The Pornographers is not so much about porn or sex as it is about frustration, and what better way to talk about frustration than through sex, or the lack thereof? It takes place in post-WWII Japan, where pornography is illegal, but "Subu" Ogata makes a decent living by selling black-market 8mm porno films to a steady stream of middle-aged and well-off clients. His clients are frustrated men, unable to get the sex they want except through porn, or through the young girls Ogata occasionally procures for them through friends of his. And Ogata himself is frustrated — Haru, the woman he's living with, doesn't want him sleeping with her because she's afraid that her dead husband's spirit won't rest easy if she's with another man.
This is the setup for The Pornographers, one of the best films made by Japanese director Shohei Imamura, who over the course of several decades has repeatedly found his subject in the oddball underbelly of Japan's everyday life. He focused on a quasi-quack WWII doctor in Dr. Akagi; he examined the lives of those forever tainted by the atomic bomb in Black Rain; and here, in his first film for Nikkatsu Studios, he turns his eye on a Japan strangled by decades of self-imposed sexual repression. Like many of the people in his movies, Subu is not seen as a hero or even a particularly sympathetic figure, but Imamura nevertheless makes him into the centerpiece of a fascinating story. Good movies do not have to be about good people, just interesting ones.
The first scenes set a pattern for the rest of the film. Subu surreptitiously meets up with his cameraman and two actors, and they prepare to film a porno short up in the hills somewhere. (In one of the movie's many little nods towards the technical end of the craft, both Subu and his co-worker shoot using racks of four 8mm cameras strapped together side by side, rather than make copies later.) Then we see him peddling the results to various salarymen and corporate executives; in one memorable shot, he meets one man in a restroom and they euphemistically refer to the porn as "medicine." This fits in perfectly with Subu's view of things. He's providing a service for the repressed and the impotent and the frigid — he's a good man, even if he's a criminal and a panderer.
Most of Subu's friends and family are similarly self-justifying, if in totally different ways. His woman Haru has two children by a previous marrage, a son and a daughter, both of whom are arguably about as damaged as she is. The son has an unhealthy fixation on Mom, so much so that he crawls into bed with her at the worst possible moments (his standing excuse is "It's cold!", which only makes it all the funnier); the daughter is arrogant and indifferent, contemptuous towards her surrogate father for being a pimp and a porn merchant. At one point she even frames him and has a gang of yakuza steal off his filmmaking equipment, rather than have him send her to school with money gleaned from his hobby.
The relationship between mother and son, and Subu and daughter, are two of the biggest linchpins for the movie's action. Imamura shows us a scene early in the girl's life, when she clearly had contempt for Subu even then (only to have him rescue her from nearly being crushed under the wheels of a truck on the way to school). When Haru becomes progressively unavailable, his attention shifts to the girl — and as Haru's health (and later her sanity) fails, she even encourages Subu to leave her and marry the girl. (She, too, spurns him, but not before taking him for all he's worth.)
The Pornographers isn't very rigidly plotted — things just sort of bubble up, one after the other, but the film is never boring and often very funny. The humor is often shot through with darkness, however. At one point Subu is trying to set up a scene to be filmed (schoolgirl molested by "tutor"), and they find the girl they've procured for the role is retarded. Her father placates her by shoving lollipops into her mouth which she then chews mechanically, like a dog wolfing down a biscuit. Haru believes that her husband's spirit has been reincarnated into a carp, which thrashes around in great agitation whenever Haru gets sexually aroused. This sort of goony whimsy is something that appears in all of Imamura's movies; sometimes it works, as it did in Warm Water under a Red Bridge, and sometimes it falls flat on its face, as it did in The Eel.
Voyeurism and incestuous desires drive The Pornographers to show up the sexual failings of a society.
Imamura filmed The Pornographers in a peculiar style not suited to many movies, and probably not used in any of Imamura's other movies, either. He shoots the vast majority of the action at a distance, through long lenses, and also shoots through windows, doorways, curtains, and down long hallways to further isolate the players. In a movie that's concerned with voyeurism (and incestuous desire as well), this makes perfect sense, but it has another unanticipated effect — it allows Imamura to also isolate people on the far left or right side of a 70mm CinemaScope frame. In one of the best examples of this, Subu is peddling his wares to a group of (all-male) executives in a conference room; on the right side of the screen, the (all-female) typing pool in the office outside clacks away busily.
The film advances a number of conceits about sex in Japan without being preachy. Women and men may be total strangers to each other in Japanese society (think of the previously-described shot), and things also seem to be designed to keep them that way. Men are trained to see women as greedy and insatiable; women, to see men as lecherous and base. And while Japan had a long history of using erotic material to educate newlyweds about sex, one of the by-products of Westernization appears to have been that sex has been made taboo all over again — not least of all because of the criminalization of erotic material. Japanese censorship laws are only slightly more liberal now than they were when the film was first made — it's now possible to show pubic hair, but that's about it. The only way to change the system would appear to be to circumvent it entirely, as Nagisa Oshima did with In the Realm of the Senses (an experiment not repeated by others since).
The very last scenes in the movie are as much an indictment of the society that secretly needs someone like Subu as it is an indictment of Subu himself. Subu, now an eccentric hermit living on a boat, has dedicated himself to building a perfect sex-surrogate doll for men everywhere. Some people will see the intended irony in it. Others, I suspect, will say, "Hey, that's not such a bad idea." Imamura probably had both types of people in mind when he made The Pornographers.