..

THE PORNOGRAPHERS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Shoichi Ozawa, Sumiko Sakamoto, Masomi Kondo, Keiko Sagawa
Director: Shohei Imamura
Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion (Home Vision Entertainment)
Features: Trailer
Length: 127 minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2003

"Those policemen.  They've nothing better to do than worry about sex."

Film ***

Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is known for creating films of a provocative nature.  Early in his career, he had served as an assistant to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu before making his own directorial debut in 1958.  But whereas Ozu was a classical master of the minimalist style of filmmaking, Imamura's style might reasonably be compared to the trippy works of an imaginary distant Asian cousin of David Lynch.  Imamura, in his own right, quickly developed a reputation as one of the most creative, if idiosyncratic, filmmakers in Japan's post-war era.

The Pornographers (Jinruigako Nyumon or The Amorists) was Imamura's first film for his new production company.  Based on Akiyuki Nozaka's best-selling novel, this 1966 film was an abstract but wryly amusing tale about a common man, Subu Ogata, with an uncommon profession.

Subu (Ozawa), it turns out, is a maker of pornographic films.  Even as he acknowledges the immoral (not to mention illegal) implications of his trade, he still proclaims that he provides a fundamental need to the carnal and base desires of all Japanese men.  And if he can make a little money on the side, is there anything truly wrong with that?  Sure, Subu has a few amusing run-ins with law enforcement and the mob (usually complete with bumps and bruises, too) yet he always bounces back on his feet.

Subu lives with what initially appears to be a normal Japanese family which soon reveals itself as anything but.  Initially a boarder in the house, he has since married the landlady Haru (Sakamoto), who keeps a large carp in a fish tank in their bedroom.  She insists that the fish is the reincarnation of her former dead husband and firmly believes that he is displeased that she has not remained a widow.  Haru has two children, a son and a daughter.  However, her college-aged son Koichi (Kondo) isn't terribly interested in attending college and appears to have Oedipal issues of his own, while her teen-age daughter Keiko (Sagawa) has Lolita-like aspirations for Subu.  And while no one is very pleased with Subu's secret profession when they discover the truth, it doesn't prevent them from taking his money.

Money makes the world go round, after all.  In The Pornographers, it is the source of a recurring joke for Subu.  Always a little short of cash, he is constantly hit on for monetary support by others who assume him to be filthy-rich from his pornographic endeavors.  The mob steals his films.  His step-son steals his money.  His step-daughter sabotages his works.  His partner even runs off with the equipment.  Yet throughout, Subu maintains an upbeat outlook.  He is like a little man who doesn't know when he's beat but always pops back up for more.

It all makes for a discreetly funny film.  One wonders if Stanley Kubrick, in his own earlier Lolita, might not have aimed for a similar effect had the American censors allowed it at the time.  The Pornographers, fortunately, doesn't get too carried away in pushing the envelope.  The audience never actually sees blatant nudity or the porn footage itself, which is probably a good thing, as it allows us to focus on the humor of Subu's plight rather than the lurid nature of his profession.

Despite its provocative title, The Pornographers is really a black comedy.  It is really about the misadventures of Subu and his efforts to find happiness and a niche for himself.  The Pornographers is rather avant-garde as well, reflecting sentiments which may have been hush-hush in the 1960's but which today run rampant throughout society.  While the film's themes are somewhat racy, the execution is relatively tame by today's standards and has an occasional self-mocking tone.  In fact, there is even a supernatural undercurrent in the film, symbolized through widow's dead husband, whether as the mysteriously vanishing-reappearing carp or as a determined spirit resistant to exorcism from the widow's home.  Subu himself appears somewhat ghostly and possessed in a number of scenes in which, guilt-ridden, he eerily drapes himself with a cloth and rigorously rubs his head.

Imamura chose to frame his story in an interesting manner, almost as though it were a film-within-a-film.  His cinematography further emphasizes the voyeuristic aspect of The Pornographers.  Many shots are constructed in such a manner that the audience views scenes under window sills, across metal gratings or jail bars, through fish tanks and glass panes, and so on.  The audience is always peering in on the action in some fashion (when one thinks about it, all motion pictures are voyeuristic in some sense).

Many sequences, such as those involving an insane woman or an orgy, have a weird, other-worldly quality to them.  My favorite scene involves a surreal moment in which the son introduces his common-law wife as she slowly walks across a long, dark hallway, removing her garments down to her black lingerie.  Overhead, the lights fade in and out, and the camera slowly tilts so that when she finally arrives, the camera is actually peering up at her face from a perpendicular angle, as though staring up from the floor.  It is weird, it is unexpected, and it is but one of many numerous shots which keep the film lively.  Imamura even surprises on a few occasions with the introduction of catchy pop music into his film.  Matched with the quirky visuals, it makes for many Fellini-esque moments indeed!

By the mid-1960's, Japanese cinema was undergoing remarkable changes.  Influenced by world cinema, particularly the French New Wave (as in Hiroshima Mon Amour), Japanese films were becoming more contemporary and more daring in nature.  Innovative films such as Hiroshi Teshiqahara's Woman of the Dunes or Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan were appearing more regularly.  Shohei Imamura was near the forefront of this fresh burst of originality.  His name may not be as recognizable in western cultures as some of his contemporaries, but his films were at the cutting edge for their time (yet always remained rooted in Japanese culture and social mores).  The Pornographers is one of Imamura's earlier works, but it is certainly one of his most engaging films and represents the director near the height of his creativity.

Video *** 1/2

The Pornographers is presented in a black & white, anamorphic widescreen format.  The image is remarkably crisp and sharp, devoid of dust or debris.  While the frame wobbles slightly on a few occasions (apparently around reel changes), it is otherwise quite stable.  Contrast levels are excellent with deep blacks and sparkly whites, and there is a strong sense of detail in the images.  Some scenes, particularly outdoor scenes, are slightly grainy, but this is an inherent property of the original photography itself and not the transfer.  Overall, this is another solid job by Criterion.

Audio ***

The Pornographers is presented in monoaural audio.  It is nothing flashy, but it is clean of background noise and sounds.  A solid and serviceable job for this dialogue-driven film.

Features *

There isn't much here.  The DVD's sole extra feature is a trailer, although the package insert also contains an essay written by J. Hoberman for the Village Voice.  Don't read it until after you see the film, as it is loaded with spoilers!

Summary:

The Pornographers is a black comedy with a racy, tongue-in-cheek audacity that was rather atypical of Japanese films of that era.  At times charming and at times quirky, it is an imaginative work of originality that finds director Shohei Imamura in top form.