Steamy, subversive, exotic and bizarre!
Interview with Jasper Sharp
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 60s 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 80s 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 60s 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 70s 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 80s came from this background, for example Tomorowo Taguchi and Ren Osugi. They certainly don't deny it. Remember that in the 70s 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 beneath 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 90s things came full circle. After several decades in which 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 - 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 60s, 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 80s, I think Yojiro Takita's sex comedies are very funny and entertaining. He of course is well known for his more mainstream films like The Yin-Yang Master and When the Last Sword is Drawn, 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 70s. 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….