Mentioning pink movie director Shinji Imaoka around film fans in Japan elicits some curious responses. Elder pink film directors seem to turn up their collective noses at what they deem as too artistic to be a pink movie —— that Imaoka is missing the point: Pink films are meant to titillate theater patrons. Many younger Japanese film buffs are unaware that Imaoka’s films are even considered pink movies due to his exposure outside of the traditional Japanese pink theater. But to some pink film fans aware of Imaoka’s many years in the genre as a writer, assistant director, and then director, Imaoka is the future of the genre . . . and the personal style ushered in by he and his contemporaries are what will keep the tradition of pink cinema alive.
At the present time, Pinku eiga seems to be somewhat torn in two directions: pleasing the old men in the theaters or creating something young men and woman can identify with. It seems very difficult to please both groups. Where does the future of the genre belong in your opinion?
Well . . . I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. Basically, pink theaters are not a place where people go with their head held high. Pink theaters are an underground thing.
However, men and women see many of your films at art theaters.
Yeah. I am glad to hear that — compared to the just five or six people that may watch at a pink theater. When a theater like that shows my film and a thousand young people show up within two weeks that makes me feel good. But, if we produce only that kind of film, the pink genre doesn’t make sense. I don’t know where pink films are going in the future. I think there could be both styles — movies for old fans and movies for young people. Sometimes it might be good to show pink films at places like Athenée Francais or Pole Pole (art house theaters in Tokyo). For example, sometimes when pink films are shown in Korea they have women only viewings. There many ways to show these films.
You, Yuji Tajiri, and Mitsuru Meike really haven’t attempted to make mainstream movies at all like your elder pinku eiga directors Takahisa Zeze and Hisayasu Sato. Do you feel an allegiance to pinku eiga as a genre itself?
I don’t feel an allegiance. The circumstances aren’t that way. Pink films are not a stepping stone to mainstream films. I just think about the project in front of me. I try not to divide things into pink or non-pink. I don’t go through pink movies to get to mainstream. The two are parallel for me. I want to try various things. I don’t just like pink movies or want to shoot just pink movies. I don’t stick to one thing.
Your films seem to use a lot of natural lighting. You don’t use a lighting guy at all?
Right. Also, because of the time or budget, I don’t use one. Nowadays film sensitivity is rather good. I don’t need to use a lot of light. It depends on the film. I talk about the lighting with the film crew on a film by film basis.
What pink film have you watched the most? What do you like about it?
I like many. First, I was an assistant for Hisayasu Sato. As an assistant director, I worked with him the most. Not really considering the content, I liked Sato’s style of shooting. He is a very passionate person. Also, he is very strict. But I learned a lot from watching his way of shooting — how to make a film well. So, he’s like my teacher.
Your approach to sex is certainly much different than the average pink director. How do you view sex in your movies?
Generally, in pink movies actors and actresses don’t have real intercourse, but I always like to try something new — a new challenge for every film. For Lunchbox, the leading actress doesn’t speak much —— that’s why I wanted to really focus on her breathing and use live sound. Usually we shoot in 35mm, but that time I challenged myself by using 16mm and live sound. For that film, I thought the actors having real sex in those situations would be challenging.
In my experience watching many pink movies, some films have sex scenes that kind of tell the viewer — “okay, this is the erotic part.” I lose interest in that kind of stuff. I approach sex scenes the same as an eating scene or dialog scene — every action is just a tool for expressing the character’s feelings.
"This is kind of weird, but personally, I don’t believe in women. I don’t believe in human beings. But I want to believe."
So, when they are in the act, you just leave them along and let them do what they feel?
Right. I leave them alone.
Tell me about working with Hisayasu Sato and Takahisa Zeze. How would you compare the two directors on set?
Sato is very detailed and shoots a lot of cuts. He likes to shoot people being killed, blood spurting out, so the set is very tough. He is very intense and passionate from scene to scene. Zeze’s way of creating an idea is very interesting. He always has a new experiment, so he thinks on a large scale. He would often shoot a lot characters in a lot of scenes. He used the Gulf War as a subject once. So, his pink movies have a wide range of topics. I was influenced by that.
But Zeze criticizes the new era of pink directors for not being political — for making films that are too self involved.
Yeah, exactly right (laughs). I was scolded.
Your use of music is very different. You frequently don’t use much of a soundtrack, yet your characters are always singing or dancing. Why do you think you use music in this way?
Certain circumstances create an uplifting feeling in characters, which is like music. Naturally, people have some certain moment that creates musical spontaneously — which is why I like musicals. This kind of feeling without reason in a musical — I want to imitate this in my movies. Tatsumi Kumashiro was a big influence on me in this way. He liked to use actors humming a lot in his movies. It’s more interesting to let actors sing.
Tell me about the average postproduction process for a pink film. Do you handle most of your editing? Is it done by hand?
There is an editor. I work together with him. I watch behind him and tell him what works or what to cut. We edit for about two days. It is all done with scissors and hands.
