The Heroine behind Japanese Pink Films or Keiko Sato in the World of Men | Panorama
From the age of silent cinema to the present: classical masterpieces, remakes, the rise of certain genres, our column „Panorama” takes a ride through history and sets its sights on films that were not given enough attention at the time of their release, or, conversely, on discussions that were never brought to light.
Pink films are the kind of Japanese softcore porn movies that have no one-on-one equivalent in world cinema and are a phenomenon that has given the world over 5000 productions, most of which are auteur films that border on the avant-garde, starting with the sixties. These were low-budget films, marred by „fogging” (the practice of blurring the actors’ intimate regions), simulated sex scenes, and never spanning more than 70 minutes (thus making them watchable during a corporate employee’s lunch break). Choked by censorship, these films had less to do with pornography than they had to do with “low-brow” art – these were musicals, science-fiction flicks, thrillers, romantic comedies, all of them tied together by a hint of magical realism. These were films that were badly acted, heavy-handedly edited, in which women were oftentimes abused. So what does a female producer have to do with all of this? Keiko Sato (or Daisuke Asakura, her male “nom de plume”) was the producer of most pink films while anonymous – the only woman who faced a largely male industry across the decades and was even its creative ringleader (and, remember, these are erotic films that we are talking about!). If everyone has heard about Koji Wakamatsu, the “ex-yakuza” auteur who freed pink film from their anonymity and brought them into the spotlight of European festivals, it’s also time to talk a little bit more about his producer, Keiko Sato.
A small detour. The nostalgia of the movie theater
I found myself reading Roland Barthes’ charming text about the act of exiting a cinema, Leaving the Movie Theater, around one year after going to the movies was prohibited and impossible. I remembered a strange sensation that I used to have, sometimes, at night, when I would walk down the Magheru boulevard, at times maybe during a soft rainfall, while trying to process what I had just seen. The numb, sleepy body finds its way out through the mass of people and leaves the theater by following the traces of light. There is nothing vaporous about the way back home or the walk to another destination, but rather a feeling of remanence – one is bitten and straightened up again by reality when all that you feel is that you haven’t yet left the screening room. In his essay titled Sex Every Afternoon: Pink Film and the Body of Pornographic Cinema in Japan, Michael John Arnold talks about the distinctive experience of going to a Japanese pink cinema (and I wonder how many of them, already on the brink of extinction, managed to reopen their gates after the pandemic?). Set at the outer edges of the streets, camouflaged by one street advertising mash-up or another, pink cinemas are the relics of a porn industry that has faded in time – some pink films are still shot after the turn of the millennium, but few of them are truly notable – and their peak during the sixties and seventies is synonymous to the auteurist modernism of the European and Asian arthouse cinema (in other words, the New Japanese Wave arrives at the same time as pink films; many of the era’s porn movies end up in history as some of their most daring, at least from an aesthetic standpoint). These films were shot on 35mm film stock, that is, the very definition of films meant to be seen in a cinema. I realize that any discussion on this topic cannot truly take place without offering some details on the rituals such a screening implied for the regular Joe spectator; pink cinemas were a space of physical negotiation, of threat, of preying. It’s a locus that comes across as a contrast to Barthes’ bubbly tales – and here the notion of empathizing or of “hypnosis”, as he puts it, matters too little –, where spectators are not looking to identify in a classical sense with the protagonists, as the images are simply just titillating, inciteful, and the things that happen in the screening room are those that truly matter. While reading Arnold’s descriptions, I recalled the pieces of courtship and seduction that took place between courtesans and dukes in Liberté (dir. Albert Serra, 2019), who rode their carriages off to a more hidden bush, in the dark, masturbating themselves or others in their retinue.
Pink cinemas had a certain social stigma attached to itself, as they were spots for cruising (hettenba), both for gay men and for heterosexuals, a place which attracted disinhibition and which threw restrictions out the window (Arnold recounts the fact that going to a pink cinema meant, of course, to buy an entrance ticket, but spectators could hang around for multiple consecutive screenings for the entire day, meaning there was no limit for how much one could remain inside the screening room). From the top, they were oriented exclusively towards male audiences, towards male power-play fantasies; not that they were banned for women, but simply because such places were not safe for women (as Michael Arnold puts it, “I am not who I am outside”). Until recently, these films would fully reject the idea of a feminine audience, and the stories that would appear on the screen were impossible to digest for a woman. Although it’s quite easy to deduce the fact that pornography, in general, is generally geared towards men, the case of pink films is still quite different – even when they started to produce films with empowered heroines at their heart (as were the famous pink violence flicks, on female yakuza ringleaders), they were quite difficult to take seriously, since they still came across as male phantasies. Donald Richie, for example, one of the detractors of the pinku eiga scene, said in 1991 that these films were less about the joys of sexual acts than they were about the humiliation of females.
