The kind of aesthete who could fashion a religion out of the old National Enquirer, Shohei Imamura has a passion for everything that’s kinky, lowlife, or irrational in Japanese culture. He populates his films with murderers, hillbillies, shamans, and prostitutes; incest and voyeurism are his stock-in-trade. Imamura, who began his career as an assistant director to Yasujiro Ozu, is a return of the (national) repressed. Even his plots are like Rorschach blots—there’s less a narrative line than a narrative seepage, unevenly spreading in all directions.
The Pornographers is vintage Imamura. This lurid black comedy, which the director adapted in 1966 from Akiyuki Nozaka’s prizewinning bestseller (and which he typically subtitled “An Introduction to Anthropology”), is set in seediest Osaka; affably grotesque, it details the personal and professional trials of one Subuyan Ogata, a minor producer/distributor of 8mm porn films. Perhaps because The Pornographers was the first movie Imamura made for his own production company, it feels giddy with sympathy for its harried protagonist, a would-be solid citizen whose assistants call “maestro.” (In America, it should be noted, Imamura’s own films were treated as exotic soft-core porn—a dubbed, recut version of the estimable Pigs and Battleships was originally released as The Dirty Girls and later as The Flesh Is Hot.)
Dodging police harassment and yakuza shakedowns, Ogata comes to believe that he and his bizarrely monastic assistants perform a useful social function, comforting the sick and the loveless, alleviating frustration by furnishing clients what society has denied them. (In much the same spirit, Ogata does a bit of pimping on the side, supplying decrepit business tycoons with the “virgin” schoolgirls of their fantasies.) Still, in embellishing the straightforward sleazescape of Nozaka’s novel, Imamura gives Ogata a domestic setup that’s more juicily perverse than any of his porn loops. The maestro lives with the widowed Haru, matronly proprietor of a barbershop, but secretly covets Keiko, her frumpy teenage daughter. Haru, for her part, dotes incestuously on her grown son and keeps a live carp in her bedroom that she claims is the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Imamura revels in broad performances and unlikely performers. Not forgetting the carp, his actors here are a startling collection of squat, impassive peons, all of whom get at least one chance to run wild through his cramped frames. Locked in a mental hospital, the dying Haru stages a full-fledged freak-out that can only be silenced by the blast of Ventures-style rock rising inexorably on the soundtrack. This highly theatrical crackup aside, The Pornographers’ set pieces are the making of the fuck films—one-take, two-character jobbies that Ogata hastily shoots with eight 8mm cameras, all mounted on a board, grinding away simultaneously. Each of these productions seems a masterpiece of desperate improvisation: Ogata, his assistants, and their imbecilic “talents” trekking to the remotest part of some Osaka park or squeezing into an impromptu garage studio. (“Is she deaf?” the filmmaker asks, when the suspiciously placid ingénue of a schoolgirl rape epic declines to take direction. “Just a little slow,” her partner explains. Not only does the girl turn out to be an idiot, the man she’s being filmed with is her father—he keeps her in line by giving her lollipops to crunch.)
Although Imamura includes an occasional audience reaction to Ogata’s handiwork, the porn loops themselves are never seen—the better to emphasize the film’s quotidian voyeurism. Ogata and Haru’s lovemaking is shot from the carp’s-eye view, while Ogata spends much of the film spying on Keiko. (When he catches her reading one of the stroke books he sells, he gets hilariously flustered. “That’s for stupid adults,” he admonishes the girl, as the police burst in and arrest him for smut peddling.) Peeping is built into nearly every scene. Imamura uses the Cinemascope format to make spatial juxtapositions and jolting sight gags: A shot of Ogata selling his wares to a gaggle of overexcited executives is filmed through a window and framed to show the firm’s mainly female workers on the other side of the wall. Keiko’s graduation is filmed ankle-high, a row of massive teenage calves masking Ogata’s tiny, anxious face.
Still, for all Imamura’s ribald stylizations, The Pornographers is more philosophical than prurient. When not cackling over their creations, Ogata and his assistants spend their time arguing about incest (a divine prerogative in Japanese mythology) or debating the meaning of sex: “No one understands male-female relations. It’s complex, yet it’s vague.” (The latter is an equally valid description for the feel of any Imamura flick.) “I’m fascinated by the pathos of being a man,” Ogata muses, before Haru’s death and Keiko’s rejection have rendered him impotent and bitterly misogynistic. After an orgy fails to restore his powers, he takes his colleague’s advice and builds a mechanical sex doll, “a mannequin for freedom” modeled upon Haru. A coda set five years later has an avid industrialist visiting one of Osaka’s back canals and the boat where Ogata has secluded himself with his creation. “No one is taking my doll to the South Pole, no Martian is touching her!” Ogata screams, turning down a million-yen offer and dumping the guy in the canal.
As anyone who has seen Eijanaika or The Ballad of Narayama knows, Imamura has a genius for stunning metonymic endings. In the weirdly lyrical finale (one not in the novel, whose unfilmable conclusion has Ogata’s lost erection restored when he is fatally struck by a car), the floating laboratory comes unmoored. Alone with his sex doll, Ogata drifts through the harbor and out to sea. (According to the critic Ian Buruma, this scene parodies the dénouement of a seventeenth century classic in which a Japanese Casanova caps a life of debauchery by sailing off for the Island of Women.) Abruptly, Ogata’s “liberation” turns even more reflexive when the image is reduced to the size of flickering 8mm. Is Imamura sardonically suggesting that the preceding two hours of frantic hustling and grubby sex have been his version of Ogata’s porn? Or is The Pornographers the twentieth-century version of the nightlife of the gods?
J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice. His reviews have recently been collected in The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle (Temple University Press).