219. THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

“Erogotoshitachi” yori Jinruigaku nyūmon

“What kind of fish is that? What is it doing there?

“Very strange…”–dialogue spoken over the opening credits of The Pornographers

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shôhei Imamura

FEATURING: Shôichi Ozawa, Sumiko Sakamoto, Keiko Sagawa, Masaomi Kondô

PLOT: Ogata makes illicit pornographic films to support his widowed landlady, who is also his lover, and her two teenage children. The widow believes her ex-husband was reincarnated as a carp she keeps in a fishbowl next to the bed and that he disapproves of the arrangement, but she cannot control herself. When she dies, she insists Ogata marry her daughter, but the pornographer has become impotent and obsessed with building a mechanical woman to be the perfect mate.

Still from The Pornographers (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shôhei Imamura apprenticed as an assistant director under Yasujirô Ozu, and although he was considered a major figure in the Japanese New Wave, his movies are little known outside his native land. In the West, The Pornographers is his best-known work.
  • The scenario was based on a 1963 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka (who also wrote the story on which Grave of the Fireflies was based).
  • The Pornographers was made by Nikkatsu studios, who ironically turned from producing art films to making pornography (“pink films”) soon after the scandal over ‘s “incomprehensible” Branded to Kill in 1967.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shôhei Imamura frames many of the shots in The Pornographers oddly, including a couple of bedroom scenes viewed through a fish tank; the idea is that we are watching the jealous carp as he spies on his human wife making love to Ogata. The weirdest of these shots, however, has to be a Haru’s deathbed scene, also shot through the carp cam—improbably, this time, from above, as if the fish is looking down from heaven on the spouse who is soon to join him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Carp ex-hubby; slow schoolgirl porn star; Ogata floats away

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A cavalcade of perversions flecked with short dream sequences and unannounced flashbacks, almost every scene in The Pornographers is eccentric, if not flatly surreal. The main character delivers a philosophical monologue as he walks though an orgy, the matron freaks out to the surf-rock soundtrack in her head, and a new wife strips to garter and stockings as she walks down the corridor to meet her mother-in-law for the first time. Although the story is based in realism, the film’s tone is melodramatic and dreamily erotic—but, ironically, hardly pornographic at all.


Original trailer for The Pornographers

COMMENTS: The key to understanding The Pornographers may be found in its Japanese subtitle, which didn’t make it into the title’s English translation. “Erogotoshitachi” yori Jinruigaku nyūmon can be translated as “’The Pornographers’: An Introduction to Anthropology” or “An Introduction to Anthropology Through the Pornographers.” Although The Pornographers is set in a specific time and place—Japan during the postwar economic boom—it is a work of anthropology, not sociology. Shôhei Imamura believes that pornography can be a lens that reveals something about our essential nature, a belief reflected in pornographer Ogata’s tearful epiphany, “human beings are made this way.”

Ogata’s business interests includes not only homemade porn movies, which he shoots guerrilla style in public parks and dingy warehouses, using four cameras at a time to save on duplication costs, but also dirty novels, aphrodisiacs, covert recordings of neighbors’ lovemaking sessions, and customized pimping services for wealthy clients. His private life shows equal erotic variety: he’s sleeping with his landlady Haru and lusting after her teenage daughter Keiko, while she and her son Koichi have an Oedipal relationship that’s nearly as scandalous as anything in the pornographer’s films. Voyeurism, incest, pseudo-pedophilia, panty-sniffing, prostitution, orgies, and exploitation of the mentally handicapped may all be part of Ogata’s daily routine, as are shakedowns by gangsters, harassment from the cops, and familial turf battles with a resentful and jealous Koichi. Ogata’s situation is exaggerated because of his vocation as procurer, but Imamura presents this messy jumble of erotic longings and selfish jostling for advantage as a bleak image of human existence.

