The subtitle of this book is “The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema” and boy, is that accurate. Former Tokyo resident and current contributor to the specialty film website MidnightEye, Jasper Sharp has penned a remarkably thorough, deeply researched and well-informed opus on Japanese sex cinema.
The question, then, becomes: what is Japanese sex cinema? The overactive hardcore porn AV industry is not included here, as all those works are produced on video. For Sharp, “sex cinema” means the softcore porn genre known as eroduction (a conflation of “erotic” and “production”) that debuted in the late ’50s and early ’60s, blossomed into "pinku eiga" (pink film), and had the Nikkatsu studio’s "roman poruno" as an offshoot. In a sense, all these works are subsumed under the broad category “pink film,” though technically that term refers to softcore porn not made by one of Japan's major film studios.
Pink films were, and are (despite a declining market), generally made according to a set pattern which includes simulated sex every 10 minutes. They’re released into specialty theaters that pull in a male audience. In other words, the genre is rather like the cheapie sex-and-violence grindhouse fare that used to play in rundown cinemas and drive-ins across the U.S.
With those cheesy flicks as a reference, readers might wonder if 415 highly researched, cross-referenced pages, replete with numerous appendices, indices and glossaries, are necessary. In fact, Donald Richie, the doyen of English-language criticism of Japanese film (as Sharp calls him), has dismissed the entire pink-film genre in his writings. However, even if the movies themselves are artistically meritless — a point Sharp would fervently argue against — the historical, social and political conditions that the films depict, and attack, are fascinating.
Fortunately, this is the particular strength of Sharp’s analysis. In Japan (as in all societies), sex is a boundary-pushing theme, so it’s natural that the author examines the culture’s underlying mores and historical circumstances. In fact, some filmmakers working in the genre, most notably Koji Wakamatsu, aspired to influence society in a political, social or polemic way. Wakamatsu films like "Violated Angels" (1967), "Go, Go Second Time Virgin" (1969) and "Secret Acts Behind Walls" (selected for the prestigious Berlin Film Fest in 1965) so scandalized Japanese society that it would be impossible to argue they did not expand the limits of what can be shown onscreen. As a result, they made it easier for all later Japanese filmmakers to pursue their visions.
This brings us to a crucial point that Sharp addresses but does not resolve. Wakamatsu, in particular, and the genre in general, is based around violent, domineering or coercive sex. Early on, Sharp notes his belief that each viewer can make his/her own judgments about the outre or possibly offensive content of the films, but when Richie nails the entire genre as misogynistic, Sharp can only retort that the films are not as humorless as the esteemed critic supposes.
Yet if one can accept that these flicks are cries from the dark recesses of the psyche and not treatises on proper behavior, the book becomes a fascinating read. Those interested in experimental culture or cutting-edge art will notice the connections to the larger Japanese avant-garde, as well as the transgressive nature of many of the films discussed. Sharp’s probing research, momentous scholarship and dexterous prose make this a crucial work for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese society.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today