[25 March 2009]
When you think of Japanese film, what first comes to mind? Perhaps Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, Yasuhiro Ozu’s sensitive family dramas, or Juzo Itami’s comedies. Or maybe monster epics featuring Godzilla and Mothra, or animated television programs about magic girls and giant robots. But you probably don’t think first of soft pornography (called pinku eiga or “pink film” in Japan), a genre which has accounted for a healthy chunk of Japanese film production since the ‘60s.
Pink films are independently produced, shot on 35mm film by professional or semi-professional casts and crew, and released theatrically rather than going directly to DVD; a network of adult cinemas exists across Japan specifically to show pink films. While their popularity has diminished since the peak year of 1965, when 213 pink films were released, they still represent a substantial proportion of Japanese film production: in 2003, 31 percent of the Japanese films released theatrically in Japan were pink films.
Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema by Jasper Sharp provides an excellent introduction to pink films and to the Japanese sex film industry as a whole. A chapter is also devoted to Roman Porno (roman porunu, translated as either “romantic pornography” or “pornographic novel”), a series of films produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s by the major Japanese studio Nikkatsu to capitalize on the economic success of the pink films. The primary importance of the Roman Porno films (about 850 films were released in this series) was the incorporation of explicit sexual material into mainstream studio films.
Sharp takes a thorough approach to his subject, placing it in historical cultural context and providing sufficient detail and references to satisfy those already familiar with the genre or whose interest is of a more scholarly nature. He began the research which resulted in Behind the Pink Curtain while in Japan working on his first book, The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, based upon many interviews with people in the Japanese film industry as well as archival sources.
Behind the Pink Curtain is also accessible to more casual film fans: Sharp writes clearly and without academic affectation, and this volume is amply illustrated, including a full-color section of 32 pages. The illustrations are essential to the book’s presentation, because in this case it’s no exaggeration to say that seeing is believing. What I mean is this: if you are unfamiliar with pink films, a prose description of many common plots and types of scene will simply sound bizarre, while if you view a few stills from representative films, you will understand immediately what they are about.
That doesn’t mean you need to approve: many will find at least some of the material included in these films offensive, and if you can’t handle the explicit scenes of rape and torture which are part of the genre, you should probably give this book (and many of the films) a pass. For the same reason, Behind the Pink Curtainis a book for adults, or at least for persons mature enough to deal with such material. But pink films are not all about the degradation of women, and one of the most valuable contributions of this book is to demonstrate the variety of topics and concerns which have found their way into pink films.
After a few introductory chapters which introduce pink films and consider their place in Japanese culture, Sharp presents his material chronologically, with many chapters centering on the output of a particular director or a group of directors. The Japanese film industry in the ‘60s was dominated by the studio system, and pink films offered a rare opportunity for directors and crew to work independently of that system. Even today, the low budgets and independent production model of pink films mean that they provide a proving ground for young Japanese directors, in the same way that B-movies used to provide an opportunity for young American directors. Let us not forget that Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, among others, directed low-budget films for Roger Corman early in their careers.
Sharp is an expert on Japanese film—he’s co-editor of the web site midnighteye.com, co-author with Tom Mes of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Stone Bridge Press, 2003), and has curated exhibitions of Japanese films in the UK. Behind the Pink Curtainprovides the most thorough treatment this genre has received to date.
An appendix listing all films mentioned in the text (including DVD availability), a four-page bibliography including web sites and documentaries as well as published works, and bilingual name index and glossary, as well as a detailed general index in English make Behind the Pink Curtaina valuable reference book as well as an excellent introduction to Japanese sex film in general and pink films in particular.