Within the dearth of the sensorial realm, the cinematic image emerges as a force that elevates the level of immediate experience to the level of sublime. Indeed, the role of symbolic imagery in artistic production is to bridge the immediate sensory experience with the Idea, a circuitry that transforms the effects of attenuated light into an experience of the pleasure.
Such is the role of semi-pornographic films from Japan called Pinku eiga, a sub-genre of erotic films that shows transcendent nudity. The popularity of Pinku eiga in Japan began in the 1960s when small, independent production companies ventured into making low-budget films with sexual content. The goal was largely to attract the audience of young men who are keen on watching not just action-themed films, but also films with women’s bodies displayed at their most erotic exposition.
However, the dynamics of film production and motivations in making pink eiga changed throughout the history as one shall see in the exposition below of two pink films: Woman Hell Song directed by Mamoru Watanabe and Underwater Love directed by Shinji Imaoka.
Both films depict levels of titillations in which bodies of women became vectors of pleasurable conquest by men. Both of the films are intended for the male gaze. However, the treatment of such a gaze vary individually for each film, as each are produced in different material and economic conditions.
In Woman Hell Song, Watanabe has combined pictorial artistry with various genres samurai action, revenge drama, and period film. It was made palatable to young men in the early 1970s who were seeking to venture on mixed genre films with sexual content. The film offers a delectable selection of colored sections featuring erotic lovemaking as a disruptive layer to its general black and white color. But Woman Hell Song is more than just a condition of aesthetics intended for market exchange. It is an experimentation in symbolic overdetermination.
The film follows the misadventures of Okayo (Katori Tamaki), nicknamed as Benten, as she tries to find retribution for her ‘sinful’ deeds and her revenge. Renegade detective Genturo Hondo (Muto Shusaku) caught and sold her to gangsters led by Ginji the Viper (Yoshida Jun). Ginji rapes Okayo and took pleasure in expropriating the tattoo on her back, the Buddhist goddess of love only to be foiled by a mysterious hero figure, which became Okayo’s love interest.
The film’s central imagery is the Buddha as an overseer, the all-seeing eye, as well as the moral compass of the story. The Buddha is the symbolic image that ties together the pictorial economy of the film, making it the center of the haptic relay of relations, with Benten acting as the fulcrum that bridges the realm of the senses with the divine.
While Woman Hell Song is more inclined to draw more popular audiences by playing with several genre conventions, Underwater Love is much more modeled to fit the art market.
Dubbed a ‘pink musical’, Underwater Love also plays with different genre conventions and narrative elements but it borders on the bizarre and the uncanny. The use of offbeat and playful music and dancing alongside the oddities of Japanese folklore makes this film quite similar to Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole (1998) and The Wayward Cloud (2008).
Underwater Love tells the story of reconnection between Asuka (Sawa Masaki), a fish factory worker, and Testsuya Aoki (Yoshiro Umezawa), Asuka’s former classmate who drowned when they were young and now reincarnated as a humanoid river-dwelling creature called kappa, or the river-boy.
The extensive use of Japanese folklore juxtaposed in modern day Japan through the image of the kappa has made the film a subtle reflection of Japanese alienation as well as the fascination of Japanese culture with the Other, the unknown, the bizarre. The handheld camera style of Christopher Doyle has made the film quite reminiscent of home video pornography, mimicking the rawness of flesh-on-flesh tight-shots that seemed to be intentional more than being staged for market orientation.
The film is considerably made for the festival market. It is rather experimental, a reinvention of the pinku eiga beyond its usual conventions. The hybrid quality of musical and pink eiga genre appeals to those who are interested in the postmodern breakdown of the sensorial realm with the divine.
Underwater Love disengages with traditional narrative motivations through a sexual bypass. In particular, the use of plastic-based sex toys as important elements in the narrative such as the design of Kappa’s penis and the anal pearl, which closes the last story arc, has made the film weirder than other pink films. The negative pleasure-center of the film hijacks notions of conventional sexual relations, and all for its artistic rationale.
Overall, the two pink films are distanced apart by their own historico-material conditions. But what makes them definitively pink eiga is their approach to displaying the women’s body as center of its symbolic exchange between the sensorial and the divine.
Pink Films Vol. 5 & 6 is now available from Third Window Films.