Roman Porno: Screening Male Desire?

by Colette Balmain, Kingston University, UK.

In Screening Sex, Linda Williams insists on the double meaning of the verb to screen ‘as both concealment and revelation.’ [1] While sex in US cinema is marked by a movement away from concealment toward revelation, in Japanese cinema screening sex is marked by an oscillation between concealment and revelation with the sight of the sex act classified as obscene and needing to be obscured from the gaze. Nowhere is this clearer than in eroductions (erotic productions) of the 1970s and 1980s and, in particular, within Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno. In this post, I consider the emergence of Roman Porno in 1971 and Nikkatsu’s recent rebooting of the genre in 2015 in order to chart the way in which the reboots demonstrate a shift in attitude towards screening sex, albeit maintaining that the conventions of female desire are filtered through the male directorial gaze.

Close to bankruptcy by 1970 due to the popularity of TV, Nikkatsu – one of the six main Japanese studios at the time – looked to increase ticket sales by mainstreaming softcore pornography. And so Roman Porno (roman poruno) or romantic pornography was born in 1971. [2] Arguably, it was the success of the earlier pink film movement (pinku eiga) – independent politically motivated cinema – that used sex as a tool through which to critique Japanese society and laid the foundations for the proliferation of mainstream softcore pornography in the 1970s. According to Jasper Sharp, between 1971 and 1988 approximately 850 Roman Porno films were produced. [3] Mark Shilling, however, puts the figure at 1,133 films. Roman Porno was launched on 1st November 1971 with Isao Hayashi’s Castle Orgies (aka Eros Schedule Book: Concubine Secrets and Sensual History: Shogun’s Harem Secret Story) – the first film in what would be a nine film series – and Shōgōro Nishimura’s Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair – which outdid the former with 20 films. Nikkatsu wasn’t the only studio to jump on the sexploitation bandwagon: Toei’s Pinky Violence series merged sex and violence and produced some of the most empowering films of the 1970s with its Female Convict Scorpion series. However, while sex was the central component of Roman Porno, sex was less key to the Pinky Violence films. In addition, Shockiku had its Tōkatsu range and Daiei Erotics series.

While Roman Porno films cost around 7.5 million yen to make, around three times as much as a pink film, they adhered to many of the same conventions including short shooting schedules (around two weeks as opposed to one week), relative directorial freedom and a key requisite dictating they had to have at least one sex scene every ten minutes. With an average running time of 80 minutes (as compared to the 50-60 minutes for pink cinema) that meant at least eight sex scenes per film, which could amount for about half if not more of the running time. Not surprisingly, the primary audiences for Roman Porno and its sexualised and often violent content were male. Due to strict censorship regulations at the time, Japanese directors were prohibited from showing genitalia and/or public hair. As a result, the explicit representation of sex and violence in eroductions was offset by the use of extra-diegetic blocking, blurring (bokashi) or pixilation to obscure sex organs. The term chirarism (an abbreviation of chirari to miru, which means to catch a glimpse of) is often used to stress the uniqueness of Japanese pornography when compared to Western forms. A glimpse (or flash) of panties became a visual shorthand for that which could not be represented in Japanese cinema generally and in eroductions specifically. [4] Jonathon Abel argues that the flash of panties in Roman Porno ‘are spaces of filmic paralepsis that name without naming the status of desire, that bind the subject with the object of male heterosexual desire.’ [5] This fetishisation of underwear through the substitution of the flash of panties for the sexual organs ‘was recognition that the covering alone (and not the revealing) stimulates desire in Japanese porn.’ [6] While Jasper Sharp argues that Roman Porno was progressive in its representation of ‘strong female characters [as] powerful sexual creatures’, [7] the number of films that focus on rape as a mechanism through which female character’s sexuality is liberated is extremely problematic. This is compounded in films in which rape is the organising theme, for example the notorious Rape 13th Hour (Rape! 25-ji Bokan, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1977). 

