Some weeks ago, I finished reading a book titled Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. I had ordered the book earlier in the year, on somewhat of a whim. I was familiar with the author, Jasper Sharp, from his work on the brilliant (and recently revamped) Midnight Eye and the subject was of some interest to me. Well, to be fair, any book about Japanese cinema – exploitation or otherwise – tends to be of an interest to me. The book sat on my shelf for some time, waiting to be read. When I finally settled down with Behind the Pink Curtain, I found myself completely entranced only a few pages in. I devoured the book cover to cover, finding each chapter better than the last.
Behind the Pink Curtain is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in Japanese cinema – not only sex cinema. Sharp’s writing is wonderful and clearly comes from someone with an impressive bank of knowledge of Japanese film. The book is not simply about erotic films, Sharp effortlessly works in a political and cultural context leaving us with an extremely intelligent piece of writing. Quite impressive considering Sharp is talking about films with lurid titles such as Lolita Vibrator (1987), Campus Porno: Pierrot’s Tits (1974) and Kandagawa Pervert Wars (1983). Yes, Sharp gives us something truly special with this book. It’s a cliched description, but this is truly a book both educational and entertaining without ever seeming pretentious nor hammy. Sharp isn’t afraid to bombard the reader with information, but his chapters have a clear focus that he comfortably structures his many fascinating tangents around.
It’s hard for me to express how much I recommend this book. So rather than simply review Behind the Pink Curtain, I asked Jasper Sharp for an interview. He kindly answered my endless questions about this fantastic book and also told me a little about his more recent effort – The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema.
Just as an introduction to this interview, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What’s your history as a writer and how did your relationship with Japanese cinema began?
I guess basically I was always interested in film and always interested in travelling as well. During the 90s, my interest in film sort of subsided and I did more hitchhiking around Europe and stuff like that. I ended up doing an IT degree and was in the computer industry for ages using that as an excuse to travel around the world. I wound up, after about five years of this, in Amsterdam and realised I hated my job and wanted to do something that didn’t involve sitting in an office all day. So I started looking towards other options like teaching in Japan. By that time, I’d already rekindled my interest in film and had started watching Japanese films to educate myself about Japan. I’d always wanted to write as well, but not necessarily about film. I had this great idea about being a novelist, but I couldn’t think of any stories. Basically, I started writing about Japanese film just as a way of getting into the discipline of writing. At that time, I met up with Tom Mes in Rotterdam and he said he was interested in Japanese film. We said, “no one’s writing about this stuff at the moment” – this was back in 2000 or 2001 – and decided to start a website devoted to contemporary Japanese film and all the Japanese films that people weren’t talking about. From there, I guess the focus was trying to interview a lot of directors when we were in Rotterdam. They used to come over to these film festivals and no one would ever talk to them because everyone was into bigging up the latest new French film or big releases that were going to get released in Europe. So we were able to interview these directors and we put it on the website. It was the first time, I guess, that you could ever see Japanese directors talking about their own work as opposed to Western journalists looking at their work and saying, “oh, it’s so like Ozu!” Or “so zen” or whatever.
I was looking at Midnight Eye today, there’s still articles on there about filmmakers and films that, even now, no one else ever talks about.
It’s funny because we had the relaunch last week and I was up late last night having a skim through and looking back at stuff from 2000 and 2001. It’s dated a lot better than I thought it would. It’s interesting, but also quite frustrating, how transient a lot of this stuff is. There will be small indie films that come out, do the festival circuit that particular year and then you’ll never hear about them again. It’d be almost sort of interesting doing a sort of retrospective of forgotten Midnight Eye classics or whatever. There was stuff like The Soup, One Morning – I think Tom reviewed it – I can’t remember… what the hell was that film? [laughs]
Before we jump into Behind the Pink Curtain, what is a pink film? And what separates a pink film from something like Roman Porno?
Basically, a pink film is a softcore sex film that is shown in a cinema on 35mm. What differentiates it from Roman Porno is that Roman Porno was made with a major studio behind it, whereas a small number of independent companies make pink films and they circulate them to specialist adult cinemas, which they’re contracted to. It’s almost like a sub-industry that goes on outside the main Japanese industry where the major studios are involved in production, distribution and exhibition. The independence aspect is a crucial part of it. The fact that these are screened by independent networks of cinemas, made by independent networks of producers and shot on 35mm – they’re the most important aspects of it.
How did the idea for this book come about? Did you start with the plan to write a complete book? Or did it grow from articles written on Midnight Eye?
