Each year the Nippon Connection film festival runs a retrospective programme alongside its collection of recent indie and mainstream hits. The subject for this year’s strand is Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno. Heading into the 1970s, Japanese cinema was in crisis mode as TV poached cinema audiences who largely stayed away from the successful genres of the 1960s including the previously popular youth, action, and yakuza movies which had been entertaining them for close to 20 years. Daiei, one of the larger studios known for glossy, big budget prestige fare alongside some lower budget genre offerings went bust in 1971, Shochiku kept up its steady stream of melodramas, but Nikkatsu found another solution. Taking inspiration from the “pink film” – a brand of soft core, mainstream pornography shown in specialised cinemas and made to exacting production standards, they created “Roman Porno” which made sex its selling point, but put big studio resources behind it, bringing in better actors and innovative directors to lend an air of legitimacy to its purely populist ethos.
Over 40 years later, Nikkatsu Roman Porno has been rebooted for the modern era and two of these more recent films – Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines, and Akihito Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind will also be screening in the festival’s Nippon Cinema strand. The retrospective offers the opportunity to see some of the original 1970s offerings curated by pink film expert Jasper Sharp who will also be in attendance to present some of the films as well as a lecture on the history of Roman Porno and Japanese erotic cinema.
All the films on offer are directed by one of two directors each of whom is closely associated with the Roman Porno movement:
Tatsumi Kumashiro’s career took a while to get going – in fact he made his feature debut at 41 with A Thirsty Life (AKA Front Row Life) – the story of a stripper and her daughter who also wants to strut her stuff on the stage. Sadly, although the film attained some critical success, it flopped at the box office. Kumashiro retreated into television before making a return to the cinema when Nikkatsu launched its Roman Porno line. In contrast with Tanaka, Kumashiro leant towards gritty realism and stylistic experimentation which brought him critical acclaim even from overseas, mainstream critics.
Ecstacy of the Black Rose is a more comedic effort than most of Kumashiro’s output and takes an ironic look at the genre as a put upon director gets fed up when his leading actress falls pregnant and becomes obsessed with finding a woman whose moans he overheard at the dentist’s.
Following Desire received a Kinema Junpo award for best screenplay as well as the best actress prize for Hiroko Isayama who plays a stripper intent on taking down her rival for the top spot!
Kumashiro’s Tamanoi Street of Joy takes place on the last day of legal prostitution in 1958 and follows the girls as they mark the occasion in their own particular ways.
Further proving Kumashiro’s critical stature, Twisted Path of Love was among Kinema Junpo’s 1999 list of the greatest Japanese films of the 20th century. The story of a young man who returns to his hometown but attempts to shed his identity, burning a hole in the conventional village life through sex and violence, Twisted Path of Love also displays Kumashiro’s interesting use of common censorship techniques for artistic effect.
Often regarded as Kumashiro’s masterpiece, The Woman with the Red Hair picked up a Kinema Junpo best actress award for Junko Miyashita, as well as ranking fourth in their annual best of the year list. The story centres on construction worker Kozo who, along with friend Takao, rapes his boss’ daughter who subsequently becomes pregnant. While she asks Takao to marry her, Kozo embarks on an affair with the mysterious red-haired woman.
Another of Kumashiro’s most well-regarded Roman Porno, The World of the Geisha takes place in a geisha house in 1918 and examines the various tensions which exist between the women themselves and their customers who have come to the house to escape external political concerns. The film again demonstrates Kumashiro’s tendency to ironic commentary as he tampers with intertitles to make a point about censorship.
Though Tanaka was often overshadowed by Kumashiro and another director, Chusei Sone, he is now regarded by some as the finest of Roman Porno filmmakers. Interestingly enough, Tanaka studied French literature at university but later developed in interest in poetry which eventually led him into filmmaking as a way of expressing his rich visual world. After working as a production assistant on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Tanaka applied to Nikkatsu and was accepted onto the directing track where he worked with such legendary figures as Seijun Suzuki and Shohei Imamura. Where Kumashiro’s films lean towards realism, Tanaka’s are often surreal and known for their poetic qualities and unusual use of colour.
Night of the Felines provides the inspiration for Kazuya Shirashi’s reboot Dawn of the Felines and follows the comical adventures of three prostitutes.
Stroller in the Attic is among the best known in the Roman Porno canon and adapts an Edogawa Rampo short story about a ’20s boarding house filled with eccentric guests.
Inspired by the same real life case as In the Realm of the Senses, Noburu Tanaka’s Sada and Kichi takes a more lurid look at the strange case of Abe Sada who strangled her lover after a brief affair and then cut off his genitals to wear as a kind of talisman.
You can get more information on all the films via Nippon Connection’s official website, but tickets for this strand are only available directly from the Deutsches Filmmuseum. Behind the Pink Curtain author and pink film/Roman Porno expert Jasper Sharp will also be giving a lecture on the genre on Friday 26th May at 3pm at Mousonturm Studio 1 (admission free!).
Nippon Connection 2017 takes place from May 23 – 28, 2017 in Frankfurt, Germany. You can find the full details for all the films, screening times and ticket links on the festival’s official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news via the Nippon Connection Facebook Page, Twitter account, Instagram channel and blog.