Monday, August 01, 2011

The penis mightier than the mosaic

The Japanese cinema-going public may be exposed to as much ultraviolence as filmmakers can throw at them on a regular basis, but they must be protected at all cost from glimpses of genitals, even in a non-sexual context. This bizarre situation has continued for decades and is frustratingly (or rather resignedly) accepted as the status quo by distributors and audiences alike, with the exception of the odd minor online uproar over particularly egregious examples such as the squiggly scribbles that concealed a crucial shot in the Japanese release of “Let the Right One In”, or the overzealous digital mosaics that robbed “Jackass 3D” of much of its humor.

However, a recent police decision has opened the possibility that a certain Hollywood film could become an unlikely touchstone for censorship reform. Asai Takashi of distributor Uplink gave an overview of the issue on his blog.
Currently, an uncensored version of Warner Brothers' “The Hangover Part II” is being screened with an R-18 rating exclusively at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills. Other cinemas are playing an R-15 version.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) National Police Agency (NPA) carried out an investigation over whether this screening in Roppongi falls under Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code regarding the display of obscene material.

The point of contention was a scene in which the film's main characters are having a wild time at a nightclub in Thailand, and the male genitals of transgendered club staff can be seen in three places.

As a result of an investigation of Tokyo Customs, the Film Classification and Rating Committee (Eirin), and Warner Brothers, the MPD decided not to prosecute. The reason was apparently that the scene in question was not a still image, and that the film was on the whole a comedy rather than a predominantly erotic work.

First of all, this film passed customs inspection, so Tokyo Customs do not regard it as obscene material. The state has determined that it is not obscene.

It was then inspected by Eirin, the film industry's self-regulating body, and as it was released with the most prohibitive rating possible of R-18, so there is no legal issue whatsoever.

It could be said that the MPD's decision not to pursue criminal prosecution was a proper one, and if it had gone through with it, Tokyo Customs would also have had to be prosecuted as one of the parties involved, and as Tokyo Customs is an arm of the state, the MPD would have effectively been prosecuting the state as a criminal.

Although it refrained from pursuing the case, the MPD has called for Warner Brothers to blur the genitals in the scene in question for the DVD release, as minors would be able to watch it as a still image, but this request has no legally binding force.

However, as many rental outlets display R-18-rated films separately from those for general viewing, selling an uncensored R-18 version would be a viable business option from the manufacturer's perspective.

Recently, customs have been clearing films with shots where male genitals are visible but not erect, such as bathing scenes, although this is not the case with depictions of sex.

I was told by a newspaper reporter that the MPD apparently decided not to prosecute in light of the Supreme Court's ruling regarding a book of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. They must have judged that taking the case to court would only result in defeat.

I'm all for removing blurring from films, and I spent ten years fighting the Mapplethorpe case in court, so if that ruling played a part in the case not being pursued, I couldn't be happier.

It is my hope that Japan Customs and distributors will refrain from exercising self-censorship in future as a result of this development.
This Tokyo Shimbun article claims that soon after the uncensored version began screening at Roppongi Hills, the MPD had received a complaint from some meddling prude about the unobfuscated tackle on display, which supposedly sparked their investigation.

As for Warner Brothers, they could only offer a feeble “No comment” in response to Tokyo Shimbun's inquiry about the issue, despite their laudably defiant act of unleashing unbowdlerized todgers on the ticket-buying public. Whether this will catalyze a change in the ridiculous censorship that has plagued film in Japan for decades remains to be seen, but it does inspire hope that one day the powers that be will trust the good citizens of Japan not to transform into lust-crazed rape monkeys at the sight of a furry dong or two.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Suzuki Noribumi remembers Okada Shigeru

The May 13th edition of the Nikkei Shimbun featured the following remembrance of the late Toei chairman Okada Shigeru (who died on May 9th) by Suzuki Noribumi, one of the most original and entertaining filmmakers to have emerged during his heyday. Although the same can be said for all of the old major studios, Toei's output today is nowhere near as dynamic and provocative as it was once famed for, and Okada's old-school impresario approach to filmmaking has been sorely missed for quite some time already.
Former honorary chairman of Toei, Okada Shigeru, was an outstanding film producer. When I joined Toei's Kyoto studio as an assistant director in 1956, his talent was already recognized despite his youth. I was set to make my directorial debut with a period tragedy, but Mr. Okada was the one who suggested I was suited to making comedies, which later led to my involvement with the "Truck Yaro" series.

He stuck to his guns and never held back from saying harsh things, but he had a warm-hearted, fatherly demeanor. When Daiei had a hit with a female gambler film starring Enami Kyoko [Yuge Taro's "Onna Tobakushi" (1966), which went on to become a 17-film series], he spurred us into action, saying "How would it look if the originator (of ninkyo films) couldn't do the same?" and told me "Write whatever you like", allowing me to write the screenplay as I saw fit. "If we run [the screenplay] by the board everyone will want to have their say, but if it turns out well, I'll green-light the project," he said, and "Red Peony Gambler" (1968) starring Fuji Junko [now Fuji Sumiko] was born [which became a series in its own right, spanning eight films].

