More reflections on pink films and other popular genres

M Arnold ma_iku at
Thu Jan 5 15:55:19 EST 2006

Happy New Year everybody.

I wanted to return very briefly to last month's conversation on pink films.

Aaron Gerow may be right that my drinking partner person posed a rather
disingenuous question. This person himself is a Japanese researcher who's
interested in pink film, and I know he understands the motives of foreign
pink film researchers better than he was letting on. The non-Japanese pink
film researchers we both know are all very careful to look at the broader
picture and bring industry, spectatorship, and other issues into
consideration. Nonetheless, he did seem to be concerned with the kind of
images of Japan foreign critics and researchers may be constructing through
their work. At any rate, I don't want to take his question more seriously
than it was intended to be, as this was all in the context of a casual
conversation at a Shinjuku bar late at night, but it did get me thinking.

I believe one point he was trying to make was close to the issue Aaron
raised about the problems in the auteurist approach (especially as
justification for an interest in pink). Essentially, is that a productive
way to observe the pink film _genre_? Why focus on pink when there are
presumably more profitable ways for auteurist filmmakers to succeed?
Certainly we have our Zezes and our Satos, but they're few and far between.
Most pink films don't warrant that kind of attention. (On the other hand,
does the auteurism model fit with an image of pink cinema-as-art cinema that
studios themselves are consciously trying to produce? Drinking with pink
people recently, I keep overhearing comments about Kokuei's conscious
attempts to create the image of an auteurist cinema . . . ) Another part of
the problem is that the work of the auteurs is usually what lasts over the
years, so when you want to go digging through archives to research pink
film, Wakamatsus and Zezes are the first things you'll find. The "average"
films are much harder to dig up.

I admit, my interest in pink film started from an auteurist angle when I
read about interesting directors from some Western scholars and people like
Yomota Inuhiko, who tied certain pink directors into political issues,
although now that I've seen more uneven work from the auteurs as well as a
jumble of other titles recently, that's starting to change. I need to take a
closer look at the critical discourse on pink film in Japan too--I'm not
sure that Japanese critical writing on pink is biased towards auteurism to
begin with.

After experiencing the wonderful world of Japanese pink theaters a few times
in recent months too, I'm stumped to understand how this genre manages to
exist. If the catch is the thrill of watching audiovisual representations of
certain kinds of sexual activities, is a handful of poorly-acted, dubbed,
simulated sex scenes worth a 1800 yen triple feature when you could go to
Tsutaya and rent three hardcore videos with real sex scenes (or at least
more convincing fake sex scenes) and sync sound to watch in privacy for half
the price? Some say that pink theaters are still dangerous "deai no ba"
where lonely men go to look for 'action' (according to an acquaintance who
went a few weeks ago, the Shinjuku Kokusai Gekijo is still quite busy on
weekend nights), but I'm sure there are any number of ways to find that kind
of attention in Tokyo these days. Are people just looking for a dark, quiet
theater where they can drink, smoke, and kill an afternoon or evening
without worrying about the staff throwing them out after each screening? Is
anyone even watching the movies?

I'm coming back to this discussion now because I enjoyed a couple of
pink-related events in December that kept my attention on such questions.
After Meike's "Hanai Sachiko" film finished its run at Pole Pole, his
"Bitter Sweet" played for two weeks. I went out to see the film for the
first time since viewing it at the stinky Kokusai Gekijo last year, and was
surprised that my initial positive reaction wasn't far off. The general
response among people I spoke to was that "Bitter Sweet" was a much better
film than "Hanai Sachiko" (at least the extended director's cut of Hanai
Sachiko), and I agree. It completely lacks the comedy and political angle of
the earlier film, but makes up for it with a narrative that makes sense
without being overly simplistic, effectively subtle direction, and acting
that is--excuse me for saying this--outstanding for a pink film. At times I
almost thought it reminded me of Cassavetes or Suwa Nobuhiro. The only part
I couldn't swallow was Sano Kazuhiro's ridiculous wig at the beginning of
the movie. I hope Bitter Sweet has a shot at overseas screenings as well.