What happened was, when I was living in Tokyo, through Midnight Eye, I would be going to lots of parties or going for drinks with actors and various people involved in the industry, and one day I remember being at a place where there were two directors, Zeze Takahisa and Satō Toshiki, who were two of the Four Devils. I started talking to them – well, I started talking to Zeze, I didn’t really talk to Satō. He’s [Zeze] one of those directors that’s come out of pink and gone on to the mainstream now. At the time I knew about pink – I knew they were softcore sex films – but I didn’t really know the details of the industry. So I asked if I could do an interview for Midnight Eye. We did that and I was amazed because I thought pink was a thing of the past, I didn’t realise they were still making them. When you walked around Tokyo you see all these sex theatres and I just assumed that they’d be showing stuff off video like everywhere else in the world where there still are sex cinemas. So I was really amazed that they were doing it off film.I didn’t really have any plan to write a book at the time. Another thing was I was doing private English lessons with this guy and one day I was in a cafe and I saw Satō Toshiki in the background with this older woman and I’d been told that one of the major production companies of pink films was run by this woman who hides behind a man’s pseudonym. She’s sort of this matriarch behind this adult film industry. So I put two and two together. After that meeting, I’d been invited to a discussion event with Adachi Masao – the guy who was in the Middle East for ages and had been involved to some extent with the Japanese Red Army – he’d just come back to Japan and was talking about his experiences as an activist radical. I went along to this event and saw this old woman was there as well, as well as Zeze Takahisa. I thought, “wow, there’s all these interesting links here.”
At the time, we’d just written The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, so after that, I was thinking about my next project and started writing this book, which was basically going to be a focus on different areas of the film industry, so I’d had a plan for a chapter about erotic cinema and then, for various reasons, that never got written and I got sidetracked. Me and a friend said, “well, why don’t we do a documentary about this instead?” So we ended up doing lots of interviews and infiltrated this whole sort of scene. Then, for various reasons, we couldn’t finish the documentary and I came back to England and thought, “well, hey, I’ve done all this research, I might as well put it to some use.” So then it was a thing of finding a publisher and, at the time, I just thought “well, hey, I can whack up this book in a couple of months, because I know all the subjects.” But it’s such a bloody big subject. When you start writing a book and your first chapter ends up twenty-thousand pages long and it takes you two months, you think, “oh no, every other chapter is going to have to be this long as well.” So it actually ended up taking so much longer than it was meant to. [laughs]
The most amazing thing about the book is that every chapter refers to such an unbelievable amount of films and directors –
Well, I didn’t want someone to come up afterwards and write a better book. I thought if I cover all areas, no one’s going to bother attempting the subject again! [laughs]
From conception to publication, how long was actually spent on the book?
I first started doing the research for the documentary in 2003, which was fairly intense – a lot of watching pink films in Japan and going to all the cinemas. The actual writing period was probably two years solid writing. Apart from doing various bits of programming jobs for film festivals and a couple of magazine articles, I was pretty much on that every day for two years… it went way longer than it was meant to. So about five years pretty much – three years research, two years writing.
Obviously, you have an interest in Japanese cinema, but what pushed you towards Japanese sex cinema? Do you feel its a subject mostly ignored by cinema scholars? Or do you have a personal leaning towards pink films?
My whole interest in Japanese film was that there weren’t many people writing about it at the time and there’s a lot of it. So that means you can write original stuff, you can explore the whole industry of a hundred years of Japanese cinema, and you’re always going to find new stuff in there. I wasn’t specifically interested in sex films themselves, but more as a phenomena and the fact that no one else had written about it before. I suddenly started thinking, “well, hey, I can write this book and it’s all uncharted territory.” I’m never really interested in doing books on subjects that other people have written about, like yakuza movies, for example. And I’m not really interested in doing auteur sort of studies on directors. I think my interest in Japanese cinema is partly a way of exploring Japanese culture through its cinema… but actually I’m not even that interested in Japanese culture… it’s more a way of exploring our own culture through reference to Japanese culture. There’s always stuff that I want to write about, so Japanese cinema is like a mirror for that, a sounding board that I can spring off.
One thing that I wondered as I read the book, there’s this multitude of films that your referencing and discussing, and I can’t really imagine many of them having English subtitles, can you speak Japanese?
Yeah, not brilliantly but enough to understand, and there’s been Japanese books on the subject where they’ve had synopses in Japanese so I can read that and get an idea of the stories. But there’s often a lot more that goes on with these films than meets the eye. There’s been a couple released with English subtitles, but they sort of skim over all the cultural stuff and there’s lots of puns and wordplay that doesn’t really come across through the subtitles.
I understand what you mean. I watch a lot of Japanese films and my partner is Japanese-born, and she’ll often point out how subtitles miss out much of the subtleties, especially the hidden details that you can’t even really get through subtitles.
