All jargon and no authenticity?
Of the vast numbers of corporate-made genre films that flooded Japanin the 1970s, Donald Richie once remarked that the “West knows nothing of these pictures, nor should it.”1 For many years, Richie’s dictum remained almost unwritten law, and throughout the 1960s, ’70’s, and ’80s, there had been no more conspicuous lacuna in the West’s knowledge of Japanese genre filmmaking than the softcore pink film (pinku eiga), whose daunting superabundance, destitute budgets, anarchic politics, and penchant for rough sadomasochism had traditionally impeded any wide distribution abroad. But as the elitist auteurism of the 1960s gave way to the populist, mock-anthropological genre studies of the 1980s and ’90s, as fringe sexual demographics have tentatively emerged from their scarlet-lettered closets, and as Asian chic curries more currency than ever before, the pink film has finally made its entrance onto commercially distributed video and DVD. Synapse Films has recently released pinku eiga guru Wakamatsu Koji’s Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) and Ecstasy of the Angels (1970), and now the British company Screen Edge2 gifts us with three more recent (and less political) pink films: Sato Toshiki’s Tandem (1994), Sato Hisayasu’s The Bedroom (1992), and Zeze Takahisa’s The Dream of Garuda (1994).
Western critics, accustomed to “serious erotica” mainly in the form of individual “event” films such as Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) or Schroeder’s Maitresse (1976), have tended to approach the alien generics of the pink film with a combination of nervous detachment and bespectacled curiosity. Though originally sprung from the same new wave experimentation and student movement leftism that fueled the work of Imamura, Oshima, and Yoshida, the pink film’s decision to use sadomasochistic kink as a polymorphous allegory for seemingly every political theme has sat uncomfortably with some critics. David Desser’s comments on Wakamatsu Koji’s archetypically misogynistic pink film The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) question the single-mindedness of the genre:
“The Brechtianism of The Embryo Hunts in Secret notwithstanding, the film is still disturbing to a Western viewer, the alienation effects insufficient to overcome our emotional distaste for the action. Rape and sadomasochism predominate in the pink film and roman porno [romantic-pornographic film] as compared to American, and especially European “soft-core” films which feature lushly photographed…lovemaking. …It is difficult to believe any audience can truly enjoy this film, which would certainly support the notion of its Brechtianism.”3
While Wakamatsu engages the alienation effects that were de rigueur for new wavers, to chalk everything up to Brechtian formalism dismisses pink film directors’ attempt to use sex as a political tool without really critiquing the content of that sexual politics on its own terms (something we will do shortly). Secondly, as the pink film came to economically dominate Japanese cinema in the late ’60s and ’70s, and as generic standardization tempered its strangeness and sanctioned its blasphemies, mass audiences obviously were able to truly – if guiltily – enjoy films such as Embryo on a grand scale.
The ethnocentricity of Desser’s moralism – the word “our” is unashamedly equated with “the Western viewer,” even though the subject of Desser’s concluding sentence sneakily switches to “any audience” – also shortsightedly implies that the pink film’s attempt, however misguided it often may be, to render Japan’s sociopolitical neuroses in the form of openly contentious sexuality is more objectionable than the covert repressions endemic to the conservative action and horror films of the West. While we are keen on decoding other cultures through the tell-tale conventions of their genre films, rarely do we wonder (or care) how a Japanese critic would semiotically interpret (or just exoticize) the particularly American psychoses of Last House on the Left (1972) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – let alone if their strange, countrified sadisms would trouble the sensibilities of the “Eastern viewer.” The neocolonialist assumption is that only the West consumes the genre films of the East, and whatever semiotic interpretations a Japanese film buff might cross-culturally assign to the corn-fed psychosexuality of Chainsaw Massacre must be far less pressing than the omnivorously globalized ways in which Westerners consume imported films.4
But the perennial popularity of violent Western horror films in Japan5 suggests that the Japanese view our genre films in much the same way we view theirs. So while Westerners may enjoy raising a quizzical eyebrow at the pink film’s possibly spurious claims to sociopolitical insight, Japanese genre fans can no less amuse themselves with Wes Craven’s desperate claim that the backwoods rape of Last House on the Left (1972) reflects deeply into the psyche of an America internally bruised by the soul-wracking atrocities of Vietnam; or they may legitimately theorize that the cryptic, bare-chested Anglo racism of the post- Rambo Hollywood action film is a far more neurotic generic institution than the express sadomasochism of their own pink films.
