Safe to say there isn’t another country bar Japan where a handful of top directors, including celebrated auteurs and an Oscar winner, learned their craft in adult films. Or perhaps even anywhere else in the world where that is imaginable.
But when cinemagoing plunged in parallel with the penetration of television sets into homes in the 1960s, it was so-called Pink Eiga that kept large parts of the movie industry afloat for decades, nurturing a generation of directors, scriptwriters and other filmmaking crew.
Usually between 60 and 70 minutes long, shot on 35mm and released in theaters, often on triple bills, the low-budget productions gave directors a lot of freedom provided they delivered the prescribed number of sex scenes.
In 1964, with the eyes of the world on Japan as it reemerged onto the world stage after World War Two as host of Tokyo Olympics, the government was less than pleased when Shochiku gave Tetsuji Takechi’s Daydream a wide release. Boasting a relatively large budget for a Pink Eiga, the film also pushed the boundaries with censors, resulting in certain bodily areas being blurred out, a restriction that continues to be imposed on Japanese adult movies to this day.
Despite the controversy, the genre flourished and a network of theaters dedicated to Pink Eiga were established across the country.
Japan’s movie business had been dominated by a studio system similar to the one under which Hollywood once operated, with directors, producers, screenwriters and actors all tied into contracts with one of the integrated filmmaking and distribution majors.
“Under such a system, there was no room for new ideas or innovations to be tried out quickly in film; the line-ups were decided a year in advance,” explains Koichiro Kanayama, an assistant director and later producer of erotica at studio Nikkatsu.
“Pink Eiga was born as the studio system started to break down when revenue from mainstream films declined,” adds Kanayama.
One of the first notable directors to come through the genre was the late Koji Wakamatsu, whose Secrets Behind the Wall was shown at Berlin in 1965, the first Pink Eiga screened overseas. The director left Nikkatsu shortly afterwards, forming his own Wakamatsu Productions company, which would release both pink and arthouse films, often filled with counter-culture themes and messages. Wakamatsu’s non-pink fare would later compete at Berlin and Cannes.
“Lots of new directors, scriptwriters and assistant directors came through that world if they showed talent, for example the crews that worked with Koji Wakamatsu,” says Kanayama.
He likens the process to the route through which new talent emerged from independent music scenes and student theater, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.
Other filmmakers who got their start in the erotic genre include internationally acclaimed auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife of a Spy); Yojiro Takita, foreign language Oscar winner in 2009 with Departures; and Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?).
Takahisa Zeze, director of Fragments of the Last Will, the opening film of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, cut his directorial teeth on Pink Eiga at the end of the 1980s. He continued to shoot them into the early 2000s even after he had made his mainstream debut and was known as one of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ of the genre.
“Pink Eiga were low budget but gave a lot of creative freedom for directors to express themselves. It was that freedom that was important for me,” Zeze tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There was also the atmosphere created by a lot of young people working together as a team, which was enjoyable. In a sense it was the foundation of my filmmaking.”
The genre has a special place in the history of Nikkatsu, which was facing bankruptcy at the dawn of the 1970s when it launched its Roman Porno brand. Though still a fraction of the cost of commercial films, Roman Porno had budgets of around 20 million yen (about $67,000 at the exchange rates of the time), multiples of what was spent on the average Pink Eiga.
Well over 1,000 titles would be cranked out by Nikkatsu before home video effectively put paid to Roman Porno in 1988, but the brand is credited with nothing less than having saved the storied studio. Kanayama had the honor of serving as assistant director on Bed Partner by Daisuke Goto, the last title.
But Nikkatsu would revive the concept in 2016, bringing in a star-studded roster of directors — Hideo Nakata (The Ring), Sion Sono, Kazuya Shiraishi (The Blood of Wolves), Isao Yukisada and Akihiko Shiota — to each deliver their own take in a Roman Porno Reboot.
And to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brand, Nikkatsu returned this year with three films under the banner Roman Porno Now. These include When the Rain Falls by Shusuke Kaneko and produced by Kanayama. Best known both domestically and internationally as the director of Death Note, Kaneko too made his debut in Roman Porno, back in 1984.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter