Monday, June 13, 2016

A Walk Through the Shoddy Lands: My Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers

I've been talking about a lot of, what I perceive to be, social ills on here as of late. Quite frankly it's tiring being pissed off all the time and it's been a while since I reviewed or talked about a piece of media or art that wasn't some offensive news story or video. Anyway, now I'm going to write about a Japanese film I watched.     

The other day I finally got around to watching Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers a.k.a. "Erogotoshitachi" yori Jinruigaku nyĆ«mon  an influential piece of cinema from Japan's golden age of experimental film, a.k.a. the 1960's, You can tell it's influential because Criterion bothered to add it to their illustrious collection. Originally I was supposed to have seen it in my Japanese Cinema class back in University, however, I was sick that day and missed out.

On the surface, the story is about a nice, penniless youngish guy, Subuyan Ogata, who ends up falling in love with a matronly widow and hairdresser, Haru Matsuda, who he's renting a room from. He eventually becomes a sort of father figure in the household as he supports the family financially and morally. Seems like a nice happy time, only that Ogata is a pornographer in the Showa period of Japanese history (1926-1989) a time when pornography was pretty illegal, and by pretty, I mean totally (literature too!). He also works as a go-between for prostitutes and their customers -- shady business to be sure. Things start off decent enough, as Ogata seems like a stand-up dude who just ended up on the wrong side of the poverty line and is simply exploiting a market that would have existed anyway, trying to make ends meet. However, as the story continues you begin to see that he's just another hypocrite as he chastises other characters for consuming the products he produces and ends up in a relationship with his lover's teenage daughter, herself a person with very few redeeming qualities who repeatedly gets into trouble via poor life choices.

The Pornographers pornographing.
In fact as the movie carries on, you begin realize that all the characters are pretty loathsome people in one way or another. Matsuda, the widow, while being a decent business woman, I guess, is a superstitious git who keeps a carp in her room (in a tank of course) which she believes is the reincarnation of her deceased husband, because it showed up on the day her husband died (she lives in front of a canal by the way). She apparently promised her husband on his deathbed to never get involved with another man for the rest of her life, which obviously didn't pan out, and every time the carp jumps in the tank she interprets it as the discontent of her late husband's spirit. At one point she aborts her and Ogata's would-be baby, without consulting him, because of it's jumping. This doesn't stop her from having sex with Ogata right in front of it, multiple times, however. She eventually catches one of those Asian movie contrivance sicknesses (you know, those ones that are never diagnosed but have a wide range of symptoms) and goes insane and tells Ogata that she should raise her daughter and marry her when she's old enough after she herself dies. Later you find out that she may have had some deep-seated resentment towards her own daughter, because, she's young or something. She eventually bites it and I found it hard to feel sorry for her cause she was quite a frustrating character.

Ogata attends a reform school meeting with his Matsuda's daughter, Keiko. 
Matsuda's son is a pretty shitty dude as well. For much of the film he comes across as a snarky, layabout, loser sponging money off  Ogata and Matsuda to pay for, whatever it is he does when he's off-screen. He eventually fails to get into a bunch of colleges, moves out and get's married, it is implied, to a prostitute. It's also heavily implied as well, that he has an Oedipus complex and is just a little too physical with mummy dearest if you ask me. He sucks, though is more of supporting character.

Ogata's production assistant in the porn industry is also not exactly an endearing force either as he comes across as an odd, sort of perverse type, with a personal mantra that appears to be "who needs a woman when I have my right hand". A real card ladies and gents.

These shitty characters live out the plot in what looks to be a slummy portion of Osaka, or somewhere in Kansai (meaning they all speak that wonderfully guttural and hearty Kansai dialect) populated with low-lives, yakuza and those who exploit them (like richer businessmen looking for low-rent prostitutes). As I was watching it, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Boy, this whole story is a big pile of shitty shit, which just keeps getting shittier" (I pride myself in my eloquence). Of course, and I found this out later, that's exactly how director Imamura wants you to feel. Oh, and this film is actually a dark comedy.

