Pretty in pinkku, big in Japan

David Nicholson samples a season of sex movies, Japanese-style

For many Japanese film-makers, one question heads their agenda: should they show pubic hair? More than half the country's 250-odd annual commercial releases are "pinkku" - soft porn productions given a censor's certificate so long as they are artistically credible and conform to the rules of engagement: no genitals, simulated intercourse and no pubic hair. Lately, a couple of directors have been inching down the bikini line of respectability; a wisp here, a tuft there. They have also begun taking liberties with the simulation dictat. "Sometimes they're really doing it, but they have to pretend they're pretending," says Ken Okubo, a Tokyo film critic.

This week the sexually liberated Dutch are watching a selection of these cheap thrillers (typically shot on a $35,000 budget and in four days) at the Rotterdam Film Festival. They have reacted with a mixture of disappointment and surprise: the films are far less explicit than the hump videos that clog Amsterdam's back streets. But there is certainly a more thoughtful approach to camerawork, narrative and plot.

No Man's Land, for example, intertwines a Tokyo gangster story with visual comments on the Gulf War, pausing occasionally for some energetic but unconvincing sexual interludes.

Emile Fallaux, the director of the Rotterdam Festival, admits that, for him, the sex is "a bit disappointing" - especially since in his research into the genre he discovered brothels with exquisitely specific "menus". "You can request anal titillation bya female nipple," he notes with admiration for Japanese ingenuity.

His choice of films is described by the festival as "a special glimpse of the Japanese psyche'', which, if true, is a little disturbing. In one film, Muscle, a man cuts off his gay lover's right hand, and later finds it preserved in a jar in his apartment. This looks back to Nagisa Oshima's 1976 masterpiece Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) in which the heroine amputates her lover's penis after strangling him to a sexually exotic death.

Ai No Corrida was in fact a surprise escapee from Japanese censorship. It features frequent explicit sex scenes, but the film stock was sent outside Japan for processing and cannot be watched by Japanese audiences without a sort of fog covering the offending pieces of anatomy.

Fallaux originally toured Japan looking simply for bright young film-makers, but discovered that the majority made pinkku pictures since no other funding was open to them. This, he decided, could become a festival section in itself. "Every year we look for something to subvert the idea of sacred good taste. In the international film world there is a lot of echoing each other's opinions, and it gets very narrow. We try to break it up."

He makes no great claims for the films' place in world cinema, however. "They are a little bit of fun. People who might otherwise be ashamed to see porno films can have the excuse of an arthouse festival. There is a lot of laughing in the audiences. Certainly more laughing than masturbation." So enthused has he become that Rotterdam now plans a "classic Japanese porn" selection in conjunction with the dean of Tokyo University's arts department next year.

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