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Reporn: Ueno Okura Theater raises new ‘pink’ curtain

Actresses Azusa Sakai and Myu on the stage of the Ueno Okura Theater
Actresses Azusa Sakai (left) and Myu on the stage of the Ueno Okura Theater
TOKYO (TR) – Given its unseemly reputation, a porn theater boasting of high-quality interiors and modern fixtures is equally as improbable as 15 minutes passing on the screen without bare flesh hitting the tatami.

Yet that is the case following last month’s opening of the replacement to the rundown, all-night Ueno Okura Theater, which enjoyed a near half-century period as Japan’s most highly regarded home for pinku eiga, or pink films, a form of soft-core pornography.

Located near Ueno Park in Taito Ward, a dozen yards from the original, the three-screen theater offers 40-inch promo monitors in the lobbies, brightly lit hallways and plush seats — all an attempt to attract younger clientele, and more women.

During its inaugural month, a special screening day for “ladies only” was held. Further, luminaries in the industry were on hand at various talk events to discuss the current status of the pink film industry and the significance of the new venue.

Shinji Kubo, a legendary actor and founder of a training academy for actors and directors to learn the tools of the trade, sees management’s stated intention of exposing a new audience to a genuine pink theater experience as a huge positive.

Actress Myu at signing event
Actress Myu at signing event
“Young people these days do not know what it was like for the older generation of performers when they were young,” said the veteran of 800 films, standing outside the theater’s lobby following one speaking engagement that featured six acclaimed actresses (Myu, for example, at left), both past and present. “This is something of a revival.”

Actor-turned-director Yutaka Ikejima, outfitted in an appropriately light red jacket, explained that the rebirth shows that long-time pink producer Okura Eiga, the theater’s operator, is prepared to stand in the face of the continuing decline in the industry.

“It is a form of commitment that means that they will do their utmost to ensure that the pink genre survives,” said the director, who played leading roles in roughly 500 films in the 1980s.

Pinku eiga began two decades before Ikejima’s acting heyday. Extending for roughly one hour, the films are produced by small companies, and unlike conventional porn flicks they contain stories that are somewhat substantial.

Director Satoru Kobayashi’s impassioned torture flick “Nikutai no Ichiba (Flesh Market),” generally considered the first pink picture, was screened at the Okura during the year of its release, 1962, which was 11 years after the theater originally opened under the Toei theater chain. It changed over to become an entirely pink venue by the early 1970s.

Okura Eiga continually supplied the theater with the latest films, which were screened under the motto “everyday and all night” — a key to developing its loyal fan base.

Despite its quick-and-dirty nature, the genre is not looked down upon by mainstream Japanese cinema. Aspiring directors, unable to break into one of the major studios, will often enter pink eiga. Koji Wakamatsu (“The Pink Godfather”), whose period war film “Caterpillar” opened last month, got his
start with pink pictures.

Shinji Kubo in front of the Ueno Okura Theater
Shinji Kubo in front of the Ueno Okura Theater
At one time, the Ueno area had eight adult theaters. But that number slowly fell as adult videos, viewable at home, appeared in the 1980s and eroded the pink market.

In recent years, the decrepit nature of the original Okura was readily apparent. The uneven floors were cracked and patched, and the concrete walls had been left raw and only covered with tattered posters announcing upcoming features.

Though a younger audience is the goal, aging regulars have not been forgotten in the new pink palace. Guide dogs are allowed entry and special headphones for the hearing impaired, elevators and a handicapped seating space are available.

Any fears that patrons would not take kindly to the new digs can be put to rest. A recent visit revealed a drag queen sitting, legs crossed and feet shod in red pumps, in the lounge smoking a cigarette, and standing just inside the doors of the theater were two heavy-set gentlemen, embraced and rubbing one another’s privates as a film ran on the screen above.

General manager Hidekazu Saito was only slightly nostalgic upon the closing of the original venue. Instead he chose to focus forward. “It’s been a nice run,” he said. “But now it’s important that we look into the future and begin a new era.”