Criterion // 1966 // 127 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // August 11th, 2003
"The world moves on a woman's hips.
The world moves and it swivels and bops..."
-- Talking Heads, The Great Curve
There is truly only one thing that makes the world go round, and it is not money or love or power. It's sex, pure and simple. Everybody wants it. Everybody needs it. Individuals who overindulge in it are called whores or degenerates. Those who fail to procure it are labeled odd or geeky. It has been politicized, demonized, marginalized, and even criminalized, all in a puritanical battle to impose moral controls on inherent biological function. Sex is the crucial cog in the vicious cycle that lies at the center of the age-old war of the roses. It's also tied in irrevocably to the other items (money, love, power) that fuel the ongoing fight for might and right. Let's face it: without fornication, there would be no oppressive society to condemn it. Sex can explain a situation or complicate it. It can open doors and close off opportunities. We use it as shorthand for personal dignity and decry it as the corruption of all that we hold dear. We even describe entire races of people in terms of sex and sexuality. There's the fiery passion of the Latins, the cold implied fetishism of the Eastern European, and the faith-based frigidity of white Anglo-Saxons. Like the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge for which it is so often compared, sex is the last uncharted and least understood domain of the human spirit.
But for every person who wants to condemn it, there are others who are determined to explore and exploit it. As an industry, sex has evolved beyond the red light districts and sleazy peephole bookstores and into readily downloadable images and on-demand pay-per-view. The pornography market has been legitimized, and in some cases glamorized, as some sort of psycho-sensual empowerment, a chance for the female to dominate the male by literally grabbing him by the short hairs. In the 1966 Japanese jewel of sin and sensationalism for sale, Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers, we witness this clash of crass cultures, an unusual Asian struggle between origami and the orgasm. In its back alleys and seedy settings, one man learns the true meaning of what exactly is illicit.
Subu Ogata lives a strange double life in the ever-fluctuating social structure of modern day Japan. While he tells people he is in medical supply sales, his actual job is an illegal one: he makes 8mm pornographic sex films and occasionally pimps for important businessmen. He is also romantically, sexually, and financially involved with his landlady Haru, a widow with two teenage children. Koichi is the good for nothing son, constantly in need of money and teasing his mother with a combination of guilt and misplaced sexual desire. Keiko is the ripe young daughter, the new untapped resource of Subu's desires. Haru believes that her dead husband has been reincarnated as a carp, which she keeps in a tank in her home. She consults it occasionally for advice. As Subu tries to make his movies under the ever-present threat of exposure and mob influence, his home life begins to disintegrate. Haru gets sick and has to be hospitalized. Koichi is constantly scheming to get his hands on even more of the family wealth. And Keiko is playing a grown-up game of slutty hard to get that drives Subu insane with passion, perversion, and protectiveness. Eventually tragedy hits the family unit and all the issues of incest, impotence, and illegal activity come to the forefront. Subu is caught in the middle, trying to comply with the traditions of the past while exploring the forbidden pleasures of the present. He wants to solve the pervasive mystery of women even as he rejects and exploits them as one of the nation's pornographers, a secret chronicler of sex.
There is no bigger nation of contrasts than Japan. It's the country of the Sumo and the CD, of rampant 1950s revivalism and foot bound geishas. There is the gentility of tea ceremonies and precise flower arranging mixed into and with the lunacy of karaoke and the obsessive gambling of Pachinko. The Japanese are a people who steep their modern technological advances in an industrial atmosphere of arcane, ritualized servitude, and they have an emphasis on forced education that borders on the primitive. But nowhere is this dichotomy more prominent than in their entertainment. On one hand you have the stylized and lush detail of anime, pushing the limits of the animated film and its narrative and visual style. But scuttling around inside this magical media is a heinous vulgarity called hentai, a perversion in pen and ink where the cartoon is made carnal to explore deviant or downright bizarre sexual ideals. For every dignified traditional leisure activity like kabuki or Noh theater, there are sordid underground clubs where fetishes and fringe elements are offered and capitalized upon. Many see this shaming of sex as typical of the Asian culture, one based in a constant desire to maintain "face" or honor and to hold personal embarrassment as the lowest form of human indignity. Yet like kids near a candy jar, the banishment of sexuality to the sleaziest element (or in some cases, overly clinical industrial iciness) makes the vice more desirable, more fun to violate and indulge in. Like America, which equally exiles sex as being an imagined causation for so many of life's issues, the Japanese associate the dirty picture industry as the domain of mobsters and misfits.
