Whatever else you might have to say about it, the pornography industry in Japan is certainly not a small one. In terms of film, if you consider that Nikkatsu, the country's oldest production company switched their entire output over to Roman Porno skinflicks during the 70s and that somewhere around a third of the total theatrical output during the early 80s fell under the "pinku" category, it's a wonder that directors in the 90s have been able to drag the mainstream industry from out of this quagmire at all.
However, these not infrequently artistically accomplished offerings from pinku's initial theatrical incarnation merely seems to represent the thin end of the wedge. With the introduction of the VCR, from the early 80s onwards the production of what is euphemistically termed as "Adult Entertainment" has really snowballed as an increasing number of viewers have opted to take their viewing pleasures solitarily in the privacy of their own bedrooms rather than share their appreciation in a crowded auditorium. The AV video market in Japan is currently second only to that of the States.
Against this background comes Masato Ishioka's Scoutman, a grimy portrayal of the pony-tailed hustlers, peroxide-headed pimps and sleazy moustachioed casting directors who ferret the streets of Downtown Tokyo's Ikebukuro district in search of the latest "tantai" (star quality) AV actresses with which to provoke frenetic bouts of one-handed adulation from their cloistered male admirers. Any single young girl is fair meat, as prospective starlets are harangued on the street with such blunt catcalls as "You've passed! I'll get you the nicest job you've ever had. You can earn extra money with your tits."
Into this urban jungle wanders 20 year-old Atsushi, with his lame girlfriend Mari hobbling in tow, both freshly arrived from the suburbs in search of a bright golden future in the big city. However, with no place to stay, it's not long before young idealism gives way to empty stomachs, and unbeknownst to his partner, Atsushi is soon taking cash scouring the streets for suitable actresses in the employment of an AV production company managed by the weaselly Sugishita, learning the tricks of the trade from veteran talent scout Yoshiya ("What are you talking to them about music for? You're not trying to pick them up!"), as well as recklessly dabbling with fading tantai Miki, whose own onscreen career has so far evaded the notice of her husband.
Meanwhile Mari's own job-hunting prospects take a different turn after being offered a stick of chewing gum by a leggy, mini-skirted bottle-blonde introducing herself as Kana (Fujimoto), who only five minutes later asks for the semi-chewed lump back before selling it onto a lecherous creep hiding in a nearby phonebox. Initially disgusted, Mari is soon lured away by her new friend for a makeover and drafted into selling tickets for swingers parties.
Films about the sex industry have almost become something of a cliché in Japan over the past decade, ever since Masato Harada lifted the lid on the whole "enjyo kosai" thing with Bounce Ko Gals. The main weakness of Harada's film stemmed from a exasperating tendency to fall back on tabloid scare tactics, allowing mainstream audiences a vicarious peep into a hidden world for those unacquainted with it first-hand without necessarily giving anything in the way of insight into it. Harada's heroines, all pert and squeaky clean, nice girls corrupted by "wicked" society, never rose above the level of ciphers within its rambling didactic narrative that was as artificial as it was conservative. "Oh, how shocking!", Harada seemed to be prompting his audience to say before allowing them to go home and forget about the problem.
Directed from his own script, Masato Ishioka's shockingly frank take on the AV world doesn't even see Japanese society's rampant preoccupation with sex as a problem, more another facet of modern urban existence. With its predominance of handheld location shots, a cast including a number of industry professionals and a sparing use of background music, his raw-edged approach is more concerned with documentation than attribution. Whereas Harada wags his finger censoriously, Ishioka shoots strictly from street level, counterpointing the banality behind the more alluring facade of softcore video production with Mari's spiralling descent from handing out flyers for organised orgies into pimping out high-school prostitutes.
Like the world they inhabit, Ishioka's characters aren't particularly likeable, but they are recognisable in their warts-and-all portrayal and its obvious that the director knows his subject well. After all, it's where he came from, cutting his directorial teeth in the sleazy world of Adult Entertainment with a string of porno quickies such as Chikanhakusho 1, The Statement of Pervert (1995).
It's a perspective that lends Scoutman some of its most convincing scenes. As Atsushi is promoted to the role of Miki's personal manager, we are invited behind the scenes to a video shoot. Here whilst preparing for her first onscreen appearance, one of Atsushi's recent recruits receives a phone call from an anxious boyfriend, whose mind is seemingly put at rest after confirmation from the makeup artist that her first shoot is girl-on-girl. All smiles and forced playfulness, the new girl immediately breaks down into tears as the camera starts to roll.
Scoutman's view is that pornography is neither glamorous nor seductively dangerous, but ultimately nothing less than trite and debasing for both practitioners and consumers alike. A number of the girls lured into this false paradise by the smooth-talking scouts are soon making rapid beelines for the exit after their first "interview" on the rancid Sugashita's casting couch, whereas the demand from the shop-front suppliers to go further than the last time leads to a rival agent being busted under the for child pornography. The best Ishioka's starlets can hope for after being pushed to greater excesses by the increasing demands of a jaded market is being farmed out to a Fuzoku "soapland" where they can make more intimate acquaintance with their desperate clients being pawed over in private booths, rather than go the whole hog down the SM video route.
In comparison, Bounce Ko Gals is about as convincing as a speech for world peace by George Bush, as at the end of the film Harada lets his viewers off the hook by granting his perky heroine an escape route from the vice-ridden streets of Shinjuku in the form of a plane ticket bought with the proceeds of a night of chaste soliciting without even needing to rinse the cum from her mouth before boarding for that haven of wholesomeness, The Big Apple.
With its twin narratives diverging from the opening moments as it charts the lives of its two young leads Matsumoto and Nakaizumi, both first-timers, Scoutman cracks off at quite a pace, leaving no stone unturned as it exhaustively charts its sordid milieu. Whilst it's definitely not a place you'll want to linger too long, Scoutman is perhaps the most honest and realistic films about the sex industry from the past few years. Simultaneously gruelling and compelling, whereas Harada leaves you unsatisfied and begging for more, Ishioka leaves you feeling in need of a good hosedown. It's ultimately up to the individual viewer to decide which approach is the more pornographic.