Are most pink films still made that way?
Yeah. Cut and tape.
Do you make your films with a specific audience in mind?
Not really. The first audience is myself. I always feel this way.
What is your average shooting schedule like for a film?
Generally, I write a scenario and show it to the producer at Kokuei, and if it’s accepted, within a month, they will decide casting, location. Shooting generally takes one week. Postproduction, including editing and dubbing, takes a month. From start to finish, one film takes two to three months. But my pace is only one film per year.
Have you ever had a film idea that you wanted to do but the film producer didn’t?
Many of them. For example, I had a story about one woman’s whole life — from birth to death — about 70 years. One scene for one year. Shot down.
For many of your films, men are just warm bodies for women. If you think back at your films, what is your opinion regarding most of the male characters?
When I think of my previous male characters —— there are no cool or established guys. None at all. They’re all helpless losers. I think they’re all fuckups . . . the women too. This is kind of weird, but personally, I don’t believe in women. I don’t believe in human beings. But I want to believe. It’s a two-sided coin. That’s why my stories don’t have sincere people. My thoughts about human beings are reflected in my work.
Where are some of your more popular shooting locations? You seem to like rural places near the ocean.
Rural areas have less people. And I like to shoot movies in just one town, including all of the places and atmosphere of the town. If I shoot scene to scene in different towns, they hardly connect to me. I like to shoot in Chiba — there are mountain and sea locations. Also, I use Kanagawa prefecture. I shot once in Osaka —— the film The Tender Throbbing Twilight. My parents’ home is there. The scenario for that was originally for the Kansai area.
"I don’t know where pink films are going in the future. I think there could be both styles — movies for old fans and movies for young people."
What types of films do you want to make in the future?
One is a story Moriya and I wanted to do called Tsuchinko [a legendary snake-like creature in Japan]. We still haven’t made an outline for it yet. I want to make a heavy story next time — downbeat, political, artistic. Something cool.
You worked with actor/ writer Fumio Moriya and Tom Mes on the script of Underwater Love. Tell me about the process for writing the film.
Four or five years ago at Nippon Connection, a film festival held in Germany, I had a chance to meet Stephan Holl. He had also come to Japan to participate in film festivals, so I saw him here too. He mentioned he liked pink movies and said he wanted to make one with me through Kokuei. Stephan wanted to make a musical. Kokuei asked me to head it. The first idea was a high school story — a high school teacher and student — a very normal love story. Moriya and I started writing the screenplay at that time. Moriya wanted to use the kappa. And then we finished the first draft — actually most of the first draft was written by Moriya. We sent the first draft to Stephan and he changed this and that. Tom Mes and Stephan worked together looking over that draft. This correspondence took about two years. The screenplay changed six or seven times.
This film has been labeled as a musical. Who composed the music?
Stephen suggested the German group Stereo Total, and then we met up with them. First, Moriya wrote the lyrics. Stereo Total created the music without understanding the lyrics at all they were singing. I left it to them. I let them do what the wanted.
You worked with Christopher Doyle on this film. He is very well known in the west among art film fans. How did it happen that you two decided to work together?
Stephen knew him and had worked with him before. He said it may be impossible but we should try. Stephen negotiated with Doyle and Doyle said he was interested in weird films.
Was it difficult working with a non-Japanese speaker as your director of photography? That is usually a very close relationship.
Well, it was not really difficult. We had a translator for the language issue. Doyle is an idea man. He had lots of ideas, suggesting how to do this and that. So, it was easy to shoot with him. It was fun.
Due to the film being such an international film I thought you would get a longer shooting time.
No, no, no. The budget wasn’t so big. Only double the usual for a pink film.
Christopher Doyle took half of it, right?
(Laughs) Maybe you are right. I don’t know about that.
"Naturally, people have some certain moment that creates musical spontaneously — which is why I like musicals. This kind of feeling without reason in a musical — I want to imitate this in my movies."
Did this change your directing style?
Most pink movies are 60 minutes long — if we did this, it would be considered a short film, I guess. It is difficult to release a short film. I was told to make it longer just before shooting — about 80 minutes. That was the hardest part for me.
So, you will cut the film for pink theaters and make it 60 minutes?
Yeah. If we had kept the original length, we could just show it in pink theaters. So, the plan changed. We didn’t really think about showing it in a pink theater. We thought it would be shown domestically in regular theaters, and then we’d worry about how to show it in a pink theater.
Do you think the international awareness of the film could help future pink film directors?
Yes. If the same styles of pink films are constantly being produced, the box office will eventually drop. If we add new elements to pink films, it’s cool.
Has Kokuei ever worked with a non-Japanese company?
Never. This is the first time.
Will they do it more in the future?If I’m asked to do it again, I would do it. It’s hard work, but if it comes out good, it is rewarding.
Interview conducted by Jerry Turner and Mariko Sasaki in Tokyo, June 2011. Photo © Kokuei / Nippon Connection / Jason Gray