door Jasper Sharp
HIROKI Ryuichi (1954)
It often comes as some source of surprise to people to learn that many of the Japanese moviemakers currently plying their trade in the commercial industry originally started their careers making low-budget theatrically-released sex films of the type known in Japan as ‘pink films’ (pinku eiga). Two of the best examples are TAKITA Yojiro and SUO Masayuki. Takita graduated from making decidedly non-politically correct slapstick sex romps, such as his contributions to the highly-popular Molester Train (Chikan densha) series in the mid-part of the decade, to helming high-profile mystical martial arts fantasies like The Ying-Yang Master (parts 1 and 2, released in 2001 and 2003 respectively) and Ashura (2004), as well as the samurai drama When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003). Meanwhile, Suo’s comic flare was amply demonstrated in his porno pastiche of OZU Yasujiro, the world-renowned director of films such as Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), with the hilarious Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride (1983). He later scored one of Japanese cinema’s greatest international crossover successes with the heartwarming ballroom drama Shall We Dance? (1996), the top-grossing Asian film ever to be released in the US, before it was knocked off its perch by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was later subjected to an insipid Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.
Less successful but certainly significant are MOCHIZUKI Rokuro, whose moody pre-millennial re-envisioning of the yakuza genre in titles like Another Lonely Hitman (Shin kanashiki hittoman, 1995), Onibi: The Fire Within (1997) and Yakuza in Love (Koi gokudo, 1997) rank among the best the decade has to offer, and TAKAHASHI Banmei, whose recent non-pink works range from Rain of Light (Hikari no ame, 2001), a recreation of the real-life violent internecine ‘purges’ conducted by members of the Japanese terrorist group the United Red Army in the early 70s, to Hibi (2005), the poignant story of a woman pottery expert whose son contracts leukemia.
Like all of these figures, HIROKI Ryuichi also began his career in the early 80s working in the pink industry, and he has similarly migrated onto pastures new. His recent works such as Vibrator (2003) and It’s Only Talk (Yawarakai seikatsu, 2005) have picked up considerable critical plaudits on the international festival circuit. In style and content, the two films are very much cast from the same mould. They both star TERAJIMA Shinobu, surely one of the most powerful screen actresses to have emerged in Japan in recent years, and were written by ARAI Haruhiko, a prominent scriptwriter and the publisher of the important film magazine Eiga Geijutsu, as well as the author of several books on Japanese cinema. Both films are sensitive portrayals of the problems faced by modern-day Japanese women who don’t quite match up to the impossible romantic ideals that the media construct as to how they should look and behave. Shot very much from the woman’s perspective, one could perhaps easily ascribe to them the label of ‘feminist’.
It almost seems ironic then that Hiroki’s first film, released in 1982, went by the sensational name of Sexual Abuse! Exposed Woman (Seigyaku! Onna oabaku). It also might seem surprising that the director sees the development of his body of work as belonging to a strict continuum, and that the only real difference between his pink and non-pink work is not so much in their content, but that they are produced and targeted at different audiences.
Before we go much further, it is probably best to define our terms a little more precisely. While it is a truism that the pink film is characterised by its sexual content, it doesn’t follow that all sex films produced in Japan are pink films. Strictly speaking, the pink film is defined by its point of exhibition in specialist adults-only cinemas. This therefore sets the genre apart from films shot entirely for the video market (whether soft-core or hardcore), or films with strong sexual content which are screened in conventional cinemas, such as the glossy SM fantasies of the two Flower and Snake (Hana to hebi) directed by ISHII Takashi and released in 2004 and 2005. The pink film network thus remains detached from the rest of the Japanese film industry. It caters for its own distinct audience and has developed its own conventions. Because the films are exhibited as triple bills, the films are roughly an hour in length. Because customers tend to wander in and out of the theatre during the screenings regardless of where the film starts or ends, the nude of sex scenes appear at regular intervals of around one every ten minutes to maintain their interest.