One of the ones I talk about is a film called The Bedroom, which is quite well known. It got shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival and got a UK DVD release, but it’s all about the characters and – you might not be aware that they’re identical twin characters, everyone just thinks it’s the same actress – one of their names is Kyoko and it’s done with the character for mirror. If you didn’t know the character for mirror and how the Japanese language works, that would never come across at all. It adds a totally different reading to the whole film.
You mention early on in the book the difficulties of finding home video releases of pinku films, how did you go about sourcing the films in order to write about them? Was a lot of the book written from experiences in pink cinemas or at festivals?
I was quite lucky actually. As soon as I started the project, I became very good friends with one of the producers at Shintōhō studios, so when I left Japan, his parting gift for me was a wad of forty of their recent releases. There was a lot available for rental. I got to watch a lot from rentals in Japan. And also from trading a few with friends. I don’t know how many I saw in total, but they were all sourced from various places.
The films that you talk about – did you watch most of them or were there some that you just couldn’t find?
The very first one – Flesh Market – doesn’t exist anymore, so that was reading through a synopsis. In the book, I mention it’s a lost film. Most of them I saw. Some of the synopses, I must confess, I might have been slightly off. Wakamatsu Kōji’s films, for example, a lot of them have been recently re-released on DVD with English subtitles or French subtitles. At the time I was watching them, in Japanese, they’re often quite complicated and also pretty cryptic at times, and there’s a lot going on in them politically, so I might have made the odd glitch or misinterpretation here or there.Since writing the book, do you know of any companies taking the initiative to restore and release pinku films on DVD or blu-ray?
It’s been really amazing actually, because there was hardly any at the time. It was mainly a coincidence, but there was a company called Pink Eiga in the States that launched themselves at exactly the same time my book came out. I was more looking at the auteurist side of things and talking to directors and trying to work out film’s meanings, but I wasn’t talking about a typical pink film, because there’s thousands of these things that have been released – a hundred every year and probably out of them five of those would have some sort of artistic aspirations, whereas the majority are just like bread and butter of sex and softcore. They [Pink Eiga] focus more on that market – going for the adult video downloads market.On the other side, you have that French company that have picked up a whole load of Wakamatsu’s stuff and are doing various retrospectives at festivals around the world. That was helped because the year that I was published was the same year that United Red Army, Wakamatsu Kōji’s sort of comeback film, came out. I’d been asked to a do a lot of programs myself. I did some retrospectives at places like Montreal for Fantasia Festival, Austin Fantastic Festival, Thessaloniki in Greece and New Horizons in Poland. Off the back of that, because I’ve got friends in the industry, I managed to get a couple of 35mm prints done of new films. So I think there’s been quite a lot made available now since my book. Some of it is directly connected, others coincidentally.
I’d imagine there would be an international market for pink – a very small market, albeit – but probably enough to release a few DVDs.
It’s not a vast market, but they actually work better in cinemas. Every time I’ve organised a retrospective, generally they’ve been really busy. Poland was amazing. Every single screening – about twenty screenings – every single one of them was full. There was two-hundred people sitting there on a Saturday morning watching pink films. It was quite a strange experience. [laughs]
That’s very strange. I can’t picture that!
They made the point that they wanted to see a whole range of pink films. I remember putting one with no sort of artistic pretensions – it was borderline hardcore. And that was showing on a Saturday morning! There were really strong lesbians scenes and things like that… and I was sitting there watching it with this group of Poles! [laughs]
What sort of feedback did you get after that screening?
It was interesting to see different reactions in different countries. In Poland, they didn’t really come up and speak to me. I didn’t have much audience interaction.I’d imagine if you screened something like that in Australia, the police would come and shut the whole theatre down.
It’s a bit touch or go, isn’t it? We did a season at the British Film Institute. Someone else had organised a sex in Japanese cinema season and I sort of piggybacked onto it. He really wanted to show this film, Wife to be Sacrificed, which is quite hardcore S&M stuff. I said, “I really don’t think that Britain’s ready for this or that the BFI are ready for it!” I went along to do a bit of audience watching. It was full – there was about a hundred people there – and a very mixed audience, from young lads, the typical film anoraks, middle-class couples, groups of girls. People were just stunned, I think. When it ended, the lights came up and everyone just shuffled out silently. I can imagine ten minutes later, once they got clear of the building, the sort of conversations that were going on!
How does it work in Britain when you screen something like a pink film, do you have to get it rated by a government board or anything like that?
You can get away with it in somewhere like the British Film Institute, or one off screenings at festivals or special events. I think basically if things aren’t rated, you can be covered as long as you don’t get any complaints. And if you’re showing stuff that actually is obscene, then you could be prosecuted for obscenity. It’s very vague, but I wouldn’t want to push anything too strong on people anyway.
It could be a bit of fun though.
It’s nice getting to push people so far, but you can go slightly over the top. [laughs]
In Behind the Pink Curtain, you discuss the dwindling numbers of pink cinemas, and how many of the theatres owners are getting older and have no one to take over the business…
As we speak now, about five Tokyo pink cinemas have closed down in the past month. That leaves very little. The one that I always used to go to in Shinjuku is now gone. It had been there for forty years. It’s partly to do with the switch over to digital projection. 35mm is becoming not a very viable medium to be shooting stuff on at the moment. Also, with sex films, more people are just interested in watching them on DVD or via internet streaming at home. At these places, no one was really watching the films a lot of the time. People were just using it as an institution almost. People would just go sit there and rest. You could smoke in them, you could drink beer in them and there was only ever a handful of people there. I said at the end of my book that the writing’s on the wall and, as it happens now, most of the production companies that I mentioned have stopped producing and a lot of cinemas have closed. How much longer it’s going to go on, I don’t know. There’s basically no future in pink.
I’m heading back to Tokyo next year, do you think there will be any left by the time I get there?
The company that is doing well at the moment is OP Eiga, who are one of the oldest pink companies. Most of the pink companies started around the same time, in the early 60s; the ones that were still around when I was writing the book. I didn’t really have much to do with them [OP Eiga], I was more involved with Kokuei and Shintōhō, because those were the ones that were happy to speak to me, whereas OP said, “well, we aren’t really interested in a foreigner market, so why should we speak to you?” People were a bit suspicious. They thought, “why is a gaijin coming in and writing a book?” And everyone knows that there’s lot of journalism about Japan that tries to sensationalise stuff and make Japan look silly. I guess they were suspicious of my motives for writing the book.
OP refurbish their cinemas a lot and I think one even has digital projection. I haven’t really followed the scene recently, but go to the one in Ueno. That’s still going strong, I believe.
Two of the chapters that I found particularly fascinating were those on Kōji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi. I knew of these two from films like The Embryo Hunts in Secret, but I knew little about their political leanings and their run-ins with the law. Were you able to interview them for the book?
Yes, but I didn’t interview them when I was in Japan. I met Wakamatsu when, after I’d come back to Britain, I went back to Japan to visit once and went out for a drink with him and with a translator. That was quite a funny night. And Adachi, I’ve only ever interviewed by email. Adachi speaks quite good English, obviously because he spent quite a bit of time outside Japan.
I got the feeling reading the book that perhaps Adachi may have been of a particular interest to you…
That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the subject. I knew there was all this student unrest in the 60s, but I didn’t really understand the nature of it. It’s like I said, my interest in Japanese cinema is almost like a way of looking at culture and it generally looks at a wider view of what’s going on in the world. That whole thing about the anti-Western imperialism and the student riots in the 60s, the cause behind it and obviously the whole self-destruction of the New Left movement had lots of parallels with say what happened in Germany with the Baader-Meinhof group and in France, and the Black Panthers in America. You sort of think what was about the time, what was going on in the world at that time and what was the actual motivation of the people and did they have any insight into how history would see them. I think it’s very interesting in that respect. That was definitely one of the points where you could say that there’s more to the book, Behind the Pink Curtain. It’s not just descriptions of pink films. There was a definite method to my madness in writing about it.
I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much.
It was also to look at the history of Japanese censorship and that’s a crucial point of it as well. How it all fits in with the post-war experience.Back to Adachi for one more question, has he managed to stay out of prison and has he returned to films?
He’s out of prison. He’s not made any films recently. I think he’s always trying to make films, but no one’s going to give him any money. He made that one film called Prisoner/Terrorist, which came out about five years ago. It was about Okumoto, the guy who was convicted of the Israeli airport attack. It wasn’t a pink film, but it ties in with Adachi’s exploration and ideas about the difference between direct action and political ideology. There’s been two documentaries recently about Adachi by French directors, which I’ve seen but I haven’t found very interesting, I have to confess. They didn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of what he’s about I think. But yes, he is a fascinating character and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book, just to talk about him. I hadn’t really seen very much written about him before. When he came back to Japan, everyone was calling him a forgotten figure from the 60s and everyone was reappraising what he was doing. And remember this was in the context of around 2003, so the Iraq War and Western imperialism was on quite a lot of people’s minds. That’s what coloured a lot of the research I was doing for the book.
He seems out of place in the pink industry and that he was using it for his own interests rather than any interest in making pink films.
I think that’s definitely true actually.
Back to Wakamatsu… I’m not sure if I was looking into the book too much, but I got the feeling that maybe you saw him as somewhat of an opportunist rather than being genuine about these political ideologies.
You’re right to some extent. That’s my general take on Wakamatsu, although he has made some really powerful films. He said at the time I interviewed him, “I’m not a very good filmmaker and I’ve always surrounded myself with people that are more talented than me and that’s why I’ve been successful.” Afterwards, United Red Army got the prize in Berlin and suddenly the whole discourse changed to, “I’m the great Kōji Wakamatsu.” I don’t think he has very strong left wing convictions, to put it one way. And also, before United Red Army, in Japan, I’d find a lot of people saying that no one really looks at him as a good filmmaker, but they look at him as a good businessman.
I do quite like some of his movies, but I don’t know if that’s to do with the people he’s surrounded himself with…
I like his 60s stuff, but I think you can see a lot of it is coming from his collaborations with other people, which is ultimately what filmmaking is about, isn’t it? It’s a collaborative art form. I liked the wacky scripts, the very hallucinogenic or political scripts, that Adachi would do and then you’ve got the music and the cinematography. I don’t think it works so well with his recent films. They’re all shot on video and I don’t think the same sort of aesthetic is there. The video aesthetic works with United Red Army, because of its docudrama approach, but perhaps not so well with other films like Caterpillar.There’s one of his you mention in the book – I don’t think that you were a fan of it – one of his films from the 70s called, at least on the version I watched, Serial Rapist…
Oh yes, 13 Serial Rapes, isn’t it? I haven’t seen that film in ages, but I remember it being really grim. I think probably if I watched it now I’d appreciate it in a different way. I think it’s more sort of Gasper Noe style, isn’t it? I met Wakamatsu a couple of times and he never used to remember me. When I’d say my name was Jasper, he would always go: “Oh yes, you’re that French director Gasper, who’s a big fan of my work.” He’d always get me mixed up with Gasper Noe. [laughs]
Wow! That’s bizarre! It’s [Serial Rapist] an extremely nihilistic movie. I really love Japan and it’s a beautiful place, but it somehow manages to make Japan look like the most horribly bleak place.
I think that’s probably what he was trying to do at the time, now that I know his politics. He really hates Japan, doesn’t he? Or, at least, he’s very much wanting to show Japan in all its ugliness.
I really enjoyed the way you wove in a political and historical context when you’re discussing pink films. For better or worse, Japan shaped an oddly unique film industry for itself, which seems so completely far from any other Asian film industries. Do you think there are any other countries that have a film industry that at all resembles what we see in Japan?
No, just because of the way the studios traditionally used to operate, how they controlled production and exhibition a lot of the time. They were making films and releasing them to their own cinemas. And then in the 50s, in order to compete with themselves, they were doing triple bills and churning them out with new films every week. I think because of that the pink film inherited these sort of practices. You know, disposable films almost. There’s just so much out there, so many films out there and they’re not really meant to be viewed in retrospect, a lot of them. And the political situation obviously, because they were a superpower and because they lost in the war. There’s the volume of work and the different perspective you have on the world when watching Japanese films.
When watching independent Japanese films and pink films rather than say a big budget samurai film, it almost feels to me as if you’re watching a part of Japanese history.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I’ve always been more of a fan of the contemporary set dramas than the historical ones. Kurosawa, I think, was interesting case because his period dramas were all set in historical times, but they always use Western source material so it was a way of packaging Japanese history for Western audiences almost. There was no critique of Japanese history or culture there. Whereas you would get that from a pink film, definitely. Not all of them, but the good pink films.
A reoccurring theme in Behind the Pink Curtain is the censorship placed on Japanese filmmakers. Do you think the restrictions placed on pink filmmakers made for better films?
They made more interesting films. You were always trying to work out what they were trying to say and they said it in such an oblique fashion. But it is ridiculous, isn’t it? You could show anything as long as it wasn’t onscreen. It wasn’t the psychological content or the inferred meanings of the films. It was actually what was physically up there onscreen, which was in absolutes. But I think that definitely made them more interesting.
It’s bizarre watching a Japanese film where you’re witnessing the most horrific scenes, but then a shot of genitals will appear and it’ll be blurred out…
It is ridiculous, isn’t it? You can look at the AV industry – the hardcore stuff – as a contrast. They’re got the little blurred bokashi that they’ve stuck on the sex scenes, but they’ve now got so small that you can see everything that’s going on anyway. But that whole AV industry is not very interesting at all. It’s purely focused on sex, whereas pink and Roman Porno were stories that had sexual content, but the point was they were stories first and foremost.
You’ve talked a bit about the Japanese film industry being very much self-sustained and isolated and about the suspicions you received when writing the book. I’ve heard stories about studios being quite protective of their films when it comes to international audiences. Where there any particular studios or filmmakers that you ran into trouble with?
