For many, pornography is immoral, does more harm than good, and is just plain wrong. And those who actually make porn, well they're downright sleazy. As it turns out, that doesn't mean a film about the men behind the camera can't be fun and humorous. The Pornographers is just that film.
Subu (Shoichi Ozawa) films adult entertainment and distributes it with a clear conscience. He feels he's providing a valuable service to the repressed Japanese society. Plus, the money he brings in helps support his girlfriend Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto) and her family. And what a dysfunctional family it is; a family that includes Haru's dead husband reincarnated as a carp and disapproves of her bedroom exploits with another man.
As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that Subu's true passions don't fall on Haru, but rather on her teenage daughter, Koichi (Masaomi Kondo). A pornographer who is in love with his girlfriend's daughter—that's never a good thing. Plus, Haru's son, Keiko (Keiko Sakawa), suffers from a strong Oedipal complex and wants money from his scheming.
Director Shohei Imamura plays with every taboo in the book, and he manages to pull it off with a humorous touch so as to negate that sleazy feel. Incest, infidelity, and voyeurism are all part of this story, and Sumu adds a little pimping service for good measure. Yet just because The Pornographers is a light, humorous portrayal of actions generally seen as negative, doesn't mean Subu gets away clean. Throughout the film, he is overcome with problems from the police, gangsters, and of course, his family.
When this film was originally released in 1966, many considered it pornography in its own right and it was met with much controversy. By today's standards, however, it's rather tame, mainly because all of the sex is presented off stage and many of the taboos are hinted at instead of given a graphic portrayal. This is actually why this film still works. Because it's toned down, the seedy nature of the film never gets in the way of the humor. Sure, some of Subu's actions are cringe inducing, particularly his voyeuristic approach to the 15-year-old, but he's actually never a truly unlikable character. When his world comes crashing down on him and he must resort to Hong Kong's version of Viagra, I couldn't help but feel he gets what he deserves. At the same time, however, I felt a twinge of regret, a feeling I was expecting.
Perhaps this is because Subu isn't a clichéd bad man. He has faults, granted, but he has some humanity, too. He has his own dichotomies and inner turmoil just like the rest of us. He supports his family selling pornography, a service he feels is good for society but keeps secret from his girlfriend's family. And when he catches Koichi with adult material, he finds it unacceptable. "This is for stupid adults," he says, reprimanding her for reading such garbage. This telling scene turns bad (and funny) when the police barge in and arrest Subu for peddling porn, revealing his secret profession.
Although the dark humor of The Pornographers worked for me, it may be lost of some of today's audiences, which is too bad because it really is a great film. But even if this is the case, this film still serves as a wonderful representation of what was considered distasteful in days gone by and should at least be viewed as a sort of history lesson.
I've got to hand it to the people over at The Criterion Collection. They really know how to present a crisp image. The Pornographers is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and I must say, the transfer is very impressive. Shot in black and white, the colors are very solid with great contrast throughout the film. The detail is amazing, even during darker scenes and in shadows. No halo effects were visible, which is a huge bonus. Aside from the occasional scratch and a few murky scenes, this presentation makes The Pornographers look as if it were filmed last year.
Criterion presents The Pornographers with a 1.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track (with optional English subtitles) that sounds above par. The music is most impressive as it completely lends a surreal, comedic feel to the film. Voices tend to be a tad high-pitched and sometimes they come across as scratchy. Overall, however, this track is clean and impressive.
THE BONUS FEATURES
All you'll find on this disc is a 2.35:1 version of the original trailer. A great trailer, sure, but still just a trailer.
The Pornographers is an odd film that's dark, kinky, and humorous at the same time. Although the finer, more subtle text of the film might be lost on modern audiences, it most certainly deserves some attention. With a lofty $30 price tag and no real bonus features, it's hard to warrant the highest recommendation, but based on the film alone, it comes very close.