Monday, November 10, 2008

INTERVIEW: The J-Film Pow-Wow talks pinku eiga with Jasper Sharp

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

After much anticipation and a successful launch at this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas Jasper Sharp's "Behind the Pink Curtian: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema" has finally been released in Canada. (Check it out at Japanese film fans of course know Sharp from his work with Tom Mes on the highly influential website and their now seminal book "The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film" published by Stone Bridge Press. With the release of "Behind the Pink Curtian" from Britain's FAB Press I truly believe that Sharp has cemented his reputation as one of the most important Japanese film critics and historians working today. Far from being a simple overview of the pinku eiga genre "Behind the Pink Curtain" is an exhaustively researched and entirely comprehensive exploration of the role that sexuality has played in the history of Japanese cinema. From the very roots of motion pictures in Japan to the present day boom in interest in pinku eiga Sharp's book places these films into social, political and artistic context, giving us not only a history of sex cinema, but of the history of the Japanese film industry at large.

I was very lucky to ask Sharp a few questions about the writing and research of "Behind the Pink Curtain", whether or not the present interest in pinku eiga could be the next wave of success for Japanese films in North America and what he has planned next.

CM: “Behind the Pink Curtain” definitely deserves the subtitle “The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema”. You don’t just explore pinku eiga but the role that’s sex and sexuality has played throughout the history of Japanese cinema. This must have been a major undertaking for you. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis and writing of the book? Is it true that you’d originally set out to make a documentary about the pink film industry?

JS: I was basically in Japan from 2002-2005, exploring Japanese film, working on the Midnight Eye website and working on my half of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. I also started doing some video interviews for a DVD company so they sent us out a camera. Around this time I met a number of directors working at the company Kokuei – Shinji Imaoka, Mitsuru Meike, Hisayasu Sato and a few others. Around this time I also did an interview with one of the big figures from the 90s, Takahisa Zeze for Midnight Eye, who’d moved into more mainstream productions. So I knew very little about the modern face of the pink industry at the time, and was more than a little surprised that around 100 of these films were being made a year. I started chatting with a couple of friends, and we all thought it would be an interesting subject for a documentary. We spent a few years ingratiating ourselves with our subjects, worming our way behind the scenes, but the project fell through for a number of reasons. Well, it’s not as straightforward making documentaries as I first thought, and obviously if you’re doing a film-related one, you need a fairly decent budget to pay for telecine-ing the clips, paying for the rights etc. We shot quite a few interviews, but basically the whole thing petered out, and I ended up back in England thinking, well, I’ve done all the research so why not actually sit down and right about it. In fact, I hadn’t really done all the research at all at this time, so it actually took a whole lot longer than I initially envisaged, because it was such a huge subject. I don’t think I’ll bite off anything this big ever again!

CM: You’re very specific in “Behind the Pink Curtain” to define what is and what isn’t pinku eiga. I think there’s a real confusion with the general public especially because I’ve seen the term pinku eiga used to describe everything from Nikkatsu Roman Porno, Toei Pinky Violence, Ero-Guro, Japanese AV (adult video), etc. I have to admit that I’ve even made the mistake at times myself. Could you give a simple definition of what constitutes a pinku eiga?

JS: The term refers specifically to independently-produced films, made by a small number of companies specifically for cinemas who play their products. The films are all rated R-18, so that’s the adult (‘seijin’) category, but really the definition is more about their production and exhibition circumstances than their content – so Roman Porno films, for example, can’t be considered pink, as Nikkatsu owned its own cinema chains as well as studios. It’s an important distinction, because the whole field arose in the 60s very much in opposition to the major studio system, which had a virtual monopoly on Japanese cinema until this time.

It’s not just me emphasizing this point. Roland Domenig of the University of Vienna outlined the basic definition for me, as well as giving lots of other invaluable help and introductions to key figures, but everyone else I met in the industry was quick to stress what was and what wasn’t a pink film.

CM: You must have seen quite a few of these films while researching “Behind the Pink Curtain”, but you mention in the book that a great deal of the films were either lost or destroyed after their initial runs. You even mentioned that over 800 films were produced by Nikkatsu during the years they were producing Roman Porno, but only a fraction of these remain. How did you track down the actual films to write about them?

