Yoshimoto Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) deals in porn. It’s not particularly polished porn, but more of the handheld 8mm, guerrilla style porn. In Japan in the 1960s, strict laws prohibited pornographic enterprises of any sort. But for Ogata, pornography is both a way to make living and a democratizing, socially liberating enterprise. In the opening moments of The Pornographers, as he and his colleagues trudge through the countryside outside of Tokyo and prepare to film another porn movie, one gets the impression that he’s on a mission not just to make money, but to perform a positive and important civic duty: to fight repression by bringing sex back to the people.
The Pornographers works on the margins of social norms and “abhorrence,” officially accepted commerce and illicit trade. Re-issued with a crisp and pristine new black and white visual transfer and a remastered soundtrack by the Criterion Collection (which has shown enough confidence in the work to dispense with the customary DVD “extras”), Imamura’s film tracks Ogata as he crosses between these two worlds.
Ogata is perfect for the job, as he exhibits a mixture of pragmatism and idealism. Furthermore, his private life mirrors his public/commercial existence. Shacked up with the widowed Haru Masada (Sumiko Sakamoto) and her two children (daughter Keiko [Keiko Sagawa] and son Koichi [Masaomi Kondo]), he’s like an anti-husband. He supports the family, but is not married to Haru; he acts the good father to the kids, but secretly lusts after the daughter.
Ogata’s public life is hardly uncomplicated. His many clients (all supposedly members in good standing of the morally “right” world) can’t acknowledge his existence. Failure to successfully negotiate this terrain means being visible to the legal apparatus and, with it, the threat of incarceration (the perfect symbol, and the ultimate form, of enforced repression). Ogata doesn’t escape the legal pitfalls so much as he plays within the system. When he’s caught and tossed into jail for possessing reels of pornography, he knows just how to play the police and is soon back out on the street.
Imamura captures all of this with skill. Part of the Japanese New Wave scene in the 1960s, Imamura’s film is distinguished by on-location filming, a rejection of linear narrative in favor of temporal and narrative dislocation (used with particular skill in one sequence, repeated on several occasions in the film, involving the origin of Keiko’s scarred leg), and its choice of the anti-hero Ogata and his underworld existence as its protagonist and milieu. As Imamura represents the trials and tribulations of Ogata, he calls attention to the film’s construction, such that Ogata seems a figure for the director himself.
While visual pornography fetishizes the sexual image, mainstream film is equally fraught with a kind of image-based fetishism (for instance, the iconography of the Hollywood “star”). Each is involved in its own kind of “pleasure principle.” Imamura understands this well, and as his character Ogata tweaks the proprieties of the characters and social system around him, so too does Imamura tweak the viewer’s desire to engage voyeuristically with the film’s content. Watching movies is about objectification. The act of watching involves a straddling of two worlds, the “real” and the “fictional.”
The Pornographers doesn’t seek to enfold the audience in its “world.” Rather, its formal devices call the viewer’s attention to its structure (beyond simply enjoying the story). Ogata’s story occurs within a framing narrative that opens and closes the film (during the credit sequences). This shows several filmmakers as they begin to watch what becomes the Ogata narrative, asking questions of each other and commenting on the action unfolding before them. In effect, The Pornographers is about filmmakers watching filmmakers creating porn. It doesn’t take a wild leap of intuition to pull the camera out even further to disclose our own situatedness with respect to the film’s content. It’s at that point that a tricky question is raised: to whom does the title refer?