by Brian Bergen-Aurand
The concept of “obscenity” is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, “obscenity” disappears and there is a certain liberation. When that which one had wanted to see isn’t sufficiently revealed, however, the taboo remains, the feeling of “obscenity” stays, and an even greater “obscenity” comes into being. Pornographic films are thus a testing ground for “obscenity,” and the benefits of pornography are clear. Pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can “obscenity” be rendered essentially meaningless.
~Oshima Nagisa, from “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film,” 1976
When he was addressing the censoring of his film Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)–which could not be screened unmodified in Japan–Japanese director Oshima Nagisa commented on the parameters that make pornography possible and the limits that make creation possible.
Oshima stated that his intention in this film was to push the definition of pornography further than it has ever been pushed, precisely to challenge repressive tenets of the criminal code and the repressive actions of those bodies enforcing the criminal code in the form of censorship. The code made the film possible, provoked its production by delimiting the limitless possibilities of filmic composition. The rules gave Oshima the boundaries he needed to make the film. After Ai no corrida was completed and screened for officials, they charged him with violating Japan’s obscenity codes. He defeated prosecution on the obscenity charges, but the ban on the film was not lifted. According to Oshima, then this film was a success precisely because it was banned. As he has said, it is the perfect pornographic film because it cannot be shown. It is the parameters or limitations that give the work its meaning, the boundaries that outlined the space within which to move and push against. No unadulterated and unrestricted film–if such a film were truly possible–would not be a pornographic film.
Ai no Corrida is not a pink film (although Oshima maintained a direct, overt relation with pink films) and pink films are not pornography nor sexploitation in the standard sense. Yet, the function of limits and boundaries is at the foundation of both Oshima’s work an the film cycles of pink films. As the authors of The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and Its Contexts (edited by Abé Mark Nornes, 2014) explain,
The Japanese eroduction, known locally as the Pink Film (pinku eiga), stands out among its soft-core cousins in other parts of the world for its scale, intimate relationship to the mainstream industry, and its occasional ambition. Pink films are ultra-low budget, soft-core, 35mm narrative feature films. They emerged in the early 1960s and quickly became a significant portion of Japan’s annual output (between 100 and 700 films a year), showing triple bills in their own network of national theater chains. Their success was accomplished in the vacuum left by the crumbling studio system. Today, the industry is itself in its death throes, unable to compete with the more explicit home video market known as AV. Triple bills in air conditioned comfort can no longer compete with the privacy of home. Now is an opportune time to examine the history of the Pink Film, now on the cusp of its disappearance.
Pink films are soft-core, independent Japanese cinema. As Nornes explain in his introduction:
Pink Film is resolutely independent. It constitutes a parallel industry, with its own production companies, theater chains, actors and staff. Its sex is simulated; as Tsuda Ichiro’s photographs playfully reveal, the actors use maebari pads to cover their genitals. The films are resolutely narrative and, perhaps most interestingly, they are shot and exhibited on 35mm to this very day.
They are low budget films made to be seen in theaters. Therefore, any discussion of them involves considering closely their production, distribution, exhibition, and reception channels.
Perhaps more than any other film cycle, pink films deploy the boundaries that make them possible, explicitly rely upon the rules that govern what they can and cannot show. Since almost any narratival or compositional element is allowed (taboo or not)–barring the display of genitalia (mostly) and the direct hard-core sex (always)–the films rely on complex devices and elaborate structures of perversion and titillation to signify what always remains absent on screen.
As Linda Williams explains, these are “a particular type of sex film” which flourished in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s and is now fading from existence.While it used to be a training ground for young directors in Japan, it is now fading into that country’s film history, even while it still marks a significant stage in the odd prohibitions and permissions of Japanese cinema: prohibitions and permissions that make certain cinema possible.
What is fascinating about pink films, and what the authors of this book draw out is how film comes into being through limits and boundaries and how these limits and boundaries always leave their traces on screen. Not in genitalia but in maebari pads, not in explicit sex acts but in explicit stories and perverse soundscapes. Not on screen but in your brain.