I dealt mainly with the work of two or three studios. On the pink side it was Shintōhō and Kokuei, which are very closely linked anyway. I interviewed one director that worked for OP, the rival studio, and he was going, “oh Kokuei, they’re not pink films, they all think they’re auteurs, it’s pretentious rubbish and they’re cheating audiences.” And I think because I was friends with a lot of people at Kokuei, he took a dislike to me. It was a very uncomfortable interview.
In terms of the studios, the major studio that I dealt with was Nikkatsu with the Roman Porno films. It wasn’t so much the content of the book, it was the actual images they’d let you use. They were a bit strict. When you’re writing a book, a lot of major studios will charge you for the images, but I managed to get Nikkatsu to give me images for free because it was promotion for their work. But they did say that we weren’t allowed to have any images showing the actresses’ naked chests. And I was thinking, “but you made these films! Why are you getting all shy now?” It seems weird when you’re writing a book about sex cinema, talking about sex films and you can’t show those images. So if you look at the images I’ve got in the book, all the Nikkatsu ones are more scenes from the films, as opposed to just cheesecake shots.
Something you talk about, which I found very interesting and very odd was the way Japanese actors would jump from pinku to mainstream films without creating any kind of career stigma. You mention Ren Ōsugi, an actor I really like, starring in gay pinku films. I can’t think of anywhere else where this exists, expect maybe in Hong Kong where an actor like Anthony Wong will do a borderline softcore porn flick one day and a John Woo film the next. Have you got any theories on why this casual hopping between pinku and mainstream exists in Japan and not in the West?
I think it was just the time these films were made. If you were starting out as an actor in those days, there weren’t many options open to you if you wanted to start out in your career. It was probably the same in Britain in the 70s. All the stuff we were making were these ridiculous softcore films that no one even remembers. They weren’t even good for what they were, as sex films. You had a whole load of actors and actresses that were involved in these that did them because there was no other work out there.
I do find it funny that if this was in America and an actor had done a porn film in the past, the media would just never let them forget it…
I know someone who interviewed a certain actor for a DVD extra and he wandered on to that area. I think it was sort of getting towards the end of the conversation, but he said, “no, don’t go there!” I guess he doesn’t like it brought up. The directors don’t seem to care that much.
When I got to the halfway point and saw the photo of Ren Ōsugi in Serial Rape, I assumed it must have been a different Ren Ōsugi. But then when watching Subway Serial Rape, he popped up in that too. It’s extremely strange to see him in stuff like that!
[laughs] It is, isn’t it? Well, Nikkatsu, I guess, would be more considerate in using and talking about that sort of stuff. But I think the pink industry, as far as they were concerned, once these guys had made the film, they had signed off their rights. They had no further rights to their image within the films, so you can have the stills for them.
Of Ren Ōsugi in Serial Rape.
Yeah, it’s not something you want to show off about. [laughs]
I was keeping a note in my phone listing “must-see” pink films and Roman Pornos. It got to such a ridiculous length. I’ve tried to track down a few and have maybe found a quarter at most. When you were writing the book, did you ever feel completely overwhelmed with the endless amount of films you had to research and write about?
Yes, it was the gay porn chapter that was a great case in point. [laughs] Everyone goes, “you must have a really fun job writing this book and just watching porn all day.” And then I got to the gay porn – a lot of it’s really quite violent as well… I was sort of, uh… [laughs]
But yes, there was a lot of stuff I had to watch and it did get very wearing. A lot of rubbish I’d have to watch. I mean, I was really only writing about the best ones, so it was always nice when I saw something that was actually good. I was like, “oh yes, this is why I’m writing the book.” Two years is a long time to keep your head together, just concentrating on any project. It’s quite exhausting.
Did you watch any films that weren’t pink films during those two years?
Yes, of course I did. [laughs] I had to keep it balanced, otherwise I’d just go completely mad. [laughs]Were there any films you’d heard about or read about that sounded interesting that you weren’t able to track down?
Atsushi Yamatoya was the scriptwriter for Wakamatsu, he hid under a pseudonym for a while, but then he went and co-wrote Branded to Kill. In 1972, Nikkatsu did a Roman Porno version where he wrote a script for this film, Trapped in Lust. It’s his original work, but effectively it’s a pink version of Branded to Kill, which would be fascinating I think. I don’t know if you ever saw Dutch Wife of the Wasteland or Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands – that was one of his one works as a director. That’s also sort of a 1960s pink version of Branded to Kill. I don’t know why no one’s re-released that film, because it’s such a great film. He also wrote one of the Lupin the 3rd anime ones, The Gold of Babylon that Seijun Suzuki directed. He was active as a writer and did a bit of directing as well.
