Monday, April 2, 2007

Japanese Directorial History Part IV: Exploring Explicit Content (1962 Onwards)

In 1962, the Art Theater Guild was founded with the goal of helping support independent directors making artistic but controversial films [Domenig]. It provided capital through donations (often from the studios, but never from the government) and raised money by distributing Western (particularly European) art films. Even after it could no longer afford to produce new material, it remained one of the only independent means of distributing films within Japan’s vertically integrated industry. Since the studios owned their own theater chains, they could often prevent rival films from getting to domestic audiences, stonewalling competition even if acclaim had been found abroad.

The Art Theater Guild and other independent companies ultimately propelled the Japanese New Wave (even though it was initially contrived by the studios to compete with television for the youth market). Members of the Japanese New Wave still maintained, and often intensified, their social and political commentary (Imamura’s Insect Woman [1963] indicts the over-commercialization of post-war Japan, while Oshima’s Death by Hanging [1968] savages capital punishment and Korean racism), but now they introduced a whole new level of unprecedented sexual content as well.

Shohei Imamura provoked controversy with his bitterly nihilistic, but undeniably brilliant, explorations of prostitution (Insect Woman), pornography (The Pornographers [1966]) and incest (The Profound Desire of the Gods [1968]), changing the landscape of creative expression around him.

As taboos fell, independent ventures capitalized by churning out “pinku eiga,” a genre of soft-core porn. By the late 1960s, it had become the dominant genre in Japan, accounting for more than half the pictures made each year. Likewise, the violence that had at one time been shocking in the New Wave’s oeuvre quickly became a heavily-marketed convention for yakuza (gangster) films, the second most successful genre.

Yakuza films shared many features with the earlier (and still popular) samurai jidaigeki: lone amoral protagonists, glorified violence and a questionable sense of honor dictated by a strict personal code. Also, like jidaigeki, these “yakuza flicks” tended to rely heavily on formulas and clichés, remaining uninspired in structure, narrative and style. Thus, what had once been daring and powerful material was quickly assimilated by the system and drained of all artistic pretenses.

Studio director Seijun Suzuki made more then twenty such forgettable pinku eiga and yakuza films for Nikkatsu before boredom led him to start modifying the clichéd scripts he was sent. Strange tweaks in his first attempts at experimentation (like replacing a cocaine-based crime ring with a knitting conspiracy in 1963’s Youth of the Beast) initially went unnoticed by his producers. By the release of Tokyo Drifter (1966) with its flashy pastel palette, patchy black-masking (covering portions of the image during the development of the footage to leave obtrusive black shapes) and bizarre character quirks, he had earned himself a cult following.

However, the hallucinatory story of an assassin with a rice fetish who is haunted by butterflies in Branded to Kill (1967) was too weird for the studio to handle. He was fired and blacklisted for ten years. As Suzuki’s career shows, even after the struggles to expand content had been integrated into the mainstream, the unique style of a director could still make the material a personal experience and subvert mainstream expectations.

Nagisa Oshima, unable to find much financial backing in the environment that he had inadvertently helped to create, took the cycle to its inevitable culmination. His 1977 In the Realm of the Senses presents an erotic drama in which an ordinary couple plummets into a nightmare of sexual obsession and perversion. Shocking international audiences and blurring the line between pornography and art, Oshima had his leads actually perform the onscreen sex scenes (of which there were many).

As Oshima’s film seemed to suggest, the era when sexual content alone could be used as a way to test artistic boundaries and establish a distinct directorial persona had reached its conclusion. As the 1970s came to a close, the New Wave directors shifted their focus away from purely content-focused experimentation.

Japanese television networks such as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) continued to rise. While American TV suffered many handicaps against Hollywood movies, such as low resolution and stricter censorship, the same was not true in Japan. Japanese TV had a high market penetration of top-quality color TVs, shared the same (relatively lax) content rules that studios maintained and attracted more commercial investment than their American equivalents. Experiments on MUSE (Multiple Sub-nyquist Sampling Encoding) as early as 1979 even allowed Japan to pioneer HDTV (High-Definition Television).

All this enabled Japanese television to compete on nearly equal footing with film, but without the cost of tickets. Faced with the triple threat of television, imported productions (now with higher budgets then ever and no quota laws limiting their intake) and a thriving pornography industry, the studios became minor entities that possessed less than 10% of the market share combined. Their decline continues to this day, with the three largest studios distributing less than one fifth of films [Domenig, 1]. Meanwhile, the major independent producers have sought out niche markets.

Artistic directors in the 1980s found themselves struggling to survive. Even Kurosawa had to find international funding for Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1989) [Richie 2, 80]. Without the backing of studios, major independents or even audiences, directors often had to find new ways to protect their artistic integrity.


Mad Dog said...

Funny you bring up TV and movie industries in Japan. I was just recently wondering what the hell was up with the modern ones. I had been watching the live-action movie adaptation of Death Note (which I recommend if you haven't the time nor funds for the manga) and was shocked that such a high-profile, high-grossing movie looked like little more than a TV special. Battlestar Galactica looked more like a movie than this movie did. And it's not that the Japanese can't film a movie that looks like what we think a movie should look like; they've been doing it for years. I've also seen a few Asian dramas and they almost always have laughable budgets and over-the-top acting. I suppose the lack of budget is because Japanese TV seems to be predisposed to variety and talk shows, but I could be wrong.

Bijoy said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Kagemusha Movie Review