‘It’s a return!’ – Nikkatsu resurrects ‘roman porno’

By on March 28, 2010 under Shibuya,Society

From the Back, From the Front (2010)

‘From the Back, From the Front’ (2010)

TOKYO (TR) – The promotional flyer says it all: “This is not a remake — it’s a return!”

Four decades ago, struggling studio Nikkatsu shifted its focus from action and gangster films to a form of soft pornography termed “roman porno” (an amalgamation of romance and pornography), a breakthrough genre for a major studio that was characterized by relatively substantial storylines blended with copious nude scenes.

“Danchizuma: Hirusagari no Joji” (Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair), released in 1971, detailed the erotic extramarital activities of a married woman residing in one of Japan’s infamously bland suburban block-housing units.

“At that time society regarded it as a dirty film,” said the female lead, Kazuko Shirakawa, 62, at a speaking engagement at theater Eurospace in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in February. “It was not ordinary for a woman to be seen naked. The overall content was a bit shocking.”

Yet the general public applauded and the studio had a hit on its hands, with Shirakawa on her way to reaching certifiable “queen” status. “Apartment Wife” went on to generate 20 sequels, and by the end of the genre’s run 17 years later roman porno features numbered 1,133.

Nikkatsu, Japan’s longest-running studio, is now making a comeback with totally new takes on roman porno classics under the moniker “Roman Porno Returns” — a revitalization of this cultural icon that launched the careers of numerous members within the conventional film industry.

Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair (1971) © Nikkatsu

Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair (1971)

The reworked versions of both “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair” and “Ushiro kara Mae kara” (From the Back, From the Front), the original of which dates to 1980, screened for two weeks at Eurospace this month and in February. The pair is now playing in Sapporo and will move to Osaka and Fukuoka next month. Satellite provider Sky PerfecTV! currently offers “From the Back, From the Front” on a pay-per-view basis.

“At first I was shocked about the revival because these films represented my youth,” said Shirakawa. “But after realizing that one of the original directors was involved I had total confidence. I really like the revival version, even though on the surface it seems like nothing special. After watching it I felt a special melancholy and passion.”

That director is 58-year-old Shun Nakahara, who helmed the 75-minute reincarnation of “Apartment Wife,” the story of Sayaka (Sakiko Takao), a lonely housewife, and her encounters with a water-purifier salesman (Masaki Miura).

Shirakawa, who appears in a cameo role, feels that the revival gently conveys the simple life of this plain housewife, a woman who “has something inside her uterus that is screaming to get out.”

“The director beautifully describes this feeling welling inside her through symbolism,” she said, “such as with the scenes showing running tap water and boiling pasta noodles.”

Nikkatsu sees the films as opportunities for new film talent. Over the last few years, a peek at Japan’s year-end top-ten box office lists will find films produced by television networks, heavily staffed with their own production crews, topping the charts, a trend that many in the industry believe is shutting out new directors. “It is hard for young talent to make a debut,” said Yoshinori Chiba, a producer of the new films. “We are hoping that the ‘Returns’ series will bring opportunities to young directors to break through this closed environment.”

The rebirth of “From the Back, From the Front” is a rather nasty comedy directed by fresh face Shoichiro Masumoto and finds sultry and shapely taxi driver Momoko (Tomomi Miyauchi, a former model and member of the Miniskirt Police pop group) offering passengers far more than a simple ride when they get in her back seat.

Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair (2010) © Roman Porno Returns Film Partners

Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair (2010)

Shirakawa’s roots in the trade go back to the 1960s, when she was performing in pinku eiga, or pink films, a similar form that still exists today and utilized a selection of tiny, independently run companies to produce quick-and-dirty erotic productions.

With little in the way of a support staff, Shirakawa said that a pink actress was relegated to doing such menial tasks as fixing her own hair or purchasing a kimono at a pawn shop to fit a particular role. “I really learned how to read the script because there was nobody there to assist me,” she said. “I became a self-made person.”

By contrast, Nikkatsu’s roman porno films were able to offer larger budgets and, as a result, a better look and image quality. The films, which usually ran for around 60 minutes, also had access to the studio’s chain of theaters for screenings.

Shirakawa was subsequently poached by Nikkatsu, a move that she felt was a step up. “When I was in pink films, I had to hide my job and could not make aspects of it public,” she said. “On the cover of the scripts I had to write something like ‘Fuji TV’ to conceal the contents. However, at Nikkatsu I felt as if I were in Hollywood.”

Nakahara, who fondly recalls seeing Shirakawa perform passion-charged, “uncensored” roles in stage plays at various theaters in Tokyo’s Shimbashi, Shibuya and Shinjuku districts, said that he was initially reluctant to join Nikkatsu because the studio had “stolen” his favorite pink actress, whom he also frequently caught on pink screens when he was a student. “But once I saw a roman porno film I got an impression of a new wave of American cinema,” said the director, who made his debut in 1982 with “Okasare Shigan” (Candidate for Seduction).

Shun Nakahara at Eurospace in Shibuya

Shun Nakahara at Eurospace in Shibuya

At the time of the roman porno incarnation, Nikkatsu was on the verge of bankruptcy as the emergence of television threatened the entire film industry. In Japan’s “Golden Era” of cinema in the ’50s and ’60s the number of screens had ballooned to over 7,000, but by 1970 only 3,000 were in operation.“The roman porno direction was taken to rebuild the company,” said Nikkatsu’s Chiba.