I do not, however, want to fugally harp about colonialism and ethnocentricity – and their villainous inverse, orientalism – or the other usual suspects that now make Asian film criticism such a joyless labor. Nor will I indulge the infantile yet ever-popular academic game of “my subject position is better than your subject position” that has become the inevitable weapon of critics who, needing to mark their turf against the competition, reduce criticism to prating faultfinding6 – there’s nothing critics love more than accusing someone of unintentionally propagating colonialism or orientalism.7 But unwillingly we are forced back into the deepest orientalist doldrums when the Sight and Sound blurb that graces the DVD case of The Bedroom obtusely declaims, “Only in Japan could a marriage of thepornosubculture andavant-garde achieve a breakthrough in the area of hip pop culture.”8 The phenomenology of the pink film must be rationalized in terms of a callow hipness – or a “breakthrough in pop culture” (but breaking through to what?) – that disavows the genre’s loftier pretensions to reaffirm a hackneyed Western gaze.
Nevertheless, the regional specificity of the “only in Japan” tag, though soiled with vapid hyperbole, does unwittingly allude to the nascent political agenda of the pink film of the 1960s. As Richie has said, Japanese new wave directors had “turned their backs on… the naïve universal humanism of the past and searched for the essence of Japaneseness.”9 This obsession with reconstructing Japanese national identity was central to the censorship controversy that surrounded director Takechi Tetsuji’s seminal pinku eiga Black Snow (1965). Takechi defended his film thus:
I admit there are many nude scenes in [ Black Snow ], but they are psychological nude scenes symbolizing the defenselessness of the Japanese people in the face of the American invasion.10
Takechi’s vocabulary, innocuous at first, upon inspection betrays a common confusion of the pink film: the handily ambiguous word “psychological” is equivocally used as a catch-all phrase to describe phenomena – here, the emasculation of the Japanese en masse by American militarism – that are actually sociological. Of course, the repercussive effects of this militarism will be distributed psychologically, but the cause is overarchingly sociological; and just as Desser misuses the phrase “emotional distaste” (in the above context of Wakamatsu’s The Embryo ) to describe an intellectualized moral judgment, Takechi’s misuse of the word “psychological” seeks to convince us (sans proof) that his point is best demonstrated by examining psychological effects, while assuming that, if psychology is the highest level of inquiry, sexuality (or “nude scenes”) is in turn the highest level of psychology. The pink film as a whole tends to allegorize all sociological conditions with Freudian bromides; if we are to believe Richie’s claim that new wavers strove to excavate an essential Japaneseness, it is ironic that they would repeatedly employ Victorian Freudianism as their spade. For example, if the youthful, desperate killer of Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967) represents a disenchanted generation stripped of its potency by both American colonialism and residual Japanese neo-feudalism, he only does so by suffering an Oedipal complex and concluding his murderous rampage of the women who mock his male inadequacy by burying his head in one of their maternal laps. We are so entangled in and dependent upon the Freudian idea of sublimation, and so irrationally suspicious of the empiricism of behaviorism and sociology, that we blindly believe the most scathing and fundamental of critiques must be rendered as sexual allegories, and are persuaded that sexuality – and artistic representations thereof – is thinkable only in terms of sublimation and fetishism.
For Desser, the point of Wakamatsu’s films – and by my extension, the point of departure for many pink films – is “not that unbridled sexuality equals revolutionary politics, but that repressive politics goes hand in hand with repressive sexuality.”11 But because the alleged libertinage (I use the term loosely) of the pinku eiga is coded as a series of sexual neuroses, and because one must raze forests of phallic symbols to discern its underlying politics, it seems the “leftist” pink film is critiquing not conservative politics per se but the Freudian code that ensconces them.12 Additionally, the pink film’s conservative insistence on shaming and humiliating women13 – modesty and sexual shame are men’s ideas created to enslave women14 – reveals that the genre’s sexuality is in fact drastically, adolescently bridled (not “unbridled”), and thus opposed to true libertinage.