For director Shohei Imamura, this territory is perfect. He feels there is no more viable cinematic story source than the social periphery, those areas and individuals functioning at or near the lower depths of the general public. His is a world of beggars and pimps, struggling families and dimwitted peasants. His emotional palette runs from the taboo to the timely, with one foot firmly in reality and the other exploring the hallucinatory visuals of deepest excess. His movies are a mixed message of tones, styles, and symbols. Most historians place him at the center of the Japanese New Wave movement, a controversial time when filmmakers bucked the traditions of the standard Tokyo studio system to explore the subjects and techniques they wanted. Imamura has always been viewed as more experimental than his contemporaries, using surrealism, dream imagery, and flashbacks to lace his story with wit, wisdom, and occasional just plain weirdness. His methods are as natural as they are stagy, free of convention while sometimes purposefully convoluted. In the world of cinema today, he has few counterparts and is seen as the rightful heir to the title Greatest Living Japanese Director, a crown worn for so long by the late, great Akira Kurosawa. In truth, Imamura's closest counterpart is David Lynch, another surrealist who explores the dark and disturbing elements of society bubbling below the conservative, clean façade of life with a mixture of purity, perversion, and the phantasmagoric. And like his Bible-belted brethren, Imamura too has had tremendous success at the Cannes Film Festival (Imamura has won the Palme d'Or twice and been nominated three other times).
Imamura is a director who likes to thwart convention in order to underline and expose the inherent values or flaws within it. Indeed, the Japanese society depicted in The Pornographers (based on a critically acclaimed novel by Akiyuki Nosaka and subtitled "A Lesson in Anthropology" by Imamura, the cheeky devil) is the polar opposite of that pristine, techno-marvel neon shuffle-scape we have come to associate with the land of the rising sun. Crawling between traditions and the trivial, between acts of sick sexual abuse and motivations of greed and control, The Pornographers presents a story which is neither dirty nor clean, with scant nudity but as much carnal wickedness as possible. It is a viciously ironic exercise in excess married to a standard story of family dynamics and personal politics. Surrounding Subu and Haru's relationship we see incest, both implied and actual, immorality, and the corrupting power of passion and lust. But The Pornographers is not just inquiring why people desire the prurient as much as it is wondering why a society so scandalous would want to suppress it at all. It's a movie that asks us to determine what is worse: a man who sells salacious pictures to a porn ravenous public, or a shiftless spoiled son who guilt's his mentally unbalanced mother into mortgaging her life for him. It wants to compare the traditional Japanese view of female subservience with the equally oppressive notions of rape and pedophilia. In The Pornographers, Imamura is indeed looking at the historical and old-fashioned value system inherent in Eastern philosophy through the eyes of individuals living ever further outside the border of those ideals.
Our wily visionary also tries to challenge the contemporary theology. Imamura wants to discuss and determine, in detail, just what pornography and pornographers are. There is an odd connection to America in this theme. The Supreme Court of the United States uses a peculiar "community standard" ideal to define pornography, and in light of his narrative, Imamura agrees that this would be a good place to start. He would also argue that the discussion should not be limited to just sexually explicit material. Indeed, he would open up the dialogue to all facets of the human spirit and everyday life. Daughter Keiko gets to the heart of the matter when she says that "everything in the world is about money," and the notions of greed, poverty, and personal prostitution are all seen as clear examples of pornography in the film. The ideas that everyone has a price and that love and security can be bought are prime examples of subconscious deviance from the norm. Incest and pedophilia would be almost universally accepted disturbing pornographic concepts, and yet Imamura turns both conventions on their head by making mother/son, father/daughter trysts at any age seem a normal, if unspoken, rite of passage for many Japanese. Tradition is lambasted as being the foundation for all the filth around. But he also holds that the contemporary principles of spoiled manipulation (Koichi's slimy exploitation of his mother and her money), women's' liberation (Keiko's descent into a teenage slut), and feminist empowerment (Haru as the financial center of the household) are accountable. In Imamura's eyes, all this wicked wantonness is as graphic in its disgust and scandalous at its heart as hardcore images or vulgar stag reels.
