Book Review by Leung Wing-Fai

Jasper Sharp (2008) Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, Surrey: Fab Press
ISBN 978-1-903254 54 7 Paperback 416 pp

Even before opening the package that was Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, the weight makes the reader think that it is a more serious book than the tagline ‘Steamy, Subversive, Exotic & Bizarre!’ suggests. Despite Sharp’s admission that it is impossible to access many of the historical titles, the book seems as complete and encyclopaedic as it could be and I doubt that there is another bilingual list of Japanese sex films and relevant references quite like the appendices (that occupy over 60 pages). All of this, the writer tells us, is to explain what Japanese pink cinema ‘is’. The simple definition of pink cinema is softcore sex films, though pinku eiga is much more as Sharp’s passion will certainly convince and repay readers who persevere till the end.

In a strange kind of way, I find the non-pink bits more interesting as Sharp successfully narrates the social and cultural contexts for the development of Japanese soft porn. He also situates the pink industry alongside the mainstream and never loses sight of the parallel but intertwining larger film world in Japan and abroad. Indeed, many mainstream Japanese directors had cut their teeth or worked extensively in the pinku eiga industry: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, 1997, Pulse, 2001) Hideo Nakata (Ringu, 1998) and Yoishi Sai (All Under the Moon, 1993). Indeed, the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film went to The Departures directed by Yojiro Takita who made the Molester Train series (1982-1984) among other pink titles. I am nevertheless not convinced of the writer’s inclusion of Nagisa Oshima whose main contribution to the debate is his controversial In the Realm of the Senses, 1976 (based on a ‘true crime’ story that had also sprung several pink films including Noboru Tanaka’s more conventional A Woman Called Abe Sada 1975). The inclusion of Oshima leads to another age-old debate of the art/sex film divide as many films of the early Japanese New Wave of the 1960s challenge sexual taboos given the more open social and moral attitudes of the time. I think this fluidity between experimental, New Wave, avant-garde, independent and sex films in Japan is certainly worth a critical evaluation. The cross-over of these strands in the industry is also something quite culturally unique that Behind the Pink Curtain serves to highlight.

A discussion of censorship has to be part of the history of sex film though Sharp never commits to some of the cultural issues that this raises. Sharp also comments on the wider feminist debates around pornography but remains neutral. Undeniably, pink movies are full of contradictions: the obsessive and repetitive depictions of rapes and tortures (the author describes these in length in chapter 12) are clearly part of the male fantasy element of soft porn. Equally there is no shortage of female audiences for such scenes. The author begins to acknowledge this unlikely section of consumers of porn towards the end of the book. I often find strong feminist messages in Japanese sexploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s (think Sex and Fury and Female Convict Scorpion series). Given most directors and writers of these films are male (a few female filmmakers do exist, as the author points out), the parallel feminist and sexist elements in many of these Japanese productions should enrich the existing debates about pornography.

Sharp’s admiration for key cult figures such as Koji Wakamatsu (who crossed the divides of avant-garde, pink and politics) and Masao Adachi (porn director turned Red Army revolutionary who spent 26 years in Palestine) is evident, devoting a chapter to each. On the other hand, I think Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno is worthy of a more detailed treatment than the slightly slim chapters 9 and 10. Roman Porno was launched by the flagging studio in 1971 and eventually generated 850 titles in 17 years. Other studios also jumped on the band wagon and produced a number of titles that might be grouped under the genre. The brand was loosely based on the French concept of roman pornographique or erotic fiction in the tradition of Marquis de Sade, The Story of O etc. The productions were more widely distributed, arty and influential than the old fashioned pink, almost edging soft porn towards respectability.

The later chapters see the author contemplate the decline of the whole softcore sex film market that was partly the result of competition from AV/Adult Video in the 1990s, younger generation of yet more experimental sex film directors (most notably Hisayasu Sato, The Bedroom 1992), gay porn, and the unlikely international film festival hit The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Mitsuru Meike 2004).

Such a comprehensive history also inevitably leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled (sic.) as few films are available in the west or in Japan for that matter. The writer encourages us to think of the meanings of these films that majority of critics and scholars tend to dismiss but there are only so many pages of description of film ‘narratives’ one can read without losing the point altogether. After all, do we really need to know the finer plot of Apartment Wife Bondage and Sex Documents: Serial Rapists?

The comprehensive Behind the Pink Curtain demonstrates that the book is clearly a work of love for Jasper Sharp. Whether ‘the complete history’ of Japanese sex cinema or any other cinemas can ever be written and contained in one single volume is a moot point. Such a painstaking exercise is a timely reminder of the complexity of exploring the history of film production, mainstream or otherwise, past and present, in any given country. For that, we should salute this brave attempt.

Leung Wing-Fai is the co-editor with Leon Hunt of  East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film