Yet this year’s fantasy “Underwater Love,” by veteran pink director Shinji Imaoka, is probably the first film within this fading genre to interweave song and dance sequences — as in a full-blown musical — into the narrative.
Following a press screening last week at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, the director admitted that such a unique approach, along with the other quirks in the film, which features a mythical kappa creature, as characterized by a tortoise shell and beak, in the male lead, will likely make it a bit challenging for filmgoers to embrace.
“I hope that audiences will perhaps find something charming about the film,” said Imaoka, “or that they will find something in a particular scene that they can enjoy.”
Co-written by Imaoka, the German-Japan co-production begins with Asuka (Masaki Sawa) and her soon-to-be husband planning their wedding while working together at a fish-processing factory. However, the arrival of Aoki (Yoshiro Umezawa), an old classmate of Asuka who following his death has come back to life as cucumber-chomping kappa, complicates their relationship and, perhaps more crucially, the action between the sheets.
The song-and-dance numbers that form segues to many of the scenes are performed to the music of French-German duo Stereo Total, whose contributions came about following a suggestion from co-producer Stephan Holl. The vocals are sung in non-native Japanese, a facet that was not initially requested by Imaoka.
“They were just supposed to provide the music that our own singers would put in their voices,” said Imaoka. “But we thought it would be interesting to use it in that way, and it kind of signifies to the audience that there’s a foreign influence in the project.”Filmed in just a week by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film initially had a different concept. “When we conceived the story it involved no kappa,” said Imaoka. “It was actually a school drama, involving a female teacher and a male student who are secretly married.”
Such a scandalous theme would have fit nicely within the legacy of the pink film genre, which dates back to the 1960s. These short films (usually running for 60 minutes) are made by small companies and differ from conventional porn flicks in that the story lines are generally more broadly developed. Satoru Kobayashi’s “Flesh Market” (Nikutai Ichiba), a tale of bondage and torture released in 1962, is widely considered to be the first pink film.
Despite its quick-and-dirty nature, the genre is not looked down upon by mainstream Japanese cinema. Aspiring directors, who are unable to break into one of the major studios, will often look to pink eiga for their start. “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).
International audiences, too, have historically shown an interest in pink productions. For its part, “Underwater Love” screened in April at the 23rd Tribeca Film Festival and last week at 46th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is scheduled to appear at festivals in Italy, Canada, and Korea over the next month.
Imaoka first started in the industry in 1990 as an assistant director at Kobayashi’s Shinshi Productions. “Waiting for the Comet” (1995) was his first feature. Sine then, the annual pink awards, presided over by Yoshiyuki Hayashida, founder of the pink-film publication PG have recognized five of his pink pics, including first-place winners “Lunch Box” (1999) and “Frog Song” (2005).
Yet the industry is at a crossroads. Despite the reopening of the Ueno Okura Theater in Tokyo’s Taito Ward last year, the emergence of home video over the last 30 years has caused audiences to dwindle. Whereas the Ueno area was once home to eight pink plexes four decades ago, today only the Okura remains.
Imaoka hopes that the pink genre will continue. “I think it is probably connected to the way of the world,” the director said. “If pink films are no longer necessary, then they will start to fade. But maybe there will be a day when pink films will be thought to be necessary again and there will be a resurgence. My take is that I will simply go with the flow.”
“Underwater Love” will be released domestically in October.