Toshiki Satō’s ‘Empty Room’ (2001), Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Japanese Sex Films

Sachiko (Nakagawa Mao), a young woman frustrated with her life of dull routine, and seeking stimulation outside the deadening monotony of housework and catering to her needy husband, befriends Kobayashi (Yûji Tajiri), a neighbor whose wife has been carrying on an affair right under his very nose. Learning of her unfaithfulness, Sachiko’s husband (Takeshi Ito, the ill-fated hero of Hisayasu Satō’s Love-Zero=Infinity) seeks solace in the arms of prostitutes, while his wife decides to run off with her new lover. However, it isn’t long before the latter, feeling homesick, yearns to return to his wife, throwing Sachiko into despair. Graced with an outstanding script, suitably low-key performances, and an abundance of gentle humor, Empty Room is among the best titles in UK distributor Salvation’s catalogue, and an ideal entry point into the unjustly neglected world of Japanese pink film.

With their salacious titles, unabashedly lewd cover art virtually indistinguishable from hardcore direct-to-video porn, and bearing advisories such as, “contains scenes of sexual violence which will offend many viewers”, the marketing of pink films seems expressly calculated to ward off the very audience it should be courting. Which is a shame, because  genre film lovers and cult film fans are missing out on some truly innovative and thought-provoking works. By the same token, anyone purchasing these titles out of sheer prurient interest is bound to  be sorely disappointed. Meanwhile, the distributors of pinky violence and roman porno have been much more successful at garnering critical notice, and more importantly, not only at specialist websites devoted exclusively to Japanese, grindhouse and exploitation films.

My own initiation into Japanese sex films was Chusei Sone’s Red Classroom (1979), his second entry in the Angel Guts series, one of many roman porno films produced by Nikkatsu, and released on DVD by Arts Magic a few years back. The experience was shattering, compelling me to write a review, now buried in the forum archives, that has since gotten 8,000 hits – rather extraordinary for a 30-year-old emotionally taxing sexploitation film that has sharply divided critical opinion. This was followed by my first foray into pink film, Hisayasu Satō’s (Caterpillar, 2005) poetically named but trashy Survey Map of a Paradise Lost (1988) — beside which even something as blatantly offensive as Assault! Jack the Ripper (a mildly diverting tale about a pastry chef who sexually mutilates and murders dozens of women) towers like a masterpiece of cinematic art — effectively killing my interest in the genre for the next few years.

During that time, I suffered through countless critically acclaimed but altogether mediocre Japanese dramas, romances, and comedies (Ping Pong, Su Ki Da, Strawberry Shortcakes, et al), when a chance encounter with the erotic thriller Freeze Me, by Takashi Ishii (scriptwriter of Angel Guts and director of the final installment of the series) rekindled my interest in Japanese sex films, and in the brief space of a couple months, I feasted on a steady diet of roman porno, pinky violence and pink films — devouring no fewer than four dozen nunsploitation, S&M, yakuza, girl gang films and erotic ghost stories, as well as ten titles from Salvation’s catalogue. Takahisa Zeze’s Raigyo (1997), based on an actual story about a woman who brutally murders a perfect stranger at a Love Motel, was the most gut-wrenchingly powerful film in my experience. And astonishingly, Hisayasu Satō’s Love-Zero=Infinity (1994), part Alphaville and part urban vampire movie — though still preoccupied with the director’s pet themes of alienation, an obsession with contaminated bodily fluids, and a predilection for vinyl gloves and rubbing oil — turned out to be everything Survey Map of a Paradise Lost was not: a hugely satisfying multi-layered work that must rank as one of the finest examples of the genre. But of the all the films I watched, it was Toshiki Satō’s Empty Room, scripted by Shinji Imaoka (assistant director on Love-Zero=Infinity) that had the best screenplay.

Neither radically experimental like the films of Hisayasu Satō, nor as grim as those of Mitsuru Meike or Takahisa Zeze, with a conspicuous absence of rape, bondage or torture, Empty Room is about as accessible a pink film as you’re likely to find. The characters are quirky, but not merely a hodgepodge of idiosyncrasies: they are genuine human beings, with all their inherent weaknesses, insecurities and longings. The women are decidedly unglamorous — assertive but not cruel, and the men, while not exactly model husbands, have a disarming vulnerability. Humor is also ever-present: Sachiko’s husband’s chronic back pain is a running gag throughout the film, and Yûji Tajiri’s Kobayashi has an irresistable boyish charm.