For the makers of these films, this format has several advantages. As patrons are attracted predominantly by the sexual content of the films, the directors are given pretty much a free hand as to what to do in the scenes bridging the five or six nude numbers that make up the running time. They can effectively make any film they like. It should be pointed out that the vast majority of practitioners in this field do not exploit this flexibility. In fact, though the pink genre still to this day turns out just shy of hundred titles a year, a scant few are of interest or merit, and one can infer that the directors who have moved on from this market sector to what might be seen as a more legitimate filmmaking career are the exception rather than the norm, and have done so because of their talent and ambition. The other limiting factors are that the budgets are notoriously low and the shooting schedules short. As Hiroki says of his early career: “The thing I liked about pink films is that you are able to write your own scenarios and make them into films very quickly. But there were also economic restrictions, so you have to shoot everything in four days and there's just never enough money to make the films properly. But I don't really make any distinctions between the type of films I make. They're all the same.”
The other main drawback in working in the pink industry is that the director has no say over how the film is marketed. The distributors choose the titles, which seldom have anything to do with the content of the film but are purely intended to be as sensational as possible in order to catch the eyes of would-be patrons. Hiroki’s early pink work was released under such names as Teacher, Don’t Turn Me On (Sensei, watashi no karada ni hi o tsukenaide, 1984) and Pervert and Skirt (Chikan to sukato, 1984). Such titles and the rather grimy nature of most of the pink theatres mean that these films predominantly play to a narrow, specialist audience who are by and large not really concerned with the qualities of the script, the camerawork or the performances.
The pink industry began at grassroots levels in the early 60s, in a period during which the long-established vertical production-distribution-exhibition system dominated by the Big Five major studios of Toei, Toho, Daiei, Shochiku and Nikkatsu (a sixth, Shintoho, went bankrupt in 1961) began breaking down, as cinema attendances waned under competition from television. The major studios at this time operated an apprenticeship system, cherry-picking potential directors from Japan’s top universities and grooming them over a ten-year period as assistant directors before allowing them to helm their own films. A career as a bona-fide filmmaker was therefore an option denied to many.
Itīs Only Talk (2005)
In its early years the pink film of today was referred to as the eroduction (erotic production). The genre was born through the efforts of a handful of opportunistic producers who recognized a niche for independent productions which could fill up the lower slots on double or triple bill programs in the conventional theatres, especially in rural areas, that were left empty due to the decreased output of the major studios. The films were cheaply made and their appeal hinged mainly on their erotic content. It’s directors were mostly drawn from what was then seen as the lowly milieu of television, attracted by the possibility of making genuine films, no matter what kind, for the big screen.
As the output of the major studios decreased, the tables turned, and by the end of the decade the eroduction had mushroomed from a tiny handful of four titles released in its first year of 1962 to a peak popularity of 250 titles in 1969. From the mid-60s up till now their number has made up a significant percentage of total domestic output, ranging between a third to a half of all films released theatrically. By the early 70s the various independent interests had merged to form a large alternate distribution network of specialist adult cinemas, the films’ running time had reduced from that of standard feature-length of 90 minute to about an hour, and the term pinku eiga took over from eroduction.
In its early years, the pink genre offered an opportunity for less-well educated or less intellectual individuals to make films. By the end of the 70s, it offered one of the only chances for newcomers to learn the ropes of filmmaking. Facing a seemingly interminable decline, many of the established directors at the major studios, in an ironic turnaround, moved from film to television. But more significantly, the apprenticeship system that created so many great directors, especially during the 50s and 60s, collapsed. All of the majors stopped taking on new staff to train as directors within the company, with the only exception being Nikkatsu, who by this time, noting the success of the pink film, had committed itself to making its own more generously-budgeted erotic films under the brand name of Roman Porno (which ran from 1971-88). Among the directors currently active in the mainstream who received their training at Nikkatsu are IKEDA Toshiharu, ISHII Takashi, and most significant of all, NAKATA Hideo, the man who unleashed a tidal wave of J-horror with The Ring (1998)
Considering how the pink film originated in strict opposition to the mainstream studios, it is somewhat ironic that the system of mentorship, as an assistant director under a more established senior, still persists in this field today, long after it has been abandoned by the major studios who pioneered it. Hiroki himself learnt the ropes as a staff member at Genji Nakamura’s Yu Productions. For directors of his generation, making sex films was really the only way to gain experience handling 35mm film stock, writing scripts, directing casts and crews, and making movies that would be shown in cinemas.