I also had the opportunity to observe the shoot of a new pink film from
start to finish during the winter break. It was very educational to watch a
crew and cast of about seven each put together a 60+ minute feature film in
four days. This is a "gay pink" film and has slightly over the standard pink
budget (3,500,000 yen is what I was told), but the budgetary limitations
were immediately apparent. The main staff was made up of director, two or
three assistant directors, cameraman and two assistant cameramen (who also
did the lighting). Costume and sometimes transportation were the actors'
responsibilities, and one of the actors helped out with everyone's makeup.
Lunch and dinner were cheap nori bento. Shooting was done at a handful of
locations--one rented "studio" (basically a big apartment in Tokyo), two
small bars, one stretch of road and small shrine two hours from Tokyo on the
Chiba coast, and a road by a Tokyo park (a few permit-less guerilla shots on
the last night of shooting). Of course no sound was recorded. There was only
one take per shot with no retakes at all as far as I saw. Most of the shots
were fixed, with a few handheld and pan shots, one shot from a moving car,
and (at least) one makeshift tracking shot that was abandoned after a couple
of tests. Apparently the director hadn't really planned things out
beforehand, and the cameraman was figuring out the angles and cuts as he
went along. The opening and closing credits were created on a computer, and
then the camera filmed the monitor as they played back. Nonetheless, the
whole thing was shot on a real Arriflex with 35mm film and Zeiss lenses.
Perhaps this is obvious, but the crew spent much more time and effort
(=money) shooting the sex scenes than they did shooting the non-sex scenes.

The various devices and optical tricks used during one karami scene was a
fascinating lesson in itself. Of course the actors were covered up with
maebari (the usual combination of gauze and tape to conceal their private
parts), but when the time came for one to 'perform' fellatio on another,
apparently a fist and bobbing head wasn't convincing enough. One of the
assistant directors colored the top of actor A's tan-colored maebari with a
black marker pen (pubic hair), taped a worn-out pink dildo to the front, and
then tucked that all under the actor's underwear, to be later 'revealed'
during the shot by actor B. What realism! At the end of the sex, a money
shot was simulated with two syringes full of homemade fake semen (I asked
for the recipe but they forgot to tell me . . .), one held and squirted out
by the actor on top, the other squirted by the lead assistant director, who
crouched behind the two men during the take as they pretended to climax. It
seems the AD put a little too much effort into it, and started laughing
during the take when he shot the bottom actor in the face. But of course no
retake. (Incidentally Meike's "Hanai Sachiko" has a hilarious scene that
makes fun of the pink film money shot.) When necessary, the visual
censorship was done right there on the spot by the cameraman himself. He
held something that looked like a little magnifying glass in front of part
of the lens to blur out the men's crotches during certain angles of the sex
scene. In between takes the men would laugh nervously and complain about how
embarrassing it was to do a sex scene with another man . . . in part because
a visitor was watching, I'm sure.

With such efforts to create a realistic(?)-looking sex scene, I asked a few
of the actors why the kissing in this and other pink films always looks so
phony (mouths pursed shut, faces turned from the camera). They agreed and
told me that it was embarrassing, too personal, and even rude to actually
kiss other actors and actresses on the lips. In this 'gay' pink film, almost
all of the actors said they were straight and said they didn't like the idea
of kissing other men to begin with. But the idea that pink actors are
willing to take off their clothes and pretend to have sex but are afraid to
kiss struck me as a little odd. At any rate, given its history and current
condition I'm starting to think that the kiss in Japanese film still
deserves attention.

As far as pink auteurism goes, this movie was another bad example. The
cameraman seemed to have as much control over the shoot as the director, and
at times the screenwriter (/actor), who said he had every shot figured out
in his head, would jump in to coach the cameraman and other actors on how to
do a scene when the director couldn't make up his mind. Many critical
decisions in direction and setup were made by the cameraman and assistant
staff members without any input from the director at all. I even made some
suggestions along the way. And this director has won pink awards in the past 
for his work. . .

When this movie is released in a few months, it will probably play in one
tiny theater in Tokyo before it takes a short tour to a handful of theaters
around the country. After that, who knows. There will certainly be no video
release, and unless the studio has a reason to re-release it in the same
theaters, the print will probably sit in a warehouse for years before it
disappears. I still wonder how the studio, staff, and cast are able to make
money off of a production like this.

Tomorrow I'll go to the audio studio to watch the dubbing . . .

Michael Arnold 

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