July 16th, 2009 13:39:00
Since the early 60s, the Japanese film industry has nurtured a bizarre sub-world of low-budget soft-core porn known as 'pinku'. These films routinely belie their commercial raison d'ętre with a wild imagination that we only wish colored North American erotic films, and for the last 40 years, legions of young Japanese filmmakers have been given a chance to earn their directing chops within this context.
This year, FANTASIA hosts a special Pink Film Spotlight series, with programming assistance from Jasper Sharp, author of the book Behind the Pink Curtain. Jasper will appear in person to introduce the films.
Jasper Sharp's BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN is a mammoth, long-overdue tome detailing the entire history of Japanese sex cinema, featuring insightful criticism, interviews and lushly illustrated with hundreds of rare photographs. The book comes to us courtesy of England's FAB PRESS, known for putting out the best and most diverse selection of film books available anywhere. Jasper Sharp's book has been key in the curation of Fantasia's Pink Films Spotlight Series, and he was kind enough to share his thoughts on the genre and its lasting appeal from the 60s through today.
When did you first start working on BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN?
I guess it was around 2003, when I was living in Tokyo. I was brain storming ideas about short documentary film subjects with a friend, and we thought it would be interesting to explore the world of pink cinema, as there were still so many of these films being made - I couldn't think of any other country that still made sex films for theatrical presentation. Anyway, I vaguely mentioned this to a producer, and got encouraging noises, so about three of us got together and started researching, shooting interviews, etc, but we didn't have any finance behind us really, and the producer we had turned out to be a bit of a dick. Then another Japanese-made documentary about the subject came out, Pink Ribbon, and it became clear that there wasn't room for two pink documentaries so close together, which was sort of annoying, because Pink Ribbon took a very different tack from what we had planned.
Anyway, I ended up going back to England in 2005, and figured that as I'd already done a lot of the research on the subject, it wouldn't take long to write a book. It turned out I was totally wrong, and it actually took 2 years of near solid writing and a further year of Harvey at FAB Press doing proofreading, corrections, layouts etc. I'm not sure I'd ever want to take on such a big subject again.
What was the most difficult part of researching the subject?
There were things like winning the confidence of the Japanese companies and the individual filmmakers, who were understandably worried about how I was trying to portray them and the subject. Doing the research flicking through musty old books from the 1960s for example and spending ages slowly translating them. Having to watch literally hundreds of films just to get a sense of what was typical and what was exceptional - I've estimated that about 5000 of these films have been made, so trying to get a hold on even a brief sample of them, especially as lots are simply unavailable for viewing, was pretty difficult.
What was the first pinku film you saw that made an impression on you?
It would have to be Koji Wakamatsu's Violated Angels (1967), simply because it was I saw it years ago, back in the 1980s in the Scala Cinema in London, and I'd hardly seen any Japanese films back then, so I can honestly say I'd never seen anything like it. I am not sure I particularly liked the film, and I certainly didn't understand it, but it sort of stuck with me, like a thorn, so when I found myself living in Japan and really getting into Japanese films, it was something I felt I had to come back to.
Who is your favourite past pink director, and your favourite current pink director, and why?
Past directors would actually have to be Koji Wakamatsu and also his colleague Masao Adachi. They were both very different in their own ways, but both were very punkish, anti-authoritarian and experimental, and weren't really interested in sex films per se. They just wanted to exploit this format and this market to make their type of films, and were both really ambitious filmmakers who had a strong message they wanted to put across. I don't see this so much with many filmmakers nowadays, whether they be from pink filmmaking, mainstream, Japan or any other country. I guess recently the best is Mitsuru Meike, who made George Bush satire, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai. That film always seems to get a strong reaction whenever it gets screened.
What are the specific rules about what you can and cannot show in a pinku film?
Well, the old adage was that you couldn't show pubic hair or graphic scenes of actual sex, as well as illegal activities obviously like paedophilia, bestiality. This meant in the old days you'd get a lot of bondage and simulated rape narratives, but tastes obviously change, and now these sort of scenarios have fallen out of favour.
Nowadays the censors do allow full frontal female nudity, but generally not in a strong sexual context, and its always interesting to see how the filmmakers try to push the boundaries. But I think most of the better filmmakers are more interested in trying to make films that are erotic rather than explicit, trying to conjure up a sense of eroticism through mood and character rather than how much you can put up on screen.
Why do you think the Japanese porno films are so much more creative in terms of their narrative and visual flair than their North American counterparts?
Because they are made for the cinema, so you can't just cut to the chase and fast forward to the rude bits, and because of the censorship they're not too explicit, so they have to be story and character-based to keep up interest levels. I think a lot of filmmakers who have worked in that sector are just interested in seeing what they can do technically and creatively within these limitations.
Pink film retrospectives seem to be happening all over the place now, and the Pink Eiga DVD company has been pumping out releases - do you feel your book had a lot to do with the sudden popularity of pink films?
At least some of the retrospectives are down to my book being released, as I've had a hand in organizing them, and film festivals have seen what is going on elsewhere and said 'We should do something like that too.' Sex films were never really the subject of much serious or academic interest before, but enough time has passed since their heyday in the 1960s and 70s for people to look at this as a lost golden era, with a lot of retro appeal. These sort of films simply aren't being made before, and the other thing is that real porn is now so out in the open that there's not such a taboo about watching it. Not many people nowadays have had the opportunity to watch these films in a cinema with other people, and clearly they work very differently in this context than watching them alone at home, and they always raise interesting discussions.
The Pink Eiga DVD releases were just a lucky coincidence for both of us. I wasn't aware of the company till just before the book got published, so me and the guys who run this company obviously got interested in the subject about the same time. I can't take sole credit though, because a good friend of mine, Alex Zahlten from Nippon Connection Festival in Frankfurt, got interested in this about the same time as I did - like me, he was more interested in the whole phenomena, the fact it's still a large self-sustaining industry which occasionally turns out films that are more interesting than they should be. He started showing these films at Nippon Connection back in 2003, and since I started programming for Raindance Film Festival in London, back in 2005, I've been keen to include at least one film a year in the program. At least now my book is out, people can have a chance to see what the genre is really about, how it functions, and what pink films really are.
Why should your average person, who doesn't make a habit of renting, watching, reading or buying pornography, be interested in Japanese pink films?
Because I'm not even sure I'd call them pornography. There's a difference between erotic films and pornographic films. Essentially though, these films have stories, and they have historic interest because other countries are not making this sort of film any more. There's been so many of these films released - in totally different genres like comedy, horror, relationship dramas, period dramas, literary adaptations - that yes, it's true, a lot of them aren't great, but if you cherry pick the best, there are actually some great films with a very unique visual style.
For the full schedule of the Pink Films, see the Behind the Pink Curtain Spotlight Series page HERE.
PLUS! More Pink Films screening at the Cinematheque Quebecoise as part of the retrospective L'Empire du desir, films erotiques japonais starting July 15th with a giant accompanying poster exhibit. See the details HERE.