So Trapped in Lust, Nikkatsu own it, but it’s not one that they’re promoting or releasing with English subtitles. No one’s ever really seen it, but it’s meant to be great. I’ve got a friend who keeps going on about how good it is.
So how would you go about seeing that if Nikkatsu won’t release it?
It is available in Japan on DVD. What you could do is, if you could get the money together, go to Nikkatsu and get them to make a new print with subtitles. It’s a case of would it be worth it. It is on DVD in Japan.The book covers many eras of pink films. Do you think there’s a “golden era” of pinku eiga? Or is there a time that interests you the most?
A lot of stuff from the 60s was lost. The only stuff really around was Wakamatsu’s and then there was stuff like Blue Film Woman – there was a surviving print of that. Generally, in film history I like the late 60s quite a lot. And in the 70s, I think was really difficult to see pink films but lots of Roman Porno and I think the early 70s, for Roman Porno, were great – the original releases, when it wasn’t just about the sex. After about ’75, things just went way downhill and it just became very reductive with as much violence and sex as possible. I’d say from ’68 to ’74.
The period I found fascinating to read about was the Four Devils in the 80s and 90s. Some of their films sound great, but do you think their attitude of treating pinku as an artistic playground and not as pornography contributed in further destroying the pinku industry?
No, because they worked for one specific company. I think, at the time, they were reacting against it because they thought that the pink industry was going to die, but I think the pink industry proved more resilient. I think what they did was they brought it into the public eye for a short period – that this was an area where you could do interesting stuff at a time when Japanese cinema wasn’t very interesting. What they did was perpetuate this sort of myth that pink film is all about auteurism and about art and political messages and subtext. And that is true for a small number of films, but not for the vast majority. I think the ultimate thing is that once you start trying to sell it as art, the usual pink audiences weren’t really interested.
Yeah, I couldn’t imagine how they could keep making films like that and not cater to their audience.
Well, it’s sort of audience proof, because at the end of the day it’s a case of each theatre has three films a week, which it plays on and on and rolls through them. So people don’t go to see individual films so much. They’ll just go to see pink films in a cinema. They don’t care what they’re watching. But I think it was more when they were watching stuff that was very political and not a lot of sex in it, they would complain to the managers and then the managers would then complain to the companies saying, “we don’t want these films anymore.” So they got stigmatised in that way. Then the directors would be trying to show their films in other arthouse cinemas at the same time. Some of those Four Devils pink films were neither fish nor fowl. They weren’t successful as pink films and they weren’t exactly successful as art films either. I personally love Hisayasu Satō’s films. I just think they’re very well made and very intelligent. They work well as exploitation as well as having some sort of social comment to them.
Yes, I’ve tracked down a few of his films.
He’s probably the easiest to find. He’s sort of like the Jess Franco of pink films. He had a really large cult following overseas, because of the violent content. I was always trying to make the point in the book that there was actually a lot more to his films than just the violence.If you were to write Behind the Pink Curtain now, would there be an extra chapter about pink films now? Or has there not been another wave of filmmakers that have come along?
There’s a French translation, which is going to be coming out next year, and there’s a Korean version, which should be coming out some time now. They did ask me whether I wanted to update anything and I’m writing a foreword to introduce it to foreign audiences. At the end of the last chapter, I predict it’s going to come to an end and now, it pretty much is at its end. There’s no new directors, but there’s been developments within the industry. There’s been lots of cinemas closing and certain companies stopping production. That’s what was good about doing the subject – there was a beginning, middle and end to it.
I’m not sure if this is just a construction of my own tastes in movies, but I’ve felt in the last few years, a sector of the Japanese filmmaking industry has emerged that caters to a Western market creating films that are stereotypically “Japanese”, films that really force feed their audience supposedly Japanese weirdness – I’m talking about films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. While I don’t exactly dislike them, I feel these films are actually quite an inaccurate representation of Japanese films. You touch on it in Behind the Pink Curtain, but has there ever been an attempt by pinku filmmakers to cater to an international audience? And do you think there’s any financial motivation for them to do so?
I work as a film festival programmer as well and I was doing a lot of retrospectives at the time, but Nippon Connection – a big festival of Japanese films in Germany – always used to show a pink film every year. They always used to get the director Shinji Imaoka to go there. I think one year a producer went up to him and said, “let’s do a German-Japanese pink film co-production. We could do it with more money than usual.” So the results of that as a film called Underwater Love.
