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.
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)
Alone in the Night, Takashi Ishii. Probably Ishii’s best film, with virtuoso camerawork. (no subtitles)