As with most visual artists, there is an amazing use of obvious and hidden symbolism in The Pornographers. Even something as simple but strange as the reincarnated carp has a particular thematic resonance in the film. For many Japanese, the carp symbolizes endurance and courage, and in Imamura's film it acts as the traditional structure of Japanese society with its manners, order, and ceremony. Subu constantly wants to "throw it out," tossing with it not only the wife's memories of her dead husband but the restraints to his country's strict culture. Haru and Subu own a barbershop, a place where people come in to change their image. Hair is also a classic symbol of rank and power in Japan, something to protect and take pride in. Doors and windows act like barriers to the forbidden as they allude to camera lens frames (both internal and external to the film), highlighting certain aspects of a scene (a cracked door glimpse of Keiko changing, a partial view of a forbidden kiss) and creating subtle, inspired split screen effects. For Imamura, this is one battle of the sexes and blurring of gender lines that is told in hints and segments, relying on inference more than obviousness. There are some isolated shots however, which clearly want to illuminate the characters situation. Haru is seen screaming from a mock cage door that sits isolated on a lonely beach. As the camera moves away from her, we can see that there is nothing keeping her behind those iron bars but herself. Like the family situation, she is trapped in or the mental illness that seems self-fulfilling, this image explains just who and what really controls her. There is also a moment when, in shadow, a drunken Keiko is seen surrounded by the hulky shadows of men. It's an inevitable lifetime and future summed up in silhouettes, which makes the events that follow and the actual ending even more intriguing.
Sure, this can all be confusing at times. Imamura is not interested in the linear as much as he is connected to the tone and temperament of his piece. Flashbacks break in and play out at inopportune times, only to pay off (or perhaps not) later on. Totally unexplained sequences of a child struggling with a woman (his mother?) in the bath and a man rubbing a blanket over his face and head are inserted and removed without structural reference. Are they comments on life? Isolated memories sweeping over the players? Subtle in-jokes only a native audience would comprehend are present. Whatever he does, Imamura does to keep The Pornographers fragmented, requiring the audience to use their own imaginations and tie up the loose ends. But Imamura also likes to play with location. It's interesting to note that the movie only "opens up" three times: once at the beginning in the outdoor porn filming sequence, the aforementioned dream sequence with Haru, and the aquatic ending. The rest of the time the movie is trapped in a world of small rooms, cramped dark quarters, and a sardine like city existence torn apart by death, desperation, and deceit. And living within this shadow world is Subu, the everyman of Japan, the artificial conservative locked in a moral mortal struggle between the deviation of the old ways with the browbeating bedlam of the new. He wants the mandated respects of the past while providing the illicit tools to explore the hidden arenas of the flesh. It's no wonder that in the end his struggle leaves him bruised and beaten. When he leaves the real world to explore a realm of fantasy pleasures, our Tokyo guy in transition is complete. Subu becomes the current perfect post-modern male, obsessed with technology as a way to cure domestic and personal impotence.
Call it new wave or no wave or neo-realism, but The Pornographers shows quite clearly that not all Japanese cinema is epic tales of lone samurai wandering the countryside seeking solace and justice, nor is all its acting dredged in the face mask frozen grandiosity of its traditional dramas. Imamura's treatment of the people and places is so organic and without convention that, when we see characters give the traditional Japanese greeting/send-off of a bow, it seems unusual and stiff. Frankly, there is more spectacle and institution in an episode of Iron Chef than throughout the entire running time of The Pornographers. From Masaomi Kondo's Koichi, all scheming and weak Mama's boy persona to Keiko Sagawa's blank and bratty Keiko, we see performing that is natural, instinctual, and without pretense. Shoichi Ozawa and Sumiko Sakamoto give Subu and Haru, respectively, an interest balance between the realistic and the illusory, providing minor reminders of the old fashioned style of Japanese acting, with its histrionics and its broad gesturing. But this works well for their characters, since this is exactly what these people are: traditionalists caught in the middle of social and personal upheaval. In Imamura, we have a visually intoxicating director with an aggressive style and design. Through the use of images, the balancing of the static with the chaotic, he presses emotional buttons while occasionally indulging in the extreme. Like Subu, positioned behind his cobbled together collection of 8mm cameras on a stick, Imamura overloads the frame, hoping to manufacture a slice of life's underbelly without resorting to depressing ultra-realism.
The Pornographers, then, is really the story of accepting biology and the functions of sex as part (and problematic) within society. It asks for the puritanical and the perverted to look at itself and judge which, if both or neither, is the more appropriate means of communal acceptance, or standard. It explores the changing dynamic in the Japanese family, while it blames newfound freedoms and tired traditions for the internal strife that exists. Yes, it hints at the criminal element and the growing influence of the Yakuza on underground Japan, but it's also an argument for the innocence of such people working on the fringe of the law. They are only violating a rule that seems silly to begin with. Sex is a part of everyone's life, and The Pornographers shows that criminalizing it only makes it that much more sordid, seductive, and damaging. Many may approach this film, see the unseemly behavior of the characters within it, and jump to a conclusion that the reprobate influence of Subu's chosen profession and the constant exposure to illicit material has led to the deplorable situations within his family. But that's as overly simplistic as blaming all violent content as the reason behind all violence. Indeed, the lifestyle invites crime and its element into their lives. But it's the traditional foundations of Japanese culture, a bizarre mélange of customs, rituals, and contradicting philosophies that help create and exacerbate most of the horrible interpersonal issues involved. Indeed, one could argue that the real pornographers are those married to the beliefs of the past without taking a moment to see their effects in the present. The Pornographers is indeed a study of the infinite possibilities of human beings. Is there any better way to describe a work of anthropology?