The term pink, which was granted a posteriori, meaning after these films had already hit the cinemas, was first used in 1963 by critic Murai Minoru, a journalist at Nigai taimusu, to describe Satoru Kobayashi’s famous film, Flesh Market. Pink came as a response to the illegal blue genre, which featured unsimulated sex; more so than that, considering blue films had nothing to do with censorship, they were exclusively pornographic. In this sense, it could well be that the strict censorship policies of the Japanese government had a positive impact on pink productions – which would slip in a sex scene in an otherwise extremely cheeky narration (which reminded of the horrors of war, teenage pregnancies, and were at times even pieces of agitprop). Many steps have been made towards recognizing these films that have fallen into the disgrace of pornography – but many of these steps did nothing but create even more confusion.
On the one hand, critics focused mostly on the authorial efforts (and even then, as Alexander Zahlten puts it, Koji Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi, and others’ films were functioning as a synecdoche for the entire umbrella of pink films, which is inaccurate to a certain degree), and on political allegories, but not every film in the market had the advantage of having hooked itself to newness and audacity. The latter argument is closely related to the idea that the great Japanese directors had to pass at least once through the pink genre, at the very least during their younger years, in order to train their directorial hands – be it as assistant directors, actors, producers and so on, which does nothing but bury these films under the tag of being little more than formal experiments. But pink films didn’t come from nowhere – they came in the context of a hyper-prudish society (which, by the way, had only seen its first on-screen kiss in 1946!) and of a world that had been shaken by the consequences of the war. In the following paragraphs, I won’t just speak about the reasons why I believe that these films should be revisited by fresh eyes (while still, paradoxically, claiming the fact that the sheer misogyny and violence in these films is hard to watch at times) since that has been an ongoing call. In 2016, the genre was enriched by the addition of new titles, all of them under the umbrella of the Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot Project – feminist pink films directed even by some authors whose oeuvre had been largely misogynystic (such as Sion Sono). And we are also talking about another exception (maybe, its most remarkable one): Keiko Sato.
Keiko Sato in the world of men
Much has been said about pink films, and in all imaginable shapes – one more morally murky than the other – such as them being political allegories of American political interventionism, power fantasies of impotent men, or an escapist pill for postbellum Japan, however, none comes from a feminine perspective. That is, until I discovered Keiko Sato, the producer working at Kokuei productions, and probably the sole female figure to face and resist within a phallocentric industry, camouflaging herself the way she knew best. Of course, her path wasn’t a simple one – Sato worked under a male pseudonym on all the films that she produced, Daisuke Asukara (a wordplay which, in Japanese, means “I like sex in the morning”). She started producing pink films after friends of her father, the owners of Kokuei, were arrested for shooting an unsimulated sex scene. Of course, this begs for a legitimate question – How was a woman making peace with what was ending up on the screen? The answer isn’t all that satisfactory – Sato was having a lot of fun by making these films and was not in the least bothered by the fact that her close ones suspected that she was having sex with her directors, she was detached from the violence that was on the screen or simply forgot about it; she had fun picking scrips (and the rejected ones were used as scrap paper for the working productions, as she mentions here) and was taking her role very seriously. At least in this regard, even though few knew her personally (every time she had to pick up an award, people were expecting a man to show up on stage), Keiko Sato was a pink monolith of sorts who generated all sorts of films that were bordering on the avant-garde.
The retrospective which Mubi dedicates to her is an ideal testimonial: Masao Adachi’s (the right-hand man of Koji Wakamatsu) A Gushing Prayer (1971); Women Hell Song (dir. Mamoru Watanabe, 1970), Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (dir. Atshushi Yamatoya, 1967), Blue Film Woman (dir. Kan Mukai, 1969), Abnormal Family (dir. Masayuki Suo, 1984). It’s quite confusing that Daisuke is featured in the credits as a “planner”, but I presume that this has to do with the term’s translation from Japanese. All of the above films are typical of a certain umbrella of a huge palette of pink colors. Women Hell Song marks the passage towards the Pinky Violence phase to a certain degree, the sub-genre dedicated to female characters with superpowers – its protagonist literally flies into a wheat field at one point; A Gushing Prayer is a scandalous illustration of agitprop films, where Adachi closes the film with a shot of an aborted fetus in a toilet; Blue Film Woman is another power fantasy with a woman who takes revenge on a handful of moguls that have destroyed her family; Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands is the most formally experimental of them all; and finally, my personal favorite, Abnormal Family, a zesty pastiche of Yasujirō Ozu’s films.
Seen altogether, Sato’s voice is sensible in all of these films, even if her name is just a marginal appearance. I don’t know if I am fully capable of saying that these features would have been completely different without her input, but what is clear is that she produced films which stood the test of time. I was watching Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands and admiring its aesthetically spendid massacre (an erotic neo-noir-neo-western that features a private assasin, since you can’t really call him a private eye, who is rather fighting his nemesis in his dreams than in real life, who is narcoleptic and stuck in the past, both ridiculous and grisly, who has sex with a gun in his hand). In this film, a woman has the power of “stopping time” in a rudimentary fashion, when a few bandits invade her conjugal bed and see her “frozen” in the air, a feat the actors didn’t really live up to. Where else could someone see a full-grown man tenderly caressing the leg of a mannequin in a corporate office? This sort of surrealistic self-irony is characteristic of the genre: here, men are emasculated, desperate, hunched over, impotent; women come across as naive flowers, beautiful and submissive. Alexander Zahlten insists upon the political metaphor: every time we see a woman that is being physically abused, she is in fact the image of a suffering Japan, and these ridiculous men are none other than the Americans – and this only partially explains the considerable volume of rape scenes in pink films – since however strong this illusion might try to be, it is simply unaceptable. Of course, things have turned more mild in the meantime – at least consensual sex has finally appeared in the picture! – but this is doubtlessly the main reason why pink films have all been thrown together, and a critical triage of these features only came much later.
There is a film in particular that I would like to discuss a bit more, which has little echoes outside of the milieu of pink films and which, to me, captures the pink maverick essence of both its author, Masayuki Suo, as well of its producer, Keiko Sato: Abnormal Family is a glorious pastiche of three films by Ozu (Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story). Ozu is one of a handful of Japanese directors that need no introduction – at least when it comes to realist cinema. His low-key films about families and seasons, with characters shot at eye level as they discuss banalities while sipping tea, are pearly slices of life which have been written about at large, in reverential and positive terms.
In Abnormal Family, the family’s eldest son, a sexually-obsessed fiend, brings his much more docile wife into his family home (one that lacks a maternal figure, as the family patriarch keeps on mentioning in all of his pleasant discussions with other women). Spending their honeymoon in the attic, where the woman is subjected to all sorts of marginal fetishes (she is tied up with a ribbon, for example; the very same ribbon that she will end up using in the end, sorrowfully, as a prop for masturbation), the entire family sits and listens to their moans and to the sound of the creaking furniture; they even make gentle comments regarding the man’s potency. There is also the younger son, who keeps on pursuing his little sister; the untouchable little sister who ends up as a sex worker at a brothel, who counts both her father and her older brother amongst its clients. At last, it’s an incestuous tangle-up that is dressed up as a melodrama (the newlyweds end up separating, the husband moves in with a gutsier barmaid who is much more open to his kinds, and the girl still keeps on living in her husband’s house, hoping that he will return). If it weren’t for the Ozu reference, which is present in each and every one of the shots, the film would simply come across as weird: it has Ozu’s repetitive use of music, it uses his same camera angles, the actors perform in a timid, almost boring fashion – they simply modellate everything that is essentially Ozu-ian and infuse it with naughtiness. Where is the revisionist act, then? In its very intention – Ozu, the cineaste par excellence of transcendental mundanities, the maestro of Japanese realism, who is always talked about in extremely highly terms, is desecrated by none other than a pink maverick.
On top of it all, this is also a critique of certain lacks in the history of Japanese auteur cinema, especially in regards to Ozu – that he is an author who in spite of having revisited his own films, created sequels or even remakes, didn’t adapt them to the filmes; the fact of the matter is that Ozu’s films are meek and prudish. And this means that this film and its more or less subversive sisters have this exact role to play – to finally show another angle in Japanese cinema, one that doesn’t lack in extremities; I’m glad that the women who were part of this industry are finally starting to be heard about and that Sato can finally tell her story.
Abé Mark Nornes (editor) – The Pink Book. The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts
Donald Richie (2001) – “After the Wave”. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History.
Linda Williams – Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible
Jasper Sharp – Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, 2008
Michael John Arnold – Sex Every Afternoon: Pink Film and the Body of Pornographic Cinema in Japan
Roland Barthes – Upon Leaving the Movie Theater
Thomas and Yuko Mihara Weisser. 1998. Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films. Vital Books