During the 90s, the pink industry was finally recognised as a breeding ground for new filmmaking talent, with the emergence of a group of directors known as The Four Heavenly Kings (shitenno), which included ZEZE Takahisa, SATO Toshiki, SATO Hisayasu and SANO Kazuhiro. Unlike the previous generation, these filmmakers attracted attention through their attempts to push the pink film into the realms of high art. None have really gone on to achieve the same degree of commercial success as their predecessors however (although Zeze did direct the sci-fi Spring blockbuster Moonchild for Shochiku in 2003), instead predominantly making small independent works for the arthouse market, with Zeze and Sato Toshiki periodically returning to make films in the pink genre. The pink film today still attracts young directors, although it should also be pointed out that there are numerous other avenues into movie directing nowadays such as via the routes of pop promos and TV commercials, and it seems unlikely that any of today’s newcomers will ever make much of an impact outside of this genre.
So the 80s represented a vital training ground for commercial directors like Suo and Takita, who are now firmly dug in making mainstream films for mainstream audiences. These directors seem to have severed all links with their pink filmmaking past, leaving it a long way behind them. Their origins are seldom ever discussed, but perhaps this is less to do with shame or embarrassment than the fact that their recent films bear little resemblance to their earlier titles.
While Hiroki also has never returned to the pink genre, in contrast his heart remains fiercely loyal to a more artistically-motivated independent sector, a milieu in which he has been able to realize his more personal projects and develop an oeuvre that is as consistent as it is interesting, and in doing so has not strayed as far from his roots as some of his contemporaries. After a brief spell working in television during the early 90s, Hiroki’s first non-pink title came with the straight-to-video production Sadistic City (Maogai, 1993), which he followed with the athletic youth movie 800 Two Lap Runners (Happyaku Two Lap Runners, 1994), voted 7th best film in the year of its release by the critics of the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine.
I Want to Make Love Until the Ski Slopes Melt (1995)
Which is not to say that Hiroki hasn’t made his share of more populist works produced and distributed by major companies such as Daiei and Toho. In 1995 he directed I Want to Make Love until the Ski Slopes Melt (Gerende ga Tokeruhodo Koishitai), a romantic drama set on the snowy slopes of New Zealand, while more recently he made The Silent Big Man (Kikansha Sensei, 2004), the story of a mute teacher who goes to teach in a school on an island in the Inland Sea where, despite not being able to speak, he gradually earns the respect of the local community. But it is important to bear in mind that these two somewhat atypical projects did not originate with the director, and were undertaken as contract works solely for the money.
The film industry in Japan is a notoriously tough one to make a living in, and so it is rare that an independent director is able to support himself by making only one film a year. This explains the vast filmographies of directors like Takeshi Miike, who flits between low-budget indie work, disposable straight-to-video affairs, and more graciously-budgeted mainstream work. At the same time, Miike’s films still retain a distinct identity. Their interest lies in how Miike, as a director, manages to make films that are both commercial and yet contain and elaborate on similar ideas from work to work. Though the type of genres he works in, mainly violent gangster movies and action, are very different from the dramas or youth movies of Hiroki, in this respect the directors are similar.
With around 40 films to his name, Hiroki is a prolific director, albeit not quite to the same extent as Miike. In 2004 alone he made The Silent Big Man, L’Amant, Girlfriend: Someone Please Stop the World and a segment in the omnibus movie Female (Fīmeiru). Moreover his past films have all been made for different markets and under different production circumstances. Midori (1996), for example, was produced by a consortium that included Fuji Television, Pony Canyon and Tohokushinsha. Tokyo Trash Baby (Tokyo gomi onna, 2000) was realized as part of a series of six low-budget stories from different directors, all shot on digital video and produced by a company named Cinerocket. The films were intended as straightforward video releases, but also received a tiny theatrical release on a single screen in an independent cinema in Tokyo. He has also made several titles for the straight-to-video market.
A look at the stories of his films reveals several pertinent similarities. Tokyo Trash Baby features a lovelorn part-time worker at a coffeeshop who becomes so besotted with the cool wannabe rock star living in the same apartment block that she takes to rifling through his trash bags and collecting his discarded waste. Midori is a coming-of-age drama set amongst the heady high school world of peer rivalry and sexual awakening, featuring an emotionally-detached high-school girl who, her parents dead, lives with her brother and his overprotective wife. After being sent out of class due to a dizzy spell, she becomes acquainted with Shun, a boy in the class below, in the school sanatorium. As the two begin feigning illness together on a regular basis, their uncomfortable flirtations soon blossom into a full sexual relationship. Meanwhile, Midori has been left a suicide message in the form of a video tape by a former classmate named Kobayashi. Shot just before he died, it contains incriminating accusations against his parents and teachers. And Vibrator’s main character is a freelance journalist whose basic desires have been cowed into submission by a deafening interior monologue culled from the voices of her friends and family, advertisements, gossip columns, and the front cover headlines of woman’s magazines – “be thin, be beautiful, the perfect man is just around the corner”. Unable to express her true emotions, she retreats into a world of insecurity, insomnia, alcohol abuse and eating disorders, the only external sensation being the surrogate heartbeat of her vibrating mobile phone in her breast pocket – the vibrator of the film’s title.