Criterion releases The Pornographers in a wonderful DVD transfer that preserves Imamura's personal vision. The anamorphic widescreen image at 2.35:1 has a wonderful clarity and richness. It's not as sharp in contrast as other monochrome offerings from the company, but it's also not some fuzzy, out of focus black and white abomination. Indeed, the more muted presentation lends The Pornographers a more artistic, less realistic tone, something right in line with Imamura's standards. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Mono is wonderfully clean and atmospheric. There are times when sound cues are used (a jingle of wind chimes, the burble of water), and the aural presentation here emphasizes them nicely. As for extras, we get a very limited look at the marketing of the film through its rather deceptive trailer. The ad for The Pornographers plays like exactly what it is not. The promo piece is ripe with innuendo, salacious imagery, and suggestive cutting. It basically misrepresents the film as a literal representation of its title. As the only other extra, we get a very nice dissection of the film by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman. While occasionally a little esoteric (there are a great deal of obtuse references and allusions), it does offer insights into The Pornographers and director Imamura.
This is indeed one movie about the sex industry that doesn't flaunt breasts and bodily functions as its stock in trade. Frankly, there could be no more antiseptic treatment of said subject.
It's arguable that, if any film needed a set of context-explaining extras, it would be The Pornographers. The factors in favor of a comprehensive set of bonus material are overwhelming. Imamura is at or near the top of the list of important living Japanese filmmakers. This movie is widely considered to be one of his very best. It does rely heavily on the constraints and contrasts within Japanese culture to get its point across. And it's opened ended, ambiguous, and controversial, all aspects that make a movie ripe for intellectual dissection. But sadly, Criterion gives us two worthy, if minor, bits of added content and that's comparable to offering an index card's worth of analysis on Citizen Kane. Where are the commentaries, if not by Imamura himself (he could be as mute on the subject as fellow auteur Lynch), by the scholars and critics who champion his work? How about a series of interviews? Criterion is usually so thorough in their preparations and questioning that a good 14-minute Q&A session can take the place of a sparse, laborious director's narrative. It would be great to hear from the filmmakers, any of his cast, or perhaps people who have worked with and studied him. The trailer here is very intriguing, and the essay by J. Hoberman (while previously published in The Village Voice) offers some very interesting analysis. But a movie like The Pornographers cries out for more understanding and explanation. Just like the fact that this is a movie about the illicit sex business that shies away from showing its subject matter, the Criterion Collection of The Pornographers is a wonderful DVD presentation that avoids the extras that complete their usually stellar packages.
It's amazing in retrospect how little the views of sex and sexuality have changed in the last 100 years. Certainly we have moved beyond the notion of sin and shame, but there is a near fascist conservatism, fed by disease and social decay, creeping back in. The Government longs to legislate what happens in the bedroom as readily as what occurs in the boardroom, maybe even more so. Gays are still viewed as misguided pariahs, just one good lay away from "straightening" themselves out and easily denied basic civil and legal protections because of who they choose to bunk with. The minute outdated laws, on such misappropriated concepts as sodomy, are struck down, a clarion call of moralists disparage its destruction and demand another. Religion is the basis for most of this manipulation, and there is no faulting the faith-based for viewing actions in direct conflict with their codes of conduct and teachings as unacceptable. But no belief system is completely universal, for if it was, it would be embraced as said. So what we are left with is competing agendas, political strategies, and power brokering all meant to protect someone or something's sick self-promotion. In The Pornographers, director Shohei Imamura exposes the hypocrisy of those who would legislate ethics, while at the same time indulging their every deviant fantasy. It was ahead of its time in showing how the traditions of the past can lead to travesties, like pedophilia and incest, in the more enlightened present or future. It even predicts technology-based vice. But mostly, Imamura shows that the catalyst to all the issues in the world, from crime to caring, is based in the biological foundation of human sexuality. It argues that the most illicit aspect of sex is not the act, but the actors and their attitudes. After all, pornography is only prurient in the eyes of those who see it that way, right?
The Pornographers is found not guilty and is free to go. Criterion is placed on 30 days probation for failing to offer a more extensive set of extras. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Essay on the Film by J. Hoberman