In 2012, Nikkatsu celebrated its 100 year anniversary and re-released some of the classic Roman Porno films as part of the Roman Porno ‘Returns’ series, which surprisingly attracted a significant female demographic. 2016 marked 45 years of the Roman Porno series. To mark the anniversary, Nikkatsu in association with BS Sky PerfectTV announced a limited ‘Roman Porno Reboot Project’ of five films to be directed by some of Japan’s most noted directors with a remit that the films had to conform to the rules of the genre and production terms of the original cycle. In addition, while the original cycle of Roman Porno were directed exclusively to the desiring gaze of the male spectator, Nikkatsu updated the genre to be more appealing to modern cinematic audiences, understanding that the success of the reboot relied on appealing to women as well as men. In addition, there was the recognition that violent rape scenes were no longer de rigour and/or acceptable. Like many critics, Noriki Ishitobi for The Asian Shimbun defines the reboot in gender positive terms: 

‘Nikkatsu Corp has revived its male-orientated “Roman Series” with a feminine twist […] Marking a clear departure from its past works […] the five new softcore films were produced with a focus on the female perspective’. 

The first film released was Yukisada Isao’s Aroused by Gymnopedies (Gymnopedies ni Midareru, 2016). The film is focussed on the trials and tribulations of a failed arthouse filmmaker Shinju (Itao Itsuji) who, in need of a quick buck, is searching for a suitable nymphet to star in a sex film after his main actress Anri (Okamura Izumi) quits, a search which is significantly doomed to failure. The second film, Wet Woman in the Wind (Kaze ni nureta onna, Shiota Akihiko, 2016), is an erotic comedy centred around Shiori (Mamiya Yuri), a sexually liberated young woman who latches onto Kosuke (Nagaoka Tasuku), a 30-something playwright, much to his dismay. The third film, Dawn of the Felines (Mesuneko Tachi, Shiraishi Kazuya, January 2017), takes prostitution as its theme examining shifts in prostitution in a digital age through the experiences of three women, Misako (Ihata Juri), Yui (Maue Satsuki) and Rie (Michie), who work for a small escort agency in Tokyo.

Aroused by Gymnopedies
Aroused by Gymnopedies (2016)

Contrary as usual, Sono Sion decided to turn the genre on its head by critiquing the genre in his appropriately titled Anti-Porno (Anchiporuno, 2017). The film centres on Kyoko (Tomite Ami) who, fittingly, given the title of the film, desires to be a Roman Porno starlet. Unlike some of his films in which the female body is objectified and brutalised by men – Cold Fish is a case in point – Anti-Porno focuses on female desire within a cinematic universe that is almost solely populated by women. Nakata Hideo – who was an assistant director at Nikkatsu in the 1980s – helms the final film in the series: White Lily (Howaito riri, 2017). White Lily focuses on how the sexual relationship between two women – famous ceramics artist Tokiko (Asuka Rin) and her apprentice Haruka (Yamaguchi Kaori) – is threatened when Tokikko takes on Satoru, a new male apprentice who moves in with the two woman and enters into a sexual relationship with both women. 

Unlike the original cycle, the rebooted Roman Porno films exist in two versions – R-18 version for theatrical release and R-15 version for television – signifying the shift away from films made by men for men to films designed for domestic consumption with a female audience in mind. Further, the launch of the reboot made much of the fact that there were a significant number of women (as producers and writers) involved with the project, as it did of the focus on female desire and self-actualisation in this new iteration of Roman Porno. While there is no doubt that this represents a significant shift in the economics and consumption of screening sex in Japan, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Nikkatsu had commissioned a woman to direct one of the films. As it is, screening sex still seems to be the job of men even when the focus on the screen is female desire supposedly outside non-heteronormative limits: there is a significant number of ‘lesbian’ sex scenes. However, the now ubiquitous panty shot, pervasive in Japanese genre cinema and framed through the male scopophilic gaze, binds the spectator within the framework of male patriarchal desire. 

Notes

[1] Linda Williams. 2008. Screening Sex. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2.

[2] In contradiction to this, Jasper Sharp argues that the label is more likely a contraction of the French term for the pornographic novel, ‘Roman Pornographique’. See Jasper Sharp. 2011. Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 208.

[3] Jasper Sharp. 2008. Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. Godalming: FAB Press, 124.

[4] Jonathon Abel. 2010. ‘Packaging Desires: The Unmentionables of Japanese Film’. In Nina Cornyetz and J. Keith Vincent eds. Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture. New York: Routledge281.

[5] Ibid., 274.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sharp. Behind the Pink Curtain, 129.

Contributor 

Colette Balmain is a specialist in Asian cinemas and cultures, particularly East Asia. She is currently writing a book on East Asian Gothic Cinema and the second edition of An Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Colette is interested in how gender, race and sexuality are represented in horror and gothic cinemas.

c.balmain@kingston.ac.uk / @colettebalmain

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