From these descriptions we might surmise that the most enduring trait in Hiroki’s work is that they all focus on the stifled emotional worlds of modern-day young urban women, and recount their stories from a female perspective. Yet Hiroki himself seems modest enough to waive aside any lofty claims of auteur status. When asked why he concentrates on predominantly female subjects, he states plainly that it is because the market for films about women and targeted at women has been poorly catered for. And yet, when pressed, he will also admits that “Even when I was making pink films, I usually described women who were strong-minded or selfish and there would always be a weak guy who would get tangled up in some situation with them… I always tried to describe liking sex and falling in love as two different things. The most common narrative in my films is that a man and a woman meet, they like each other and they fall in love and have sex, and then the woman starts worrying, ‘Maybe I don't really like this guy.’”
These themes lie at the heart of the film I Am an SM Writer, released originally in Japan as Futei no kisetsu (Season of Infidelity). Sadomasochism may seem a strange choice of subject for what in genre terms is probably best viewed as a romantic comedy, but it is really only the backdrop for a story which is predominantly concerned with male-female relationships. It focuses on the character of the eponymous fetish novelist who is so tied up, if you’ll forgive the pun, in committing his own erotic fantasies to the page, that he barely recognizes, yet alone fulfils, his wife’s emotional and sensual desires, leaving her to seek satisfaction in the arms of her more physical but unsophisticated American tennis partner. It is through his wife’s eyes that the story is predominantly framed, in this challenging and potentially offensive, though at the same time intelligent and often highly funny film.
I Am an SM Writer, like Midori and Vibrator, certainly boast their sexy moments, but the nude scenes, though just as (if not more) explicit, are neither as lengthy nor as frequent as in the standard pink film. Nor are they as perfunctory. In these films they can actually be said to serve some higher dramatic purpose, not just titillation.
There’s another element in I Am an SM Writer which conveniently brings us back full circle to our discussion of the pink genre. It is in the casting of OSUGI Ren in the leading role. A respected actor of both the stage and screen, most familiar to Western viewers for his supporting parts in the films of KITANO ‘Beat’ Takeshi such as Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (Hana-bi, 1997), many of Osugi’s early appearances were in pink films. He actually made his screen debut in TAKAHASHI Banmei Tightly Bound Sacrifice (Kinpaku Ikenie) in 1980. He also appeared in a number of titles aimed at gay audiences produced by the company ENK, formed in the early 80s by a former Nikkatsu employee. Osugi appeared in the first ever gay erotic move, Beautiful Mystery (Kyokon densetsu: utsukishiki nazo) in 1983, which was directed by Hiroki’s former mentor NAKAMURA Genji, and also appeared in several other ENK films in the company’s first year, including Hiroki’s own Our Season (Bokura no kisetsu). Both of these were written by Mochizuki, whom as I have mentioned was another figure who went on from pink to make his way in the mainstream during the 90s.
In short, the pink genre has played a crucial role in launching many a career of those active in contemporary Japanese cinema, and in the case of Hiroki Ryuichi in particular, should not be viewed as a shady or distinct part of his oeuvre. As the director himself notes: “I didn't change so much as the circumstances around me. I don't really care if you label a film like I Am An SM Writer as a pink film, an indie film, a mainstream film or whatever. It's just the film I wanted to make. In that sense there hasn't really been a transformation in my filmmaking. I just want people who don't go to pink theatres to see my work.”
Jasper Sharp is the curator of the Japanese program of London's Raindance Film Festival and his writings on film have appeared in publications all over the world, from the US and Russia to Taiwan, including Variety, SFX, Film International and 3d World. He has also worked as a computer programmer, on the Douglas Adams game Starship Titanic. Jasper Sharp is the co-author, with Tom Mes, of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. He is currently working on a book about pink films.