What I noticed with Imaoka’s work, and I think I write about it in my book, was that his early stuff was really interesting; it was more political and looking at Japanese manners and outcast characters. And there was a time when his films started get a lot more slapstick – Uncle’s Paradise, for example, was all body fluids and broad comedy. I really didn’t like those films. And I think Underwater Love has gone through that. They made it as a pink musical with a kappa in it. Even the way it was sold, it was sold as “the first ever pink musical”… that’s not true. And it was “the first movie to feature a kappa”… well, that’s not true, either. For all this stuff that’s self-consciously weird, I could find you weirder films that aren’t trying to be weird.
My thoughts on that film are very similar. I have mixed feelings about it.
It’s the audience it was made for. Probably no one would have seen it in Japan, but no one saw it over here either. [laughs]
Can Underwater Love even be considered a pink film?
I think by virtue of the fact that it was produced – on the Japanese side – by the Japanese company that Imaoka usually works with that you could call it a pink film.But with Tokyo Gore Police, that sort of phenomena… there’s been so many cult festivals founded recently, horror film festivals, and my feeling about horror is I used to be really into when I was a teenager, but people like to know what they’re getting. When you watch a horror film now, a lot of them are like the sort of stuff you used to watch as a teenager but then remade or contain the same elements, and with me as a programmer or as a writer I like to introduce people to films where they just look at it and go, “what the fuck was that? I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Totally throw them a curve-ball. Those films, they do what they say on the tin, don’t they? They’re “wacky Japan.”
I’m yet to pick up your latest book, The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, what was the idea behind this book?
I was actually commissioned to do it. It’s Scarecrow Press. They do a series of historical dictionaries of. It could be anything from French jazz to Iranian politics – so lots and lots of different topics. They do a couple of film ones. They came to me and said, “here, do you want to do this?” A lot of the book writing process for me is about learning about the subject too. I’ve got a broad knowledge about Japanese film, but I wanted to actually put everything down on paper.
So this covers from day one, 1895, up until 2010 – a nice round cut-off point. There’s chapters and sections on all the usual stuff, like yakuza films, various directors, documentaries – you can learn anything from war propaganda films to science fiction films to boy band movies. There’s even a section on animal movies; films about cute cats and dogs and stuff. I was trying to cover as much ground as possible. There’s also a full description of the studio system, so it was intended for anyone whether you’ve got a beginner’s knowledge or if you’re an expert and just wanted to find out something specific or at least find references to external material. One of the things they wanted me to do was create a bibliography of everything that’s ever been written on Japanese cinema in the English language. At first I thought it would be a bit tough, but that actually became quite an addiction. So you’ve got a bibliography that lasts about sixty pages and its all themeatised too. For example, if you wanted to see the portrayal of ethnic races in Japanese film there’s a section on that. And there’s a big timeline at the beginning with a year by year account of what happened in any given year.
Pink cinema is overwhelming enough, how did you manage to tackle Japan’s entire cinema history? How did you choose what to talk about and what not to?It was quite tough really. I basically hierarchised what I wanted to do and went down the list until I ran out of page numbers. There was only a limited amount that I was allowed to put in. When I was doing the directors, for example, obviously you’d have to have Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu and stuff like that. When it came to choosing other ones, it was not because I was a fan of them or if I thought they were necessarily good, but because I thought they were emblematic of a certain time in history or they had links with other subjects. So I’d do stuff like Miike, for example, because I think he’s emblematic of that whole sort of new extreme appreciational fan culture of Japanese film, as well as touching on other areas within his films like ethnicity in Japan. But someone like Sono Shion, I haven’t included, mainly because now he’s hot, but how are we going to look at him in five or ten years time? I think its too early to say whether he’s proved himself as someone who’s going to be looked back upon in history as a very significant or consistent director.
Do you have a personal favourite Japanese filmmaker or Japanese film?
Imamura Shōhei – specifically The Ballad of Narayama, but also Profound Desires of the Gods and Pigs and Battleships – just because he was one of these people that would come out with these great human truths and had a very odd take on the world, but it wasn’t intellectualised. You can watch his films and anyone can understand them, but they actually said some quite profound, intelligent things.
Also, Masumura Yasuzō. I love Giants and Toys. I think it’s a perfect film, just looking at the insanity of the mass modernisation and industrialisation of Japan in the post-war period. It’s all about these advertising campaigns between these rival chocolate companies in the late 50s and its just done in this really garish, absurdist manner.
And the last one is Seijun Suzuki, who I just thought brought a very radical approach to cinema. I probably like him less than the others, because though I really like his style the content of his films is not always there, with the exception of certain titles like Gate of Flesh or Fighting Elegy. There’s not always so much depth to a lot of his stuff.
I can’t thank Jasper Sharp enough for his time and for answering my multitude of questions. He was an absolute delight to chat to. I could’ve continued to ask him questions for many more hours!
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