Film

An Experimental Softcore Porn Series Is Revived in Japan

Last year, Nikkatsu rebooted its Roman Porno series with five new films, two of which are currently streaming on the platform Mubi.

Akihiko Shiota, Wet Woman in the Wind (2016) (all images courtesy Organic Publicity)

In 2012, one of the oldest and most esteemed film studios in the world, Nikkatsu, celebrated its 100th anniversary. Amidst the Japanese company’s more prestigious films, including academy award-nominated The Burmese Harp, Nikkatsu is probably best known for its groundbreaking softcore pornographic series, the Roman Porno, which helped save the company from financial collapse in the 1970s and continued through the late ’80s. Last year, in celebration of its vivid past, Nikkatsu rebooted the series with five new films, including Antiporno (2016) and Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), which are currently streaming on the platform Mubi.

According to Jasper Sharp’s book, Behind the Pink Curtain, Roman Porno saw the production of 850 films for Nikkatsu. The connection between the films was tenuous and the freedom given to directors was broad, with few limitations imposed beyond the country’s lax censorship code, which prohibited images of genitalia and little else. Filmmakers could do whatever they wanted as long as every 10 to 15 minutes there was a sex scene. However, in spite of liberal censorship rules, the cinema of Japan was conservative. The first onscreen kiss happened in 1946 and the most sexual content until the 1960s was from foreign imports like My Summer with Monika (1953) and Les Amants (1958).

Sion Sono, Antiporno (2016)

Roman pornos represented a liberation from convention — not only in the treatment of sex but also in form. Embraced by rising filmmakers, Roman pornos were prolific in their quirky use of zoom, kaleidoscope imagery, and advanced matte techniques. In line with other New Wave movements, editing not only quickened in pace but became increasingly expressionistic, blurring temporal and spatial lines and fracturing the line between dream and reality.

One of the series most popular films, Sex and Fury (1973), was directed by Norifumi Suzuki, who quickly became one of the most recognizable voices for his distinctly kinetic style. Sex and Fury opens with a young girl, Ochō Inoshika (Reiko Ike), witnessing the murder of her father. Thrust into Tokyo’s underbelly, she becomes a gambler and a thief, vowing to avenge her father’s death. The film plays with aspects of class and gender, as Ochō uses sex to navigate worlds that would be otherwise unavailable to her.

In one of the film’s most iconic sequences, Ochō, completely naked, strikes down man after man as fluffy snowflakes swirl around her. Shot in slow motion, a revolving camera keeps her in the center of the frame as she is attacked from the foreground and background. Between wide shots crowded by men with swords, close-ups of Reiko’s face, body, and movements showcase her dancerly movements.  

The final confrontation of Kill Bill Vol. 1, when Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman face off in the snow, is a direct homage to this sequence — even Ennio Morricone’s rock ‘n’ roll score seems to directly crib from the urgent pop-bounce of Japanese composer, Ichirô Araki. Suzuki’s film, as well as other Roman Pornos, similarly influenced Japanese cinema, especially in the controversial filmmaking of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono, two Japanese directors known for using violence and sex to challenge the status quo.

Sono, whose work was influenced by the original series, was one of the directors chosen by Nikkatsu to relaunch Roman Porno this year. He was given the vague theme of “art” and asked to follow the 15-minute sex rule. The result, Antiporno, opens with a painter being interviewed by two lesbian reporters, the scene turning to violence before a director yells cut and the scene begins again. By blurring the line between real and fantasy sex, Sono’s filmmaking questions the artistic and moral value of pornography, while also revealing the labor that goes into the construction of those images.

Sion Sono, Antiporno (2016)

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, made under the theme of ‘battle,’ is a more direct homage to the original series, playing off as a literal battle of the sexes. However, like Antiporno, rape is featured uncritically. While the films are framed as fantasy, they still largely reflect a man’s point of view in regards to desire, gender, and violence. No woman filmmaker has ever contributed to the Roman Porno series, and no woman filmmaker was asked to contribute to its relaunch.

In spite of the ever-growing presence of pornography in our lives, there remains a void in the critical treatment of sex in cinema. The relaunch of Roman Porno revives an adventurous aesthetic examination of sexuality, but still revels in misplaced nostalgia. The representation of women and female desire is still lacking in spite of the fact that last year, Nikkatsu representatives claimed the series revival was focused on the female perspective. For future entries, they plan on hiring women as writers and directors, hopefully shifting the series ideologically towards the future.

Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016) and Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (2016) are currently streaming on the Mubi.

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