He also enjoyed taking risks, producing experimental works and handpicking young directors. "A delinquent sensibility is an absolute must" was a favorite phrase of his. He meant that films should handle material that can't be dealt with on strait-laced television. He also said, "Film directors must have relationships with many women." His argument was that without doing so, they couldn't depict real life in their films. His choice of words was extreme, but as I look back now, they seem to have a certain truth to them.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sono Sion on film fandom

The enigmatic Sono Sion, via Twitter:
'I'm a manga fan.' I don't think I've ever heard anyone make such a sweeping statement. There's so much variety in manga that you can't say you like them all. I think that applies to film as well. I'm in no way a film lover or a film fan. That's because I hate most films.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pandering is all well and good - just do it right

Sarah from Tokyo-based English language mag Metropolis kindly asked me to write an opinion piece on Japanese film for their regular Last Word column, so here it is:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kameyama Chihiro: know your enemy

Television is both the savior and the destroyer of the Japanese film industry. Five of the top-grossing Japanese films in the first half of 2010 were TV show adaptations, and it is these productions that have played a major role in bringing audiences back to cinemas and driving multiplex construction around the country. On the other hand, they have done so by ushering in non-cinematic television production values and aesthetics, catering to a subtitle-abhorring demographic that can be herded into cinema complexes with excessive television promotional campaigns utilizing the lure of big small-screen names and familiar properties. To film fans such as myself who view this development with the kind of disdain reserved for fascist dictators and Johnny Kitagawa, the great Satan is the head of Fuji Television's film department, producer Kameyama Chihiro.

The following interview with Kameyama by (Fuji Sankei group) news site Iza on the eve of the release of the third film in Fuji's “Bayside Shakedown” franchise provides a glimpse into the mind that brought you such worthy dramas as “Mt. Tsurugidake” as well as utterly irredeemable abominations like “Shaolin Girl.”

Iza: How do you go about selecting the projects that you produce?

Kameyama Chihiro: Above all, they're TV station projects, so I consider them with a view to future television broadcast. Splatter horror and erotic subject matter are out. We'd never be able to get involved with something like [Nakashima Tetsuya's] “Confessions.”

I: Bluntly speaking, do you have a “hit formula”?

KC: Not at all. If I did have a formula, I'd be creating huge hits with original material. When I heard that Yaguchi Shinobu was going to make “Swing Girls,” I told him, “Comedies with girls are difficult, so you should give it up,” but it was entertaining when I saw it. If there's one thing I have, it's not a hit formula, more a rule of thumb I guess.

I: Using that rule of thumb, what kind of strategy did you come up with for “Bayside Shakedown 3”?  

KC: It's an event film, so this time we didn't hold any public previews, and just gave it heavy exposure on television to stimulate audiences' hunger. This method doesn't come from my knowledge of marketing, but rather it's a way of doing things that developed from my firsthand experience up until now. We created the video series “Kakaricho Aoshima Shunsaku” exclusively for streaming on the Docomo mobile phone network, and hoped that people would think “Bayside's really wild right now.”

I: Originally you wanted to become a film director, and in your university days you studied under Gosho Heinosuke, who made Japan's first talkie film “The Neighbor's Wife and Mine” (Madamu to Nyobo).

KC: Gosho spent his later years in my hometown of Mishima in Shizuoka, so during the summer holidays in my first year at university, I visited him hoping that he'd introduce me to some part-time film job. When I went to his place, he suddenly ordered me to “Go to the second floor and tidy up the bookcase.” He was the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan, and when I asked him if he'd write me a letter of introduction for presenting to film companies when I started to look for work, he told me: “Film's no good anymore, go into television instead.”

I: Then you were employed by Fuji Television, but what had happened to your passion for filmmaking?

KC: I no longer had any. I loved ATG's films, but as a television professional I banned myself from watching strongly auteurist films.

I: In your fourth year at Fuji in 1983, the company began its involvement in film production with “Nankyoku Monogatari.” What was that like for you at the time?

KC: I looked after Taro and Jiro [the canine stars of the film] when I was working in the programming department (laughs). I wasn't envious of the young film department staff at all. I'd really lost all interest in film itself.

I: Later, the idea emerged of turning popular TV series “Bayside Shakedown” (Odoru Daisosasen) into a film.

KC: Even though I had no filmmaking experience, I bragged that we'd make a film to rank in the top three of [venerable film magazine] Kinema Junpo best ten list, but screenwriter Kimizuka Ryoichi and director Motohiro Katsuyuki told me that wasn't what fans of the series wanted to see in a movie. I came to the decision that we couldn't change the feel of the TV show for the film, so apart from the cameraman we shot it entirely with the show's crew.

I: That was the birth of 'TV company films.'

KC: I asked them to use the same camera angles as the TV show for the first half of the film so that fans wouldn't get confused. I took the stance that it's a film made by TV people, so why not.