Our touchstone for democratic libertinage is of course Sade, who also equated repressive politics with repressive sexuality. The best representation of Sade’s philosophy – and one of the reasons why progressive feminists continually return to him – is his revolutionary tract Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans, a disquisition humorously inserted into the midst of Philosophy in the Bedroom . The pink film, like most generic pornography, argues that (sexual) immorality should be expressed freely in a compartmentalized filmic space that, when safely separated from the rest of social discourse, permits immorality and morality to live in peaceful coexistence, without disrupting the status quo.15 But for Sade in Yet Another Effort, immorality is not politically oppositional, or a guilty pleasure to repress, marginalize, and compartmentalize, but an ingredient central to the natural state of direct democracy:
“The Greek lawgivers perfectly appreciated the capital necessity of corrupting the member-citizens in order that, their moral dissolution coming into contact with the establishment and its values, there would result the insurrection that is always indispensable to a political system of perfect happiness…”16
For Sade, sexual immorality – defined as “prostitution, rape, incest, and sodomy”17 – also means encouraging women to enjoy all the freedoms men do.18 In true libertine democracy, all exclusivities must be removed from pleasure19, all sexual experiences and subjectivities must be equalized, and sexuality must be central enough to political discourse so as to continuously effect an adequate degree of healthy insurrection. But the conventionally misogynous and/or symbolically Freudian content of the pink film is contentious without being libertine ; constructing a self-contradictory world where everything is speakable only insofar as it is fetishized, the genre’s Freudian vocabulary continually constricts and decenters our understanding of sex. While some may want to champion pink films because, formally, their low budget experimentation seems opposed to soulless corporatism, the pink film has – to borrow Adorno’s term – its own “jargon of authenticity” that tricks its audience into believing the rules of its genre are (somehow) politico-sexually progressive, while they are actually in direct service to the status quo.
But while the political legacy of the pink film tempts us to misperceive all its specimens as savage windows into Japan’s national genius, and while the propaganda of Western marketing may promote pink film directors as cinematic seers mystagogically propounding sadomasochistic doctrine as a kind of secularized metaphysics for the modern disenchanted, the pink film of the 1990s is not that of the ’60s, and the arguably legitimate Marxist ambitions of Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels have been reduced to the bland nihilism of the three films we must now consider.
Though The Bedroom is not manifestly political, director Sato Hisayasu’s work has explicit anarchic intentions that place him in the company of Wakamatsu and the more progressive surrealist Terayama Shuji (Throw Away Your Books, Go Out in the Streets). “I want to make a film which has the influence to drive its audience mad, to make them commit murder,” says Sato – a claim typical of so many avant-gardists. Starting from the image of an omnipresent phallic camera being blackened out by spray paint, The Bedroom shares with Sato’s earlier Muscle (1988) an obsession with voyeurism, ritualized framing, and performance, and evincing a sci-fi fetish for chemical addiction, it foreshadows his notoriously gory (and ridiculously Freudian) self-mutilation tale Naked Blood (1995). As the heroine of The Bedroom becomes increasingly obsessed with the halcyon on which her dead sister overdosed, her robotic computer programmer husband becomes so alienated from her than only by attempting to rape her – as might a stranger – can he reestablish physical contact with her. Shunning the husband and entering the world of her late sister, she joins a club – the “sleeping room” – where comatose on halcyon she is raped by strangers in front of a giant cinema screen whose rear-projected snow supplies the film with “avant-garde” mise en abyme imagery. The film emptily toys with performance and self-reflexivity – the heroine literally writes a script of her own life, she and her partner reach ecstasy only as they film each other with handheld cameras, and a single dialogic allusion to Warhol hopes to imbue the film’s ascetic minimalism and reflexivity games with some intellectual cachet.20 But none of these ideas are developed sufficiently, and the degree to which I must feebly guess at their meaning is the degree to which this sketchy film has failed to arouse my interest – the relationship between artist and critic must be at least 50-50, and Sato is here unwilling to do his share of the work.
The film’s eroticism – obviously intended to alarm and “incite madness” – is an array of sadomasochistic banalities: a groping session is performed in gas masks21, and the heroine asserts that while begin accosted, she “began to learn that pain is pleasure… and pleasure is pain.”22 While Sato’s desire to madden his audience is estimable, his film provides no impetus stimulating enough to achieve this effect; nor is the film spontaneous or abstract enough – its pointlessly snowy rear-projections notwithstanding – to constitute any kind of call to “maddening” Dadaist catharsis. The director really seems to think that a stale cocktail of fetish club imagery and textbook psychology – including a belabored climax of amnesia and identity reversal – will be enough to unbalance the diverse psychologies of his audience, so long as it is filmed antiseptically enough. But because the characters’ alienations and neuroses go unexplained, the sociological reasons for their ails remain unknown – the film illustrates the psychic symptoms of a disease whose origins are, for some reason, taken for granted. Of course, I too want to overthrow social orders, and believe cinema is still capable of instigation and more than a hollow chimera – but I must be given real reasons to rebel. Rather than be discouraged from the possibilities of insurrection in the wake of September 11, we must now be even more acutely attuned to critical distinctions between legitimate, rational rebellions and merely deluded calls to arms.
