Nikkatsu Roman Porno book and DVD box set December release France
Remarks on Elephant’s Roman Porno 10 dvd set
The first titles produced by Nikkatsu for their new Roman Porno division were released in 1971. As the 96 page booklet and various video bonuses in the box set emphasize, it was because of the studio’s economic woes that directors such as Tatsumi Kumashiro, Masaru Konuma, Noboru Tanaka, Chusei Sone became part of the film scene in Japan, contributing to what was a seismic cultural shift during the Showa era. Yet critical discussion of titles such as ‘Wife to be Sacrificed’, ‘The Woman with Red Hair’, ‘Night of the Felines’ would take years before making its way into journals that were markers for cinephiles. Prior to this, their initial overseas reception would be found in ‘B movie culture’, in fanzines such as ‘Asian Trash Cinema’. In the nineties, Thomas Weisser would release a ‘Japan Sex Film’ encyclopedia which offered a tentative synopsis and rating of films produced by Nikkatsu, as well as countless independent pinku titles.
There was next to no discussion of them in France. Even the seminal magazine HK Extreme Orient, released in the nineties and which focused on genre cinema across Asia, including Anime and Yakuza Eiga from Japan, either failed to see the role they played in Japanese cinema history, or more simply, did not have access to them. And while I was familiar with the Weisser book, it was only in Japan, before the advent of downloads, that I was able not only to see the films but have a better measure of their portrait of the country during the seventies and eighties.
Respected film scholars such as Tadao Sato and more significantly Shigehiko Hasumi, both translated in French (Sato’s two-volume history of Japanese Cinema was published by the Centre Georges Pompidou; Hasumi’s book on Yasujiro Ozu, by Cahiers du Cinema) wrote on Roman Porno, and Hasumi programmed some of the films in international festivals. But their ‘breakout’ in France was in events devoted to ‘strange’ cinema, the bizarre, the deviant, the eccentric.
In the first decade of the 21st century, a French dvd publisher, Zootrope films, would release six titles, three two-disc sets by Kumashiro, Konuma and Tanaka in their ‘Culte Underground’ collection. These were films from Japan’s oldest movie studio… Another respected company, Wildside, also put out sporadic titles that did not attempt to give a sense of the chronology but rather focused again on the sensational. How and when could another discussion of those films take place?
As I explain in the book accompanying the Elephant box set, a book on actress Naomi Tani was published in Japan in 2004, followed by a number of Roman Porno retrospectives appearing in Tokyo art house movies theaters, many of which have since disappeared. Then a dvd publisher, Geneon, did something extraordinary: they released 100 Roman Porno titles, selected from the more than 1000 RP films produced by the studio. Tokyo women made for the larger percentage of the audience, and began talking about the films from another perspective. Several other books would be published in Japan, examining the history and the filmmakers. In 2005 or 2006, Cahiers du Cinema provided me a column space on their website at the time, in which I wrote about the early signs of something amiss in Japan’s production system, and the films that would take over movie theaters; I was also able to explore genres which had depicted another facet of the country, including Roman Porno. Between 2007 and 2009, my historical texts and interviews with RP filmmakers appeared on the website, and a selection is included in ‘Une autre histoire du corps au Japon’, the book included in the box set.
With the turn of the decade, that moment of interest in Japan passed. I would eventually raise the issue with my colleague Victor Lopez, as to whether this could happen in France. La Cinematheque Française had organized a stunning Koji Wakamatsu retrospective, and another for the 100 years of Nikkatsu, in which some RP titles were included.
In 2016, Nikkatsu celebrated the 45th anniversary of the genre by asking key contemporary directors from Japan to shoot their own Roman Porno in similar conditions as those of the classics. I interviewed them for eastasia.fr and from that moment the possibility of concept took form. I had asked Hideo Nakata, Sono Sion, Isao Yukisawa, Akihiko Shiota and Kazuya Shiraishi to select their favorite Roman director and if possible the first Roman Porno film they had seen. This led to the 5 reboots, and a selection of five classics. And two and a half years of work with Victor Lopez to produce a boxset with the collaboration of Nikkatsu.
The studio head, after the Reboot release, lamented not having included a woman filmmaker in the project… which would have benefited the endeavor. Women filmmakers are working in the genre with independent companies, though the number of pinku films has been decreasing. On the upside, a new generation of female scholars in Japan has begun writing on Roman Porno.
Which leads us to hope that the discussion of those ten films manages to embrace a further practice of inclusion, beyond tourists and specialists.
The text above mentions that other French dvd publishers had released roman porno prior to this particular box set. It should be noted that nothing on the scale of it has ever been released outside Japan. Which raises the issue of who gets to look and think on such films, and beyond widening audience reception, what other readings can be achieved from elsewhere and other orientations. The set has a particularly interesting merit of offering an array of Showa body archetypes, from Naomi Tani’s soft tofu-like, plump fertility (Black Rose Acension), a body which lends itself to rope memory, while Lady Karuizawa’s Miwa Takada and Angels Guts Red Porno’s Jun Izumi introduce more contemporary figures, leaner, taller, immediately less sedentary than Tani. Those bodies tell the story of post-war women in Japan. A good starting point for a discussion not led exclusively by male writers.
l’avant scene cinema