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)
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Rampo Noir [Rampo Jigoku]

“Why couldn’t the lens capture on the spot the cerebral life, the chemical reactions of the brain, the silver bath of the association of images, the over- or underexposure of the principal idea and the marvels of the surge of the subconscious, revealing all?”

“Pourquoi l’objectif ne saisirait-il pas sur le vif la vie cérébrale, les réactions chimiques du cerveau, le bain d’argent de l’association des images, la sur- ou sous-exposition d’une idée-force et les merveilles de l’afflux du subconscient, ce révélateur ? ».
Blaise Cendrars. Une nuit dans le forêt, p 45. (1929).

Reading this passage from Une nuit dans le forêt, Blaise Cendrars’ (1886-1961) semi-autobiographical novel recounting his experiences as a filmmaker in Rome, I was struck by its prescience. Cendrars was the first poet to recognize the creative possibilities of the new medium of motion pictures. The notion of capturing on celluloid the very essence of the life of the subconscious, while perhaps the extravagance of a poetic imagination, comes very close to describing what these four very different filmmakers (two making their debut here) have attempted to accomplish in Rampo Noir, a collection of four short films based on the work of Japanese novelist Edogawa Rampo (Taro Hirai). Japanese filmmakers – most notably Tsukamoto and Masumura – had already adapted Rampo’s work for the silver screen. Among the better known, we cite: Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (2001) Ishii Teruo, starring Tsukamoto Shinya; Gemini (1999) Shinya Tsukamoto; Mystery of Rampo (1994) Okuyama Kazuyoshi; Stroller in the Attic (1976) Tanaka Noboru; Blind Beast (1969) Masumura; Horror of a Deformed Man (1969) Ishii Teruo; and Black Lizard (1968) Fukasaku Kinji.

Mars Canal, the first and most experimental of the shorts in this collection, is calculated to throw off the viewer’s equilibrium from the very start. Jittery camerawork, an Asano Tadanobu exerting himself physically to the utmost and an (almost) non-existant soundtrack ensure that the audience will not remain passive observers throughout this adventure. For some, the segment will seem blessedly short-lived.

The next work in the collection, entitled Mirror Hell (Kagami Jigoku), is by Akio Jissoji, no stranger to the world of Rampo. While appearing at first to be a continuation of the first tale, it turns out to be nothing of the kind. This may be as good an opportunity as any to question the producers’ decision to link these unrelated films together, where even the chapters on the DVD do not correspond to the beginning and end of the individual pictures. But this is a small quibble for a production in which evident care has been lavished on every detail, from start to finish. The universe inhabited by Rampo may reflect a time gone by (a belligerent Japan just opening up to Western culture), but it still exerts a strong attraction for filmmakers like Jissoji, who has already made three films based on the writer’s mysteries. Jissoji has said that he prefers going to art museums to watching movies, and this preoccupation is manifest in each and every one of the exquisitely constructed ‘display cases’ that constitute the sets of this, perhaps the most narrative-based of the four films. The director takes evident delight in framing his actors in elaborately composed mirrored décors, each unique and memorable, and lovingly photographed in monochromatic color: the tea ceremony room, the funeral service at the mortuary, the autopsy room, the hotel in Kamakura, the Kamakura police station — but perhaps most fascinating of all the riches on display are the scenes in which the handsome Toru Itsuki (Hiroki Narimiya) is at work in his studio, creating the dreaded ‘shadow mirror’. There is no denying the stylistic virtuosity of Jissoji , who spent his youth watching the films of Fellini and Antonioni, as well as the French filmmakers of the 1930s through the Nouvelle Vague. Mirror Hell is a genuine feast for the senses, which may or may not enable the viewer to forgive the most transparent of detective stories (in which Tadanobu tries valiantly to fill out his shell of a role), a gratingly annoying operatic soundtrack, and gratuitous scenes of bondage and S&M.

Many of the themes of Rampo’s oeuvre have already been developed in the first two episodes — eroticism, voyeurism and lack of genuine communication – but they reach their paroxysm in the third installment entitled Caterpillar.  This grim tale tells the story of a battered war hero (Nao Omori) who has returned home to his passionate wife (Yukiko Okamoto) – only to be subjected to the cruel sexual and sadistic whims of her unbalanced mind. Of the four films in this collection, perhaps none have matched so perfectly story and director as in this episode. Hisayasu Sato freely experiments with camera movement, lighting, intentional use of blur and high contrast, and color (an inky-blue sequence is reminiscent of Tsukamoto’s singular A Snake of June) but miraculously, the individual images all hold together as one. Of particular note is a scene where the wife shatters a mirror held by her deceased uncle’s assistant (Matsuda Ryuhei), the shards of glass reflected in angular splinters of light about the darkened room. Although there is an abundance of suffering in Caterpillar, what interests the director most are not torments of the flesh, but the psychic trauma endured by generations of Japanese unable to communicate with one another. One of the side-effects of this inability to express oneself manifests itself as voyeurism, which has reached epidemic proportions in Japanese society.

The fourth and final installment, Crawling Bugs, distinguishes itself from the preceding three by its rich use of color, a lively Afro-Cuban jazz soundtrack, and superb costumes and sets recalling the 1920s.  Tadanobu Asano here takes on the role of a pathologically reclusive germ-obsessed chauffeur, who develops an infatuation with a movie starlet (Tamaki Ogawa). I especially enjoyed the darkly humorous scenes at the dermatologist’s office, underscored by the sounds of a common household appliance. Sole distraction – the overuse of a particular sound effect, which my nephew called ‘frying eggs’. Both morbid and droll, Kaneko Atsushi’s debut film proves the manga artist of Bambi and Her Pink Gun to be a filmmaker to watch for. This set comes highly recommended and, while distinctly different, will inevitably draw comparisons to last year’s outstanding horror omnibus Three…Extremes. The HK R3 NTSC DVD distributed by Universe Laser & Video is flawless.

Japan | 2005 | Directors: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Sato Hisayasu, Kaneko Atsushi | Starring Asano Tadanobu (The Man/Detective Akechi/Masaki), Narimiya Hiroki (Toru), Matsuda Ryuhei (Hirai), Okamoto Yukiko (Sunaga Tokiko), Omori Nao (Sunaga), Ogawa Tamaki (Kinoshita)

Ganeon Entertainment, Micott & Basara, Kadokawa Herald Pictures, Toei TV
Writers: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Yumeno Shiro, Kaneko Atsushi
Producer: Miyazaki Dai
Directors of photography: Takeuchi Suguru, Hachimaki Tsuneari, Ashizawa Akiko, Yamamoto Hideo
Production designer: Kitamura Michiko
Music: Puppypet
Editors: Abe Naoko, Shinozaki Hiroshi, Saitou Ryota, Yousuke Yafune, Kunihiko Ukai, Kaneko Naoki.
Budget: $1.5 million
Running time: 134 minutes