Zeze Takahisa’s Dream of Garuda – bleakly sincere, witless, and fetishizing rape to the point of blinding infinity – is even more oppressive. Littered with inserts of avian imagery alluding to the Hindu sun deity Garuda – half-vulture, half-man, just as the film’s hero is half-predator, half-penitent – the film concerns a convicted rapist, now released from jail, obsessed with vengeance on the former victim responsible for his incarceration. He passes the time by visiting prostitutional bathhouses, where he writhes in licentious congress soapy enough to lave his sins and conceal the nether regions forbade by Japanese censorship. Hallucinatorily believing all prostitutes are his former victim, he rapes them in accordance with the unimaginative demands of a genre where rape, because it signifies everything, signifies nothing. As with many pink films shot on rushed schedules, filmed in as few takes as possible, and minimally edited, Dream‘s aching slowness creates an ostentatious ennui that can be easily mistaken for pretentiousness. When the plot eventually stumbles into its foregone conclusion – the hero, finally confronting his former victim, desires from her redemption rather than revenge – all is sadly rationalized in terms of return-to-the-womb clichés. “Let me be reborn!” he cries, weeping like a repentant child in her maternal lap, much like Wakamatsu’s infantile Freudian hero in Violated Angels . As the rapist-hero climactically commits suicide by leaping from a phallic chimney, the bird imagery comes full circle: as he falls through the air vulture-like, we are to believe that the hero’s sinful (and Western) pseudopsychology has evolved into the transcendent (and Eastern) pseudometaphysics represented by Garuda imagery.23 The transitive, triangular relationship that transforms rape into “psychology” and then into “metaphysics” will fool many people much of the time because it is has the semblance of an idea, even though it’s just the same old jargon.
At least Sato Toshiki’s Tandem (1994) has a sense of humor, and happily rejects stifling minimalism in favor of fast cutting, camera movement (god forbid!), and some welcome discontinuities between audio flashbacks and the visual present. Two men, one young and one middle-aged, meet as strangers in a bar, challenging one another to share their sexual secrets. As they embark on an uneasy nocturnal motorcycle ride, the cycle’s phallic symbolism comes between the two, enflaming the rivalry of the older man, who takes the back seat, literally and figuratively. Through a series of comic misadventures, each rider alternatively tumbles from the bike, surrendering his position of driver and assuming the role of passenger. As they jockey on the motorcycle for sexual territoriality and dominion, flashbacking sex scenes put the genre through its paces: we see the older man indulging in the panty fetishism and subway gropes stereotypical of the Japanese businessman, while rape is provided when the younger man ravishes his cuckolding girlfriend, who (as far as I can tell24 ) secretly had sex with the older man. Tandem‘s interest lies in a very Japanese deadpan humor that asks us to question the seriousness of the genre’s kinks: the elder runs through streets manically demanding sex from strangers, a bicyclist cold-bloodedly runs over the younger man’s foot after he’s been disgracefully thrown from his motorcycle, and in a startling yet absurdist scene the middle-aged man extemporaneously punches his wife in the face after visiting his mistress. An atypically happy ending further mocks the idea that sadomasochism reflects anything more disturbing than itself, and nihilistically suggests that misogyny and competitive violence, once happily sewn into a repressive social fabric, are acceptable norms for a modern Japan.
Returning to more mundane matters, the technical aspects of these DVDs are singularly discouraging. Both Dream of Garuda and Tandem have been atrociously transferred: Garuda‘s print is distractingly scratchy and smacks of the kind of artifacting usually encountered on VCD’s, while Tandem is permeated by a blurriness so severe that one can only conclude the print has been plundered from a PAL bootleg. Only The Bedroom resembles anything like a legitimate commercial print, with only minimal artifacting and a mostly stable frame, though suffering from the usual faded colors. All three DVDs contain director’s filmographies and biographies, a hazy, mostly unenlightening historical sketch of the pink film, and unremovable, headache-inducing “white-on-white” subtitles. Perhaps most disappointing is that these are not terribly stimulating examples of the genre, neither complex enough to pique the interests of intellectuals (though The Bedroom tries) nor pornographically perverse enough to provoke gratifying masturbations. Without sufficient sexual stimulation, what we are left with is the genre’s naked form, the shell of what was once avant-garde: yet just as an organized religion is no religion at all, the pink film’s avant-gardism becomes fruitless when subordinated to the generic, capitalistic, and commercial standards in which it is now forever entangled.