JS: There were a number of sources for those unreleased outside of Japan. Firstly, going to the pink theatres themselves – there’s places like the Roman Gekijo in Shinbashi that showed old pink and Roman Porno films alongside the newer releases. Several of these were in such scratchy prints that you could never use them for DVD releases, and as I mention, a lot of the newer films never even make it to DVD. Secondly, there was what was available on old video or DVD in Japan. Thirdly, I got quite a lot given to me by the directors or the companies themselves – you’ll notice in the book that I’ve mainly focussed on the history of Shintoho and Kokuei, as opposed to the other two big companies still churning these films out, OP Eiga and Xces, simply because these studio are far more cooperative, and therefore easier for foreigners to see. Finally, I have to say a big thanks to Kunihiko Tomioka of Planet Studio +1 in Osaka, who had archived prints of some really obscure stuff from the 60s which he gave me private screenings of – for example, "Yakuza Geisha", the first ever pink film directed by a woman.

CM: There doesn’t seem to be the same stigma in Japan attached to filmmakers working in the world of sex films as there is here in North America . Many mainstream and critically acclaimed filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Rokuro Mochizuki, Ryuichi Hiroki got their start directing pinku eiga, isn’t that right? Not to get into a major discussion of the differences in morality between the two cultures, but why do you think it’s easier for filmmakers in Japan to make that shift from pinku eiga to mainstream films?

JS: Well, I think we should emphasize that Pink Films aren’t hardcore pornography – they’re generally pretty mild in terms of their sexual content. But I guess in general North America, by which I mean Hollywood, is a lot more puritanical about sex, so maybe there’d be a big public furore if a commercial director was discovered to have made his name making porno, although I can think of people like Wes Craven or Abel Ferrara who started out in this field.But it’s more that the industry structure in Japan is very different. The bulk of so-called “mainstream” films in Japan are still independently produced by a reasonably large number of pretty small companies, and the budgets are considerably lower, so this accounts for the huge output in general in the Japanese film industry. There’s not that same dichotomy between “independent” and “commercial” studios, so it’s not like filmmakers have to be really ambitious and good at helming huge productions before they get to make a commercial film as they might if they wanted to make their Hollywood debut. If someone has proved they can make a 60 minute narrative feature on 35mm in three days and on a budget of $30,000 within the pink genre, then they’re pretty well equipped to go the next step up and make a 90 minute feature in a month on $200,000, regardless of subject matter or content. I mean, obviously going from a low-budget pink film to helming the latest Toho Godzilla flick is quite a leap, but to something like Ryuichi Hiroki making "Vibrator" or "It's Only Talk", it’s not a huge step.

CM: You definitely don’t gloss over some of the gross misogyny in a many pinku eiga, I’m thinking specifically of films like “Sex Document: Serial Rapists” or the “Angel Guts” series. At the same time you go into how during the 90s and onwards there’s been a rise in female consumers of these films. How did you reconcile those to extremes while researching and writing the book? Do you think the reputation of the more violent films in the genre will prevent more pinku eiga to be screened or released on DVD in North America?

JS: I think generally the types of films that have been released in North America have been the more extreme, violent and morally suspect stuff, which has skewed people’s opinions about what pink cinema or Roman Porno really is. While I think there is more to the "Angel Guts" series for example than pure misogyny, there are some films which are pretty irredeemable when you try and justify them from any sort of moral or feminist perspective, although this isn’t to say they are completely without merit. But more importantly, a lot of Western writers have focussed on this one, more extreme side of the genre, and ignored the fact that the average pink film is not necessarily like this, especially nowadays. It’s also true, there has been a significant rise of female viewers in Japan in the past 10-15 years, as much due to the changes in the way they are distributed and exhibited as in the content of the films, and this new audience has in turn influenced the content. I hope future DVD releases of pink films outside of Japan take this into account.

CM: Japanese cinema has had a real ride in North America in the past decade, specifically through the huge interest in the J-Horror and the “Asian Extreme” genres. Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and others became buzz names in Hollywood. Remakes were made, some by the original directors themselves, but the bloom has kind of fallen off the proverbial rose. The box office returns on the Asian horror remakes have fallen off drastically, distributors who built their catalogues on the genre like Tartan UK and USA have closed up shop and now North American companies like Media Blasters are bank rolling films “extreme” films like “The Machine Girl” and “Tokyo Gore Police” to fill whatever niche market is left.