Ogata working on his doll.
The plots of many of Imamura's films, especially from this time, appear to largely be about poor unfortunate souls, in many cases not all that likable and perhaps the sowers of their own discord, trying to improve their lot in life through various means. They often fail in the process or achieve a measure of success and then realize the high life isn't all it's cracked up to be. In any case it doesn't usually end well, but it's often almost laughable just how properly the characters screw themselves over in their many endeavors. Which I guess is where the comedy comes in, everything is just so shitty, in fact it's too shitty, it's perfectly shitty, it's so shitty it's hilarious. It's like when you have a bad day, and just about every little thing goes wrong and when you finally lay your head down to sleep in the evening you take a moment to reflect and can't help but chuckle at how deliciously terrible your day was.

The Pornagraphers is a perfect example of this dynamic. The ending is absurd and has Ogata becoming unhinged and working tirelessly on a realistic sex doll in a houseboat, only to turn down a lucrative offer to mass produce the doll he is working on (remember he was trying to get rich all this time). The boat on which he's building the doll eventually gets untied from the dock and floats out to sea with him totally oblivious as he fawns over his new creation. It's just all so shoddy.

In many ways the transitional nature of the Show period was evident even in the landscape. Tall skyscrapers, dwarfed thatched roof houses and while the urban elite lived with all the amenities, the countryside looked to be somewhat more archaic by comparison.  
But this film isn't merely a bunch of shoddy people doing shoddy things, for if it was I doubt it would receive the level of acclaim it has. While the story definitely appeals to the morbid curiosity of watching human tragedy play out in front of one's eyes, it is also formally as interesting as it is narratively. The shots are often dark and are filmed in cramped locations, the camera often peers around corners, hangs from the ceiling, lies at floor level, or is obscured somewhat by objects in the foreground, giving a sense of voyeurism to the watcher, a concept closely related to the medium of pornography itself. After all, in most pornographic material is not the watcher but a "passive" viewer rather than a participant? One can't help but be given the current constraints of the medium (I'm aware that's beginning to change however). In any case there's some truly stylish shots with my favorite being a top down shot through the carp tank, which in this case is placed on the ceiling (obviously not meant to be literal) of Ogata and Matsuda getting it on while the carp occasionally flicks into the foreground and obscures the picture with ripples in the water (the carp is actually used as the point of view for many shots, adding to the voyeuristic form of the cinematography).

While the style accents the grungy darkness of the subject matter beautifully, the formal choices that Imamura uses could also be interpreted in a historical, social sense as well (though, I mean anything could be interpreted as anything so . . . yeah). I've talked about the Showa period before on this blog, but for Japan this period represented a great shift in both it's internal (local) and external (international) identity. A country, formerly the most powerful, politically and militarily in Eastern Asia, largely rebuilt by western powers in the post/trans-war period after it was nuked twice by those same powers, Japan was having an identity crisis of sorts. The Showa period, which saw Japan on it's way to it's "post-war miracle" was rife with meditations on identity, concerned with where Japan had come from and where it was going. One may look at The Pornographers through a similar lens and interpret the formal elements of the film as an inward look at a problematic, perhaps archaic section of Japan's being that it wished to cast off -- it's local, superstitious and backward poor. Those who at war time might have exalted the Emporer while being, and perhaps choosing to remain blissfully ignorant of the atrocities committed by Japan's armies on it's own people and it's "enemies". The viewer, the vouyer, watching, judging and condemning but at the same time reveling in the hypocrisy and dysfunction of the characters, thus forming their own kind of hypocrisy -- "judge not lest ye be judged" and all that.

Perhaps this interpretation is a might too on-the-nose but I feel like the Japanese name of this film which translates to "An introduction to anthropology through the pornographers" is begging for this film to be dissected. In any case, should you choose to watch The Pornographers it will leave you with quite a bit to chew on. It's a sumptuous feast for the senses and that's just how a like my media. Tasty!

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