- See Richie’s introduction to Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors (New York: Kodansha, 1990, p. 9). [↩]
- A browse through Screen Edge’s video catalog – rife with amateur gore films by the likes of J. R. Bookwalter and Leif Jonker – reveals that the company is probably more interested in irking infamously prissy British video censors than advancing the imagined political agendas of pink films. [↩]
- Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema . (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, pp. 100-1). [↩]
- This double standard is reinforced by the dearth of English translations of Japanese critics’ analyses of non-Japanese films. We care only about the insights of Sato Tadao, for example, to the degree that they give Western critics glimpses into Japanese culture and thus become subordinated to Western understanding. The insistence on the “uniqueness” of Japan means its critics are incapable of the objectivity required for cross-cultural criticism. [↩]
- Many 1980s Italian gore films were made with an especial eye toward the lucrative Japanese market; that more Western films are shown in Japan than Japanese films are shown in the West does not mean, however, that Japanese viewers cannot exoticize the Occident. [↩]
- The “my subject position is better than your subject position” phenomenon is particularly evident in current writing on Hong Kong films, where cult fans and serious academics alike must compete for credibility in a suffocatingly overcrowded marketplace of – for lack of a better word – ideas. [↩]
- Even I am guilty of this in my above comments on David Desser. Am I merely a hypocrite, or have I, too, been incurably infected by academicism? [↩]
- Screen Edge’s even more egregious packaging blurb for The Dream of Garuda sadly begins, “Oriental lust out of control…” But what would well-controlled Oriental lust look like? [↩]
- Bock, 14. “Introduction.” Richie’s comment articulates what has often troubled me about the Japanese new wave – why is the reactionary search for essentialist nationalism any less naïve than universal humanism? Does being reactionary automatically make one wise? [↩]
- The quote is taken from Desser. Ibid., page 99. Desser, in turn, is quoting from Ian Buruma. [↩]
- Ibid., page 102. [↩]
- This, admittedly, is an oversimplification, for not all pink films are leftist and/or Freudian. Nevertheless, a disproportionately large number of them are. Many pink films also code their leftist politics in terms of socially acceptable deadpan comedy. For instance, Komizu Kazuo’s Female Inquisitor (1987), an absurdly brutal tale of man-hating, feministic professional torturers, features an eccentrically Marxist grandfather who laments postwar capitalism – yet, as is typical with the genre, explicit political references are kept to only a few sentences, which the audience is then invited to over-interpret. [↩]
- This is equally true of hentai anime – the cartoon woman (or, in gay anime, cartoon boy) reaches the pinnacle of her attractiveness when her cheeks blush. [↩]
- In Japan, of course, shame also controls men, though this is not sexual shame. [↩]
- The dangers of the compartmentalization (or “safety valve”) theory are clear. In his postwar tract Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre reasons that the Nazi is not a Nazi in spite of the fact that he is a good father, husband, etc., but because of it – i.e. after he compartmentalizes his psychosis, he can behave in an otherwise rational manner. [↩]
- The Marquis de Sade. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugenie de Franval and other writings . Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. (New York: Random House, 1966, p. 315). [↩]
- Though Sade’s defenses of incest, prostitution, and sodomy are perfectly logical, his defense of rape disappoints and does not logically follow: “[The rapist does] no more than place a little sooner the object he has abused in the very state in which she would soon have been put by marriage and love.” Ibid., p. 325. That said, his definition of rape is obviously not limited to women. [↩]
- Ibid, see pp. 322-23. “O charming sex, you will be free: as do men, you will enjoy all the pleasures of which Nature makes a duty…” [↩]
- Ibid., see page 319. Though a radical, proto-communistic idea, Sade was not alone in this view. Rousseau reaches the same conclusion about eliminating exclusivity from pleasures in Emile, which, unlike Sade’s work, was a bestseller in its day. [↩]
- Unlike Sato Hisayasu’s Muscle, whose multiple references to Pasolini form an interesting springboard for the film’s examination of homosexuality, performance, and artistic framing, the allusion to Warhol in The Bedroom seems an underdeveloped afterthought. Incidentally, both Muscle and The Bedroom are based on plays (by Yumemoto Shiro). [↩]
- A satirical essay could be written about pop culture’s use of the gas mask as a conventional signifier of “disturbing modernity.” The unbearably sophomoric Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) is particularly guilty here: its embarrassing dream sequence featuring a dancing man wearing a gas mask is clearly meant to be strikingly avant-garde. [↩]
- Jack Hunter’s fannish DVD liner notes only reinforce this sense of cliché. His praise of the pink film turning on empty catchphrases; he meaninglessly claims Sato is “dedicated to exposing the dark void at the heart of contemporary existence,” thus instantly disclosing the fact that he understands The Bedroom‘s content no better than the casual viewer. [↩]
- According to folklore, Garuda hungrily eats a snake every day until a Buddhist teaches him the virtue of abstinence. Presumably, the film¹s rapist can only abstain in death. [↩]
- As with many experimental pink films, plot and character motivations are left intentionally disjointed, unclear, and unspoken. [↩]