In the Pink

Some of Japan's most-heralded directors share a colorful past.

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TOKYO -- A good number of Japanese directors currently at the top of their profession, including Yojiro Takita ("Departures"), Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Tokyo Sonata") and Masayuki Suo ("Shall We Dance?), all have something in common that is probably unthinkable in any other country -- they all cut their teeth directing adult movies.

The Pink Eiga films, as they're called here, are a little different from the average Western skinflick. Theatrically released hourlong productions, they virtually sustained Japanese filmmaking for almost two decades. By the mid-60s, the golden age of Japanese cinema was over and television, as elsewhere, was keeping millions out of theaters. Some of the major studios, struggling to survive, turned to Pink Eiga, which became vital to their business.

One of the earliest films of the genre was "Daydream," given a wide release by Shochiku in 1964 -- much to the ire of the Japanese government -- right as Tokyo was hosting the Olympics. The film became the subject of a censorship battle, with the offending areas eventually being blurred out -- something that continues to this day in Japanese film.

The films gave the directors a lot of creative freedom within the constraints of tight budgets, allowing them to experiment and hone their craft.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa

"Once the required minutes quota of sex scenes was fulfilled, directors could do whatever they liked," says producer Yukie Kito of Entertainment Farm.

"I just got back from a small festival in Frankfurt where they had a retrospective of pink films. I was kind of surprised, they actually do have stories and some are well-made," says Kito, who co-produced "Tokyo Sonata" with the late Fortissimo Films co-founder Wouter Barendrecht.

That retrospective included "Kandagawa Wars," the 1983 directorial debut of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known for its existential tangents between the 'action' scenes. Kurosawa's next effort, "The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girls," apparently pushed the experimental envelope too far and studio Nikkatsu refused to release it. The studio was known for its Roman (romance) Porn and the problem was not a lack of bare skin, but the absence of a love story.

Nikkatsu also is where Takita made 11 of the popular erotic comedy series "Chikan Densha" (Train Groper), before going on to make regular features. (Coincidentally, Masayuki Suo's non-porn "I Just Didn't Do It," which was Japan's 2007 foreign-language Oscar entry, was about someone falsely accused of train groping.)

Yojiro Takita

A member of Nikkatsu's licensing division reported that there has been considerable interest in Takita's back-catalog from Europe since his Oscar win, but was at pains to stress that Nikkatsu no longer makes Pink Eiga. Toei studio on the other hand, was known for its Violent Pink films where the eroticism often took a back seat. It, too, is no longer involved in the genre.

The advent of VHS largely killed off Pink Eiga, but the directors who came through them are leading the way in Japanese cinema, and few appear embarrassed about their roots. When the subject was broached with Takita at a press conference in April, he joked, "I would have brought some of the girls along if I knew you were interested."