While Akira Kurosawa often found himself scorned by Japanese nationalists for borrowing conventions liberally from the American western, and the work of John Ford in particular, Shohei Imamura was attacked as the central figure in a new breed of 1960s Japanese filmmakers who likewise abandoned the serene techniques of the filmmaking establishment represented by national icon Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), this time in favour of the more jazzy style of the French New Wave giants Bresson, Godard and Truffault and the Italian post-neorealists like Fellini and Antonioni. The Pornographers may represent Imamura at the height of his art, merging style and substance into a provocative and daring film that suggests societal repression of sexual and artistic impulses will inevitably lead to exploitation, corruption and degeneracy.
David Lynch, anyone?
The story of The Pornographers unfolds in a narratively complex fashion, as Imamura hops around in time, filling in the back story of the pornographer Mr. Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) and his one time landlady and current lady love Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto). Trying to avoid arrest by the government and extortion by the local mob, Ogata maintains that his livelihood is medical supplies, whereas the reality is he films two eight millimetre pornographic movies each and every day. At the same time, we see him trying to lead a conventional life with the newly-widowed Haru and her teenaged children. As with his professional life, if you scratch the surface, you’ll see the seedier truth beneath. There is a strong, yet repressed sexual magnetism between mother Haru and son Koichi, which is funhouse-mirrored in the increasingly explicit relationship of stepfather and stepdaughter Keiko. Meanwhile Haru is convinced that her dearly departed and disapproving husband has been reincarnated as a carp that she houses in an apparently omnisciently-located aquarium. Adding to the percolating sexual deviance, one of Ogata’s pornos captures the sexual liaison between a father and his mentally-challenged daughter, while he pads his income by pimping “virginal” prostitutes.
As we follow this family’s increasingly desperate and degenerate fates, Imamura employs expressionistic camerawork to emphasize the subjective impressions of objects and images, reflecting the characters’ turbulent inner states. As voyeurs in this world, we are constantly viewing the story through windows, fish tanks and doorways, while Ogata processes the world through a similar filter – the lens of the camera he uses to film pornography.
Imamura likes to aim his camera toward the periphery of society, where our taboos are most likely to be challenged. He is interested in the social and personal costs of restraining basic human urges, like sexual procreation or artistic creation. So, while convention holds that the government must outlaw the sex industry and regulate or even censor the film industry, Imamura suggests that this will inevitably create far more problems than it “solves.” As if to emphasize how inhibited this world is through dramatic contrast, Imamura shoots the film in wide Cinemascope, with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, yet consistently frames his subjects within windows, doorways, or through the fish-eyed lens of the aquarium.
Imamura shows us that in a society where sex is marginalized by puritanical attitudes, it will inevitably become perverted and fetishized. When people’s sexual or creative impulses (the two are implicitly equated throughout the film) are warped by the pressure to repress them, one of the results is that society becomes more degenerate, not less so. Witness Mr. Ogata’s final fate, alone on a barge with his self-built sex toy mannequin, sailing away into oblivion; it is the only way he can escape the condemnation of a society that seems determined to permanently constrain our basic human urges. (D. Jardine, Apollo Guide)