The reason I mention this is that it seems like the rise of interest in pinku eiga in North America has come hand in hand with the surge in interest in 60s and 70s grindhouse and exploitation films. What do you think the ramifications of this will be? Could pinku eiga become the next J-Horror? Will we be seeing North American companies financing sex films in Japan or with a Japanese flavour to capitalize on this interest?

JS: The reason J-horror’s audience, and that of Japanese films in general, dropped off was because most of the films being released were the same. Most of the overseas distributors weren’t interested in looking particularly hard for anything that deviated too far from the formula of the last hit. I’d say the reason why no one has picked up on pink films before is because no one really knew about the subject, but the beauty of pink film is it is a lot cheaper to license than the latest Ring retread, and there’s a lot more variety: the individual films might be comedies, romantic dramas, exploitation movies, even horror in fact. They may be low budget softcore sex films, but within this format basically anything goes.Certainly there’s going to be a lot more of this stuff coming out soon though. There’s an LA based company, Pink Eiga who are just about to unleash a whole load of titles. I’ve also heard rumours already of another European company co-funding pink films, so it might well happen.

I am not sure whether pink could become the subject of the next boom in interest in Japanese cinema. It remains to be seen. What I do think though is that there is some kind of a market for well-made theatrical films that are erotic but not necessarily pornographic, and pink cinema might go some way in fulfilling this need.

CM: Even now that the book has been published you’re continuing to organize screenings and retrospectives of pinku eiga. There was the tie-in programme at this year’s Fantastic Fest, your involvement with the releases of “The Watcher in the Attic” and “Assault! Jack the Ripper” from Mondo Macabro and in December you’re helping to organize a retrospective of pinku eiga side by side with Japanese classics at the BFI Southbank called “Wild Japan”. Are you happy to keep exploring the pinku eiga genre or are you ready to move onto something else now? What’s next on the agenda for you?

JS: These seasons, DVD commentaries, retrospectives etc are all pretty much related to spreading the word about the book and creating a dialogue around the subject, letting people know about the pink film. As far as writing more about it goes, I think I’ve said as much as I can say within the 200,000 words contained in Behind the Pink Curtain – that includes all the connections with radical left-wing groups, the history of Japanese censorship, foreign co-productions the changing nature of distribution, audience composition and all the rest.

I’m usually working on some film curating project or other in Britain, like for example I did the stop-motion animation season centred around Kihachiro Kawamoto earlier in 2008 with the Watershed Cinema in Bristol and am looking into doing some interesting India-related stuff early on next year. It is sometimes more fun to bring new films across and introduce them in an accessible context that gets people interested than to write about obscure films which people don’t have any chance to see.

That said, I’m busy on two other book projects at the moment – one more complete introduction to Japanese cinema since its very beginning, and the other a non film-related ‘true crime’ work about a well-known murder case of a foreigner in Japan.

I’ve got plenty of ideas lined up for new things in the future, at least temporarily moving away from film, and also moving slowly away from Japan, but its all a bit too early to talk about them. I don’t want to even think about starting them until well after I’ve finished these two now though. I could do with a bit of a rest first.


Paul said...

Awesome interview!

logboy said...

...and even some of the discussion of the book itself - the little i've see in forums - does little more than express a disappointment that the focus isn't on the extreme stuff, and people are still pointing out non-pink (i.e pinky violence) to those looking for recommendations specifically (or generally) surrounding the hazy definition of pink films that's still commonplace... odd. you'll see these misconceptions (the misunderstandings that aren't going to do pink film much good) continue, for some time to come, i think. shame, because it's a very varied and fascinating, often very artistic genre, and to cherry pick on preconceptions is wrong on many levels...

Chris MaGee said...

I think that if folks read through the book, logboy, that a lot of those misconceptions will be cleared up. Just seeing "The Watcher in the Attic", which Jasper talks about in the book, I was really impressed with how poetic the film felt. Ron Jeremy can't say that about his films LOL!

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Great interview, Chris! That book looks like a worthy read...

Bob Turnbull said...

Yep, excellent job Chris. I was pretty much sold on picking up the book, but Jasper's answers have sealed it - I'm glad that he's providing so much context to the origination of the films as well as their evolution.