Yet unlike Shirakawa’s recollection that “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair” was shocking for its content, major studios in Japan had previously dabbled in smutty offerings. Along with Toei, which in the 1960s experimented with various torture and erotic-grotesque films, Nikkatsu had released its share of non-puritanical fare, such as director Seijun Suzuki’s “Nikutai no Mon” (Gate of Flesh) from 1964.

Similar to the stated intention of the ‘Returns’ versions, the roman porno originals provided a testing ground for young talent to develop their craft — that is, as long as the requisite skin-scene-every-ten-minutes quota was met. “It had the image of something new, something different,” said Nakahara. “All of the directors were competing to come up with something different. If one director did one thing, another would try something else.”

The styles went far beyond the “Apartment Wife” series and ranged from hardcore SM themes, such as 1974’s “Hana to Hebi” (Flower and Snake), featuring sadomasochistic starlet Naomi Tani, to truly romantic stories, like the very soft “Love Letter” (1981), which was billed as being appropriate even for ladies to view.

Roman Porno Returns ad © Roman Porno Returns Film Partners

Roman Porno Returns ad

The “Roman Porno Returns” Web page indicates that students were always looking forward to seeing the standard release of two new movies every other week, and the competition between directors (mentioned by Nakahara) resulted in quality productions.

As shown by the lead character in the “Apartment Wife” films, the output was largely intended to be genuinely emotion-filled — a contrast to typical snuff flicks that primarily focused on naked bodies and pounding flesh. “Assessments of the works considered them to be regular film pieces,” said Yoshinori.

“Roman porno was not trying to simply show sex. It also wanted to bring adult themes out into the open,” said Jasper Sharp, author of the book “Behind the Pink Curtain” (2008), a look at the history of sex in Japanese cinema.

Critical acclaim was not unusual. For 1972, film trade magazine Kinema Junpo ranked “Ichijo Sayuri: Nureta Yokujo” (Ichijo’s Wet Lust) eighth in its annual top-ten list and included it in 1999 as one of the top-100 Japanese films of the century. That film’s female lead, Hiroko Hisayama, was given Best Actress that year by that same publication for her role as a rookie stripper.

The high profile of roman porno also stirred up controversy. One of the most scandalous of the films was the original “From the Back, From the Front,” starring singer Yoko Hatakenaka, a one-time idol whose musical debut “Love Letter from Canada” propelled her to a spot in public broadcaster NHK’s year-end “Red and White Song Contest” in 1978. A song titled “From the Back, From the Front” was released two years later, around the same time as her roman porno debut in “Ai no Hakujitsumu” (Daydream Love), a controversial transition that propelled that single and subsequently the film, released in December, to hit levels.

Roman porno finally died out in the ’80s, largely due to the emergence of adult video, whereby fans were able to get their fill of erotica at home. Nikkatsu hit upon tough times again in 1993, when it filed for structural reorganization. The studio, originally founded in 1912, has since been bought and sold by various firms and is now jointly owned by SKY PerfecTV! and the Nippon Television Network. In true Nikkatsu fashion of never staying sedentary, the studio last year launched a special imprint specializing in gore films, Sushi Typhoon, which producer Chiba is heading.

'From the Back, From the Front' (1980) © Nikkatsu

From the Back, From the Front (1980)

As far as a legacy, critics believe that the original roman porno works built the foundation for much of today’s Japanese cinema. “Time Escapade: 5 Seconds Before Climax” (1986) is included in the resume of director Yojiro Takita, who won a best foreign-language Oscar in 2009 for “Okuribito” (Departures). Nakahara went on to make the critically acclaimed mainstream feature “Sakura no Sono” (Cherry Blossom Garden), a 1990 adaptation of a manga set in a high school written by Akimi Yoshida that has been remade into theatrical productions.

The originals are not entirely dead. Film festivals around the world, especially in France, routinely slot the productions into their lineups. Further, revival theaters in Tokyo often have screenings. Cinema Vera in Shibuya is now featuring numerous works by directors such as the acclaimed Noburo Tanaka, including 1977’s SM-themed “Hakkinbon Bijin Ranbu Yori: Semeru!” (Beauty’s Exotic Dance – Torture!) — the third in a trilogy and starring roman porno’s second queen, Junko Miyashita.

At present, Nikkatsu does not have plans to continue the revival series. But the positive response from film-goers — many of whom have been female — has been overwhelming. The studio is currently contemplating further releases.

“Perhaps people are fed up with the information on sex that is chaotically floating around the world,” said Nikkatsu’s Chiba about the renewed interest. “We hope that ‘Returns’ will establish itself as a new genre that will assimilate itself into the present era.”

Note: Both “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair” and “From the Back, From the Front” will screen at Marion Cinema in Sapporo until Apr. 2 and move on to Osaka and Fukuoka later that month.

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Written by on March 28, 2010. Filed under Shibuya,Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry.

20 Responses to ‘It’s a return!’ – Nikkatsu resurrects ‘roman porno’

  1. thedudeabides Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, this is Brett Bull’s article from Metropolis re-printed verbatim.

    The polite thing to do would be to indicate the source & author, and not pass it off as original material… you constantly indicate the source when it’s a Japanese language weekly; I’d say the same should apply here.

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