Of course, being a sex film, Empty Room does have moments of vigorous coupling, but those scenes are integrated seamlessly into the story, and filmed in such a way that they are exceedingly unlikely to fuel males’ sexual fantasies. The sex never feels cheap or gratuitous, and arises out of the strict requirements of the narrative. Like the best practitioners in this specialized field, Satō is interested in exploring the entire range of human behavior as it manifests itself in relationships between couples, with intimacy at its core. Meticulously crafted, from the note-perfect opening five-minute introduction to the bittersweet conclusion, with vividly drawn characters, and filled with unexpected details that make the ordinary events of everyday life seem extraordinary, Empty Room is quite simply one of the most deftly handled films dealing with marital infidelity that I’ve seen.
A word about the transfer. Just because Salvation’s releases aren’t as richly documented or as lovingly restored and presented as those of Mondo Macabro, Arts Magic, or Panik House, should not deter readers from acquiring some of the excellent titles in their catalogue.

Pink film (pinku eiga) — Independently produced softcore sex films made on a shoestring budget of around $18,000 and shot in three to four days, with a running time of around 70 minutes. Over 5,000 have been made since the 1960s, but only a couple dozen are available on English-friendly DVD, mostly from the 1990s onward.

roman porno — A line of erotic films produced by Nikkatsu. Close to 800 titles released from 1971-1988.

Pinky violence — Produced by Nikkatsu’s rival Toei, pinky violence focuses more on action and includes the girl gang and women in prison sub-genres.

Empty Room, aka Apartment Wife: Moans from Next Door (2001)

Toshiki Satō, director
Shinji Imaoka, script
Produced by Kokuei Co. Ltd.

Nakagawa Mao – Sachiko Kuroda
Yûji Tajiri  – Kobayashi Ishii
Takeshi Ito – Sachiko’s husband
Yumeka Sasaki  – Kobayashi’s wife

Torture Porn for the Discerning Moviegoer

There hasn’t been much discussion concerning ‘roman porno’ and ‘pink’ films emanating from Japan as of late. I’m curious to know myself exactly what readers think of these types of films – whether they’ve watched any, and what their thoughts are, especially in relation to mainstream and arthouse films. So this post is basically a call for discussion. It does very well appear that this long-neglected ‘genre’ is at last making inroads into the States and elsewhere, and that in the next couple of years it is easy to imagine several hundred titles being released by directors up till now unheard-of. As of yet, there is next to no available information, either on the Web or in published form (aside from Jasper Sharpe’s excellent Behind the Pink Curtain), which makes this field all the more exciting, in that each viewer can approach the work fresh, without decades of preconceptions and value judgements layered into the experience.

Were the films we’re discussing of no more than prurient or historical interest; low budget affairs produced by technicians or hacks; the irresponsible activity of a handful of independent studios targeting a fringe audience of social deviants; or distributed solely to tiny theatres or released directly onto video—it would be easy to dismiss these films as a mere abberation of the Japanese film industry. But the fact remains that these are the works of both independent and major motion picture studios, many produced and directed by graduates of the best universities, some of whom have gone on to produce award-winning films at festivals; that many have been and continue to be released through large networks of company-owned theaters (though these days, most pink films are direct-to-video); and that there is a growing interest and scholarship around this specialized field that up until now has been shrouded in mystery.

When one considers that, at its peak, the Japanese film industry produced as many as 535 films per year, and that even now that figure probably hovers around 250, it becomes painfully evident just how ignorant we in the West must be about even the Japanese mainstream market. Up until recently, the cost of obtaining Japanese DVDs was prohibitive, but now they are becoming increasingly available in modestly-priced editions in Hong Kong, Korea, Great Britain and the United States. However, the market in the US and in the UK has become artificially skewed by distributors, who have felt it necessary to create ‘niche’ lines in order to boost sales. Consequently, labels like ‘Tokyo Shock’ and ‘Asian Extreme’ are born, leaving many films that defy easy categorization by the wayside.

