Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Smashing in Pink: Japan's Artful, Rebellious Film Genre

Actress Kaori Okamoto bares (almost) all in Top Stripper. © 1982 Nikkatsu Corporation.

Adult film is a genre often avoided by film critics, and for obvious reasons: stories tend to be nonexistent, plots are often anemic and loaded with clichés, and the acting is more happenstance than skillful.

But there are some films that don’t quite line up with the traditional types of adult film often seen in the West, such as Japan's unique mid-20th century soft-core pinku eiga, or Pink Film,  a genre all to itself.

As John Zorn, curator of Japan Society's ongoing Dark Side of the Sun series of outré films told the New York Times, the genre has “no relation at all to erotica in the rest of the world… They are fully realized films, often done with great artistry and a fabulous imagination. They proved to be testing grounds of many young visionary directors who later went on to more mainstream projects.” (The series continues Dec. 11 with the "comic-erotic coming-of-age story" Top Stripper.)

Scholar Joel Neville Anderson, who curated Japan Society's 2014 JAPAN CUTS festival says Pink Film is "a parallel industry which became a fertile creative training ground for young, politically-minded filmmakers of the 1970s following the collapse of the studio system. The genre sustained generations of filmmakers that often broke into the mainstream, as well as a filmgoing public attending devoted Pink theaters. Critical reception of the films always negotiates the political potential of this counterpublic, and their portrayal of misogynistic, conventional sexual violence."

Pink Films can belong to almost any standard genre, but do have some fundamental elements, according to Donald Richie in The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts:
Since each [film] is intended to be shown with two others, the ideal length decided upon is 6,500 feet, or 70 minutes… In theory, directors are instructed to aim at some kind of sex scene every five minutes; in practice, however, it has proved almost impossible to construct a story-line which allows this, with the results that sex scenes are sometimes fewer but longer.
Those required sex scenes are markedly different from what one might expect of an adult film. In accordance with Japanese law, filmmakers can't show pubic hair, let alone genitalia. This leads to some strategic placement of props, blurring, or even just leaving the act out of the frame entirely.

Other defining characteristics of Pink Films include the 35mm film typically used to record them, as well as their low budgets, as Richie explains: “Actresses receive about $60 a day, actors as low as $30. The cost for such a film can be as low as $2,000, though many cost more, particularly those in part-color.”

As for the intercourse itself, it’s entirely simulated; actors use pads called maebari to cover their genitals, which can’t be shown anyway. Without the potential to show the scenes uncensored, an innovative, often artistic approach becomes necessary. It is the ability to appeal to the curiosity of the viewer that made Pink Films so successful.

It all started in 1962 with Flesh Market, which caused controversy in Japan upon its release due to six sexually violent scenes that were deemed by police to be “indecent”, as described by Roland Domenig in The Pink Book. A mere two days after the film’s release, the police had stopped all showings of the film and confiscated all of the prints and negatives. When the film was re-released with the objectionable scenes removed, it proved immensely profitable – while it was only made for 8 million yen, it ended up bringing in 100 million.

Flesh Market was only the beginning. Because producers of these films only cared that their guidelines, much like the ones listed above, were met, directors had incredible freedom to pursue their own creative interests. This meant that Pink Films and their directors were very independent; they stood in stark contrast to the failing, mainstream studios of the time, luring audiences in with a product that had never been available before.

One of these independent directors was Koji Wakamatsu. Known as “the most genuinely controversial figure of the period” of Pink Film, Wakamatsu founded his studio, Wakamatsu Productions, in 1965. He was known for his political, often sexually violent films, such as Go, Go Second Time Virgin, The Embryo Hunts in Secret, and Violated Angels, which was based on the 1966 Richard Speck murders.

According to Japanese-culture author Patrick Macias in his 2001 book TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, "No one had up to that point, or since, filmed porn with as overtly politically radical and aesthetically avant-garde an agenda as Wakamatsu had."

In an interview with American actor Christian Storms, Wakamatsu said, “the people who make things, who create in this world, have to remain on the outside, have to look at the world sometimes from a different perspective, saying: ‘Hold on!’ Somebody taking a different view.”

It was this perspective that allowed Wakamatsu to make such shocking films - films that received not only attention, but critical acclaim. Wakamatsu was able to see both the rise and fall of the Pink Film, going on to direct over 40 films throughout his lifetime before his passing in 2012.

Japan Society commemorated Wakamatsu’s work with a screening of Atsushi Yamatoya’s Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, which launched the Dark Side of the Sun film series. Yamatoya was one of Wakamatsu’s close collaborators and worked for Wakamatsu Productions as an anonymous writer. The film is about a hitman who is hired to rescue a wealthy real-estate agent’s girlfriend from a gang of men who are holding her hostage, though the film’s idiosyncratic, hallucinatory nature makes it a bit more complex than that.

Today there may not be many chances left to see Pink Films the way they were intended to be shown–in theaters. Even in Japan, Pink Films have all but vanished, with only a few theaters still standing. While Pink Films enjoyed impressive popularity in the 60s and 70s, by 1980, adult videos began to capture the Pink Film market, and by the end of the decade, adult video had far surpassed Pink film in popularity.

While many other Pink Film directors might lament this loss of popularity, Wakamatsu, as was often the case, had a different perspective.

“Movies can't really be called ‘Pink’ if they are being accepted by the general public. They've always got to be guerilla. Pink Films are about putting it out there in the public’s face and smashing people’s minds.”

--Mark Gallucci

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