Strangely, despite all the bad things Ogata does—seducing his landlady while peeping at her daughter, slapping Keiko around for calling him “filthy”—he remains a likable, and even tragic, character. Partly this is because he feels keen guilt, symbolized by the carp and the scar on Keiko’s leg, omens that put in an appearance when his lust is getting the best of him. Ogata prides himself on being “honest,” yet he has no problem presenting a forged doctor’s certificate to a client who has requested a virgin for the night. Nonetheless, while he lives a lie, pretending to sell medical products instead of smut, Ogata is “honest” in some sense; he supplies men with their real, unedited fantasies. He is loyal to his fellow pornographers, whom he always treats fairly, and to the makeshift family he supports—up until they die off, reject, or betray him.  His love for Haru appears to be genuine, and somehow isn’t sullied by his uncontrollable lust for her daughter, a fact that the widow accepts and acknowledges when she proposes he marry the girl after her death. Ogata can’t control his urges, or give up on his calling to provide other men with their sickest desires. He ends up spent, jaded, and impotent, disillusioned with humanity and with the messy reality of love; left alone to vainly pursue a perfect, mechanical eroticism, free from conflict and pain.

It’s certainly possible to view this film, as liberal critics instinctually do, as an attack on the sexual repressiveness of then-contemporary Japanese society. I think there is far more evidence, naturally, that The Pornographers is a criticism not of the post-war society’s repressiveness, but of its growing permissiveness. Democracy, capitalism and personal liberty were new concepts to the Japanese, whose pre-war culture had been built around values of obedience, duty and honor. In The Pornographers, Ogata embraces the new values, perversely, almost out of a sense of civic duty, advising Keiko to read books on democracy instead of pornography. Ogata throws out the magical carp, a symbol of authentic Japanese religion and culture, and it returns to haunt him, and presumably is responsible for his eventual karmic backlash. Throughout the film, pornography linked to democracy and capitalism. A fellow pornographer argues in favor of incest and orgies, suggesting that sexual perversion is a way to transcend the human condition and find true freedom. “You’re misinterpreting democracy,” the progressive Ogata insists. But pornographic literature of the type he purveys as “social welfare” is the first spur that leads Keiko to eventually whore herself; when he warns her not to fill her head with such filth (“that’s for stupid adults”), she distracts him from his lecture by offering to let him kiss her. These desires—these urges—may be natural to humans, but pursuing them freely leads to destruction of the family, and to the downfall of both Keiko and Ogata.

Pornography is one-sided: it promises perfect sexual fulfillment without having to negotiate the matter with another person. The pornographic fantasy image is always willing to perform. It never has a headache or a qualm. “A woman’s body strikes me as dirty,” muses Ogata’s partner in porn. “Doing it yourself is much better.” The pornographers may indeed offer freedom—freedom from repression, freedom from taboo—but is it worth the price? Adrift all alone in a shack with his “Dutch wife,” Ogata has “true freedom”; but, he has given up on all humanity, not just women. Given unfettered freedom to pursue their desires, The Pornographers asserts, men will withdraw from community. “Human beings were made this way,” weeps Ogata, in an anthropological mood. We are made of lust, greed, repressed desires, fetishes, and pain; the only way to escape is to excise our own humanity, mechanize the problem away, replace messy sex with perfect porn.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The large carp that presides over parts of Shohei Imamura’s ‘Pornographers’ is only one of many testaments to Mr. Imamura’s real and piquant eccentricity... [the film]  has a bizarrely matter-of-fact tone and a great many flashes of dark humor. It’s at least as engaging as it is obscure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (1987 revival)

“… in this dark, cunning, Fellini-esque black comedy, the unspoken ‘niceties’ of voyeurism, incest and rabid prostitution become, if anything, acts of desperate liberation.”–Tim Wong, The Lumiere Reader (DVD)

“Imamura has always been viewed as more experimental than his contemporaries, using surrealism, dream imagery, and flashbacks to lace his story with wit, wisdom, and occasional just plain weirdness.”-Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Pornographers (1966)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Pornographers (1966) – The Criterion Collection – Includes the trailer and an essay by J. Hoberman

Introduction to the film The Pornographers (1966) by Imamura Shōhei – Introductory lecture on The Pornographers by Japanese art historian Stephen Salel, with plenty of background and a summary of the confusing plot (with stills)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Pornographers – The original Japanese novel in a 1968 translation by Michael Gallagher

DVD INFO: The Pornographers (buy) was acquired and restored by the Criterion Collection in 2003. Unfortunately, this disc has none of the extra features Criterion is famous for; it includes only the original trailer and a booklet with an essay by J. Hoberman, making this the closest thing to a bare-bones release the revered label has ever put out.

(This movie was nominated for review by Ervin Knives, who “found it a kind of weird film… Definitely some Bunuel/Fellini in there.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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