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In 2002, independent director and provocateur par excellence Todd Solondz made a little movie called Storytelling, remembered today almost solely on its controversial sodomy scene between Robert Wisdom's college professor and Selma Blair's student. For the film to receive an R rating from the MPAA, the scene had to be cut or altered. Solondz altered it, all right: He slapped a big red box over the action, letting our imaginations be the cinematographers.
Storytelling turned out to be such a middling movie — the weakest in Solondz's oeuvre — that the scene itself amounted to little more than putting the anal into the banal. But it got people talking about the film. Solondz told Salon.com at the time that, "It's not a mistake; it's right in your face: You're not allowed to see this in our country. For me it's a great victory to have a big red box, the first red box in any studio feature."
That may be the case, but over in Japan, Tatsumi Kumashiro began engaging in politically conscious self-censorship almost 40 years ago. Kumashiro directed 35 films, working all the way up to his 1995 death, almost exclusively in the genre of Roman porno or soft-core Japanese erotica. Working for the cult-favored Nikkatsu studios, Kumashiro made sex films with the sex obscured or removed, the only way his movies could show in mainstream theaters. Three new Kumashiro DVD releases from Kino International — Sayuri Ichijo: Following Desire, Twisted Path of Love and Yakuza Justice: Erotic Code of Honor, all of them bearing softer translations than their original Japanese titles — offer an introduction into a world that's almost alien amid the buffet of hardcore perversions available in all their explicitness at the click of a mouse.
Take 1972's Sayuri Ichijo, for example, which follows a woman under the control of two men who desires to strip alongside idol Ichijo, playing herself. Sex scenes are integrated as regularly and obligatorily as in traditional pornography, but, though we hear a lot of moaning and see a lot of benign groping, none of the naughty bits are permitted to be shown. Instead, lamps are placed strategically in the foreground to cover the intercourse or the camera will linger on an outstretched foot. It's practically like something out of a Naked Gun film: cut to a bed frame shaking and we'll infer the rest.
Elsewhere, film splices and jump cuts manage to edit around the genitalia, or Kumashiro will simply slice and dice apart the frame itself — and yes, throw on a solid self-censuring box every now and then — to do the trick.
"This is very much intentional," says Jasper Sharp, author of the definitive text on the subject, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. "It's very difficult to understand what directors such as Kumashiro were doing unless you know about the history of Japanese censorship, but this was a political gesture. Because of their experiences with their wartime regime and under the Allied occupation, the Japanese have been very wary of censorship. In 1972, one of Nikkatsu's directors and several members of staff were arrested on charges of 'obscenity' because a couple of their films were seen to have gone too far. And so Kumashiro's work from this period often draws attention to both the arbitrary nature of censorship and the dangers of a public morality mandated by the state."
In other ways, Kumashiro's techniques end up drawing more attention to the exact areas they were intended to cover up. In Twisted Path of Love, which centers on a former yakuza's mysterious return to an old hometown and the dark sexual liaisons he encounters, there's a famous scene where two men and a woman play a game of naked leapfrog on a beach. Every time a genital is to be exposed, Kumashiro scratches the film's surface over the offending parts, leaving in their places white marks that scream, "Look at me!"
"There's the school of thought that this kind of overt censorship made the films more erotic, because it made you think harder about what was going on behind the blurs or the black boxes," Sharp says. "The same techniques would have been applied to Western films too — Deep Throat, for example, played in Tokyo, but in a similarly censored version. Films were never cut, just optically obscured."
In the end, soft-core porn or not, just about everyone agrees that Kumashiro's films were the work of a quality director — Francois Truffaut was an avid fan, going so far as to compare Kumashiro's work to Jean Renoir's. Twisted Path of Love is a particularly subversive work that critiques what it produces — at least two of the sex scenes are rapes, and the sequences of abuse and suicide don't exactly jibe with the male pleasure centers of traditional porn.
Kumashiro was enormously popular in his prime; looking at his films academically today, it's clear that he was a very good filmmaker who happened to direct soft-core sex cinema. It's almost unthinkable here that a director specializing in sex films of any kind would achieve the mainstream acceptance Kumashiro gained.
"I personally think film critics until recently have always felt uncomfortable talking about erotic cinema and have therefore dismissed it as unimportant, and therefore rather overplay the other artistic or political elements of sexually explicit films to create an artificial dichotomy of 'Art' vs. 'Porn,'" Sharp says. "Perhaps the politics in Kumashiro's films are too oblique to be obvious, as well as the fact he worked in a specific genre, and therefore is considered not to have had the same creative freedom as [Nagisa] Oshima or [Shohei] Imamura, who produced their work independently. I personally don't think history will judge him too unkindly for that, because to modern viewers his films aren't particularly explicit, and they certainly have some fine qualities."
John Thomason is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.