One compelling argument for exploring ‘pink’ and ‘roman porno’ films is that they offer the film lover a greater variety than is available in Japanese mainstream and arthouse films. It’s been said time and again that a few major studios are controlled by aging conservative gentlemen who determine the types of films seen in the majority of theatres in Japan. As if recognizing the danger of stagnation in a market where domestic films account for only 30% of tickets sold, the Japanese government has felt obliged to step in and take measures to support independent filmmakers. Even so, from the miniscule number of films with English subtitles available to the collector overseas, this supposed homogeneity is not immediately apparent. Films like Rampo Noir, Vibrator, Taste of Tea, Stereo Future, The Choice of Hercules, Kamikaze Taxi, Tony Takitani and A Snake of June are as different from one another as Brokeback Mountain is from Punch Drunk Love. The Korean film industry, frought with similar fears of a stagnating market, regularly uses screenplays based on manga, successful Japanese films or popular novels.

One of the major hurdles the critic has to overcome in discussing ‘pink’ films is the built-in resistance to any dialogue surrounding films whose content is centered around sex. I will admit that, until quite recently, I had the same prejudice, and never read a single review of an x-rated film, let alone the ‘pink’ films of Japan. Nevertheless, much remains to be done in terms of marketing and educating the public about the nature of these works. Still, years down the road, once scholars and critics have examined and recorded every possible interpretation and judgement about ‘pinku eiga’ and ‘roman porno’; when the names of the authors of these films become better known; and when all the titles have been carefully catalogued and tabulated—a little bit of the joy of discovery will have disappeared.

Want to dive in?
Here’s a list of the best Japanese sex films available on DVD (with English subtitles). The collection “Female” is as good a place as any to start for someone wanting to test the waters—it is very “soft” and has quite a bit of humor, too. Of course, Toshiki Sato’s Empty Room can also be recommended to newcomers. Snake of June is a masterpiece of twisted erotic cinema, which I assume if you’re reading this, you have already seen. Likewise, Sato’s Love-Zero=Infinity, Zeze’s Raigyo and Sano’s Under the Carp Banner are some of the best pink films out on DVD. I’m not a fan of pinky violence, hence their exclusion.

Tokyo Desire, Mamoru Watanabe
Female, omnibus featuring short films by Ryuichi Hiroki, Suzuki Matsuo, Miwa Nishikawa, Tetsuo Shinohara, and Shinya Tsukamoto
The Brutal Hopelessness of Love, Takashi Ishii (flawed story, sensational cinematography)
Star of David: Beautiful Girl Hunter, Norifumi Suzuki
Marquis de Sade’s Prosperities of Vice, Akio Jissoji (deliriously beautiful lensing)
Gate of Flesh, Suzuki Seijun (much better than the critically acclaimed Story of a Prostitute)
Dirty Maria, Takahisa Zeze
Raigyo, Takahisa Zeze (one of the most gut-wrenchingly powerful films I’ve seen, and superbly lensed)
The Lost Virgin, Toshiki Sato
Empty Room, Toshiki Sato
Bitter Sweet, Mitsuru Meike
Lunch Box, Shinji Imaoka
Ambiguous, Toshiya Ueno
Snake of June, Shinya Tsukamoto (can’t add much to what’s already been said)
Love-Zero=Infinity, Hisayasu Sato (if Godard had made a pink film, it might have looked something like this)
Angel Guts: Red Classroom, Chusei Sone (my very favorite roman porno)
Rampo Noir, omnibus (esp. Hisayasu Sato’s Caterpillar, but Akio Jissoji’s is worth seeing for the exquisite visuals alone)
School of the Holy Beast, Norifumi Suzuki (nunsploitation at its best)
New Tokyo Decadence: The Slave, Ryu Murakami
Under the Carp Banner (to the best of my knowledge, the only of Kazuhiro Sano’s films to be released on subtitled DVD)
Assault! Jack the Ripper, Yasuharu Hasebe
The Japanese Wife Next Door, Part 1, Yutaka Ikejima
Le doux parfum d’eros, Toshiya Fujita (French subtitles only)
A Night in Nude: Salvation, Takashi Ishii. Superb cinematography (HK DVD has English subs)
Alone in the Night, Takashi Ishii. Probably Ishii’s best film, with virtuoso camerawork. (no subtitles)