savage violations of good taste in such titles as Shogun's Joy of Torture (Tokugawa Onna Keibatsushi, 1968 - Teruo Ishii) and Guts of a Virgin (Shojo no Harawata, 1986 - Kazuo "Gaira" Komizu), the depiction of male or female genitalia is a strict no-no, with even the subjects of imported Western films being required to pudency beneath patches of digitally created myopic fog. Takechi had got pretty close to the bone in his previous film, but with its fervent anti-Americanism, Black Snow seemed to be pushing the point a little too far. Harking back to a traditional aesthetic sense, Takechi claimed that a montage style which favoured close ups and rapid cutaways was not suited to "the Japanese schema" in order to justify the long takes of full frontal nudity which typified his style.

Support from the artistic community however was strong, with a number of prominent figures including writer Yukio Mishima and filmmaker Nagisa Oshima rallying around in the name of artistic freedom. Taken at face value, Takechi's rationalisation seemed pretty weak: "I admit there are many nude scenes in the film, but they are psychological nude scenes symbolising the defencelessness of the Japanese people in the face of the American invasion." The case dragged on until 1967 when Takechi was finally cleared of charges of obscenity, by which time the maverick director had already had time to put out, among other things, a steamy version of The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari, 1966).

Black Snow became the first of a number of similar cases in which the world of cinema clashed against the courts. These included the Nikkatsu Roman Porno case between 1972 and 1978 (Roman Porno was an erotic product line created by the studio and designed to package the pinku within a more commercially accessible format typified by Chusei Sone's 1972 offering Hellish Love / Seidan Botandoro 1972 and Noboru Tanaka's A Woman Called Abe Sada / Jitsuroku Abe Sada, in 1975), and the infamous trial surrounding Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Koriida, 1976) in the late 70s.

However, it would be wrong to look upon support for Takechi as being unanimous throughout the film industry. His background was after all in theatre and he always regarded cinema as a poor second cousin to this field. Like Mishima, Tekechi was concerned about the growing westernisation of Japanese culture and his status as a patron of the Japanese arts working within the traditional theatrical forms of Kabuki and Noh earnt him a good degree of respect within certain sectors of the theatrical community. However, as far as his relationship with the actual film industry went, he was very much an outsider whose radical excursions into celluloid often courted ridicule from those working full-time in the field. Many 'serious' filmmakers regarded his films as hobby work and criticised his lack of stylistic finesse as being amateurish.

Born in 1912 in the Kansai region, the son of a wealthy self-made industrialist, Takechi graduated in Economics from Kyoto National University and subsequently used his inheritance to set up an experimental theatre group in his own house. Here he acted as mentor to a number of actors who would later go on to achieve a great degree of success within the film world - including Raizo Ichikawa who became a popular film idol in numerous chanbara films of the 1960s including the Sleepy Eyes of Death (Nemuri Kyoshiro) series. After the brouhaha over Black Snow he returned to theatre for the next decade, as well as branching out into television with his own series The Takechi Tetsuji Hour, which gained quite a reputation for its erotic content.

Then, in 1981, the 68-year old returned to the director's chair with a full-blown, no-holds-barred remake of Daydream. From around 1975, hardcore pornography had been freely available throughout the United States and most of Europe. Even though the proportion of films that fell under the "erotic" category in Japan then made up the highest proportion in the world, the depiction of genitals and unsimulated sex still required optical masking (and officially still does, unless foreign "arthouse" productions - though in the case of video pornography, the mosaics are getting increasingly finer). The Japanese video release of Daydream is therefore missing a lot of the more pornographic footage that can be seen in the full-length version, at one time available on video in Holland, which sports a number of extremely explicit scenes filmed in lengthy close-up that leave little to the imagination.

As with the original, the basic set-up is a dentist's waiting room in which a young man and a young woman named Chieko sit. The girl is called into the surgery and as she succumbs beneath the nitrous oxide, she begins hallucinating a series of darkly sexual encounters in which she is molested by the dastardly dental surgeon. The boundaries between daydream and reality soon blur and the film drifts from eroticised scenes of clinical dentistry to scenes of clinically candid gynaecology, all laid down to the harsh twang of the traditional shamisen on the soundtrack.

The minimal narrative then heads through a succession of sequences that become as increasingly surreal as they are explicit, as Chieko is trussed up in a lengthy bondage session by the dentist in his apartment whilst the young man gazes on from behind a pane of glass, impotent to rescue her. She escapes and finds herself running naked through a shopping mall where the dentist, now kitted out in a PVC Dracula cape, continues his pursuit.

Whereas the leading lady of the piece, Kyoko Aizome, made quite a name for herself with the same sort of material (later turning up in the 1986 straight-to-video Traci Lords vehicle Traci Takes Tokyo), Kei Sato, who plays the dentist and partakes in a lengthy scene of unsimulated intercourse towards the end of the film, had a long and respected track record as an actor. A frequent collaborator of Oshima in his heyday in the 1960s, his career led from early major appearances for Yasuzo Masumura and Kaneto Shindo (including 1964's Onibaba and The Black Cat / Kuroneko from 1968) to the big-scale international co-production Hiroshima (1994 - Koreyoshi Kurahara and Roger Spottiswoode) and beyond. The press picked up on Sato's involvement and the resulting coverage brought audiences flocking in droves.

Takechi's motivation throughout his entire cinematic oeuvre remains dubious. A heady whiff of nationalism permeates his work. But aside from the question of whether he forged ahead with pornography as an alternate means of artistic expression or as a source of easy income, perhaps the most shocking thing about Daydream is that it is actually pretty well crafted within the confines of the XXX market. Hardcore sex scenes were again integrated into his Exorcist-influenced Oiran in 1983, then in 1987 came Daydream 2 (Hakujitsumu Zoku), another reprisal of the dentist waiting room scenario.

The maverick director died in 1988. His film work remains all but unknown to today's generation of Japanese cinemagoers. Nevertheless, despite the sheer obscurity of the majority of his titles, his legacy remains as the Father of Pink Film.