Imamura‘s 1966 black-and-white movie titled “Jinruigaku nyumon” — which means-“Introduction to the study of humankind” (anthropology) in Japanese — was luridly titled “The Pornographers” in English. The central character is a hardworking director of erotica. (Even now, Japanese erotica does not permit even a stray bit of pubic hair to be shown, so however prurient its aim may be, I don’t classify any of it as “hardcore pornography.”
In an interview Imamura did for French television (included as a bonus feature on the Criterion three-pack containing Imamura’s previous three movies, “Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes,” he says that he received permission to go on the set of a mid-1960s Japanese erotica set. He said he took various aspects he saw when he made his movie about the “pornographer.” (He was passing as a pervert. No one on the set knew he was a film director, but he made some suggestions about camera angles and so on that were taken and the producer was very pleased with the resulting product, which sold better than most of their product did.)
There is nothing in “Jinruigaku nyumon” that is arousing or that could not be shown on network television in the US now (never mind cable!). Can we get that out of the way?
The actual film (by the director of some uncompromisingly harsh pictures of Japan such as “The Insect Woman,” “Ballad of Narayama,” and “Vengeance Is Mine”) has a lot more going on. I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to those providing illegal services. Moreover, the man studying humanity by shooting prurient 8mm movies — two a day—, Ogata Subu (Ozawa Shôichi), seems the sanest character through most of the film. (His cover is selling medical supplies, BTW.)
The children of his widowed mistress Haru (Sakamot Sumiko) the oedipal slacker Koichi (Masomi Kondo) and the slut-with-training wheels Keiko (Sagawa Keiko) – are monsters, all too typical of the nihilist Japanese adolescents of the 1960s New Wave movies. There is a troubling erotic undercurrent between Haru and Koichi and another between Subu and Keiko-at least these relationships exceed what would be considered appropriate in 21st-century America…
Their mother believes that her dead husband is reincarnated as a carp whom she keeps in a fish tank. When he is displeased-as a spirit medium tells her he is when she has sex with Ogata- the husband fish jumps. I kept waiting to see him jump, but never did. Does this mean she’s delusional and the spirit medium a fake? Not surprisingly, Subu also wants to dump the carp into the river and not have the widow with whom he is involved looking for approval or disapproval from the fish tank.
They eventually become conventional, but by then their mother has died and Ogata has snapped. (Their outrageous antics are not the only stressor leading to his snapping.)
For all the veneers of Western and Chinese influence, there sometime seems to be an archaic, primitive Japanese substratum in which nothing, even incest, is forbidden. I think this may just be Imamura’s dark vision, though the behavior of one or more of the characters in most every Japanese film seems odd to the point of madness to me.
There is no real nudity in the movie, and the subject matter is greed more than sex. There is a sinister mob presence and the busily scheming Koichi. The movie is choking with symbols (Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman posits many in a booklet accompanying the DVD), and is not very linear, so might alienate some who are put off by jumping around in time in movies and including scenes that may or may not be fantasies or memories of the character. (Imamura famously proclaimed his preference for making “messy movies.” And even more famously said “I am interested in the relationship between the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of everyday life in Japan is built.”)
There is much arresting black-and-white cinematography by the great Himeda Shinsaku (who also shot the sometimes surrealistic three movies collected in “Pigs, Pimps and Prostitutes”), but 128 minutes seemed too long for what the movie has to say or show. Or Japanese sensibilities of the time favored slower unfolding of narratives. This seems to be the case for many of the later movies of the great masters Ozu Yasujirô and Kurosawa Akira
The black-and-white cinematography is murky, especially in comparison to the three earlier Imamura-Himeda collaborations. In that the transfer was done by Criterion, I assume this was the original intent of this movie about the corrupt underbelly of Japanese society. There may not be enough violence for the movie to be considered a “noir,” but it’s definitely in black-and-white and set in an urban underbelly with predatory gangsters yakusa. As with other Imamura movies, there is a very satisfying ending, which I will, of course, not reveal.
The only bonus feature on the disc is a misleading theatrical trailer that suggests the movie is sexually graphic.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray