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Keiko Sato and the Lure of Pink Cinema

An introduction to Pink Cinema pioneer Keiko Sato and her subversive and scintillating filmography.
Florence Woolley
The series Keiko Sato: Pinku Maverick starts on MUBI on March 3, 2021 in many countries.
Above: Blue Film Woman
These films, “Pink Cinema,” are anything but easy to digest; women are violently abused and objectified, sex is often un-consensual or underaged, murder, torture, suicide and castration are commonplace, and incest is an assumed normality. It’s fair to say that the appeal of these films, for many modern-day audiences, is not necessarily clear. So why are these films being restored and rewatched now?
The long-debated question “is pornography essentially harmful to women?” is brought to the fore in these films and lingers on each drawn-out sexual violence scene. Amia Srinivasan, reflecting on this question with reference to Nancy Bauer’s essay on pornography, notes that “to fully understand this question, we need to attend more carefully to the particularities of pornography and the role it plays not just in culture generally but in individual peoples’ lives including our own.”1 It would be redundant to turn a blind eye to these films, for if we are to untangle this question, we must pay attention to their specificities. The film critic Donald Richie, often called the “maverick of Japanese cinema” boldly claimed that “the West knows nothing of these pictures [Pink Cinema] nor should it.”2 This elitist dictum was held by many throughout the heyday of Pink Cinema in the 1960s - 1970s, which meant it wasn’t until much later that these films gained international recognition. Paying attention to the unique historical and social significance of these films, including the influence of producer Keiko Sato, dramatically alters and complexifies them, obscuring their sole characterization as porn. Either way, clearly these films are worthy of our attention.
The Pink Films produced by Keiko Sato: Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wasteland (1967) directed by Yamatoya Atsushi; Gushing Prayer  (1971) directed by Masao Adachi; Abnormal Family (1984) directed by Masayuki Suo;, Blue Film Woman (1969) directed Kan Mukai; and Women Hell Song (1970) directed by Mamoru Watanabe, span over twenty years of the Pink Cinema era, from its inception in the early 60s. Keiko Sato was the president of Kokuei productions, which became one of the leading Pink production companies. Pink Cinema is a term that does not, as it is commonly misunderstood, stand for the porn film in general. Pink Film can be more accurately be defined as an independently produced movie, shot on 35mm film, by professional or semi-professional casts and crews, whose main lure is its sexual content. It grew out of the collapse of the major production companies and the so-called Golden Age of cinema in Japan, which once held tight control over the cinema industry.  The disbanding of former production codes enabled Pink to develop into a highly structured industry with its own production, distribution, and exhibition systems, as well as its own theater chains, actors, and staff. Pink Film remained on the fringes of the mainstream, independent of the other film companies, and its films were made quickly and cheaply and attracted huge, almost entirely male, audiences who churned through the films on swift rotation in cinemas. The fast and cheap production of Pink Film and the rapid exhibition cycle was critically different to that of other film markets and contributed to what is now an extremely ephemeral archive of Pink Cinema. Popular films were played to the point of literal disintegration, whereas unpopular films were unthinkingly tossed out and replaced. This scarcity of remains highlights the significant position held by those films that survived and, moreover, those that were deemed worthy of restoration.
Above: Gushing Prayer
The films produced by Sato exploit the potentiality of Pink Cinema through wild experimentation, complex narratives, compelling characters and political appropriations, all of which became the markers of the directors’ continued success. These attributes are no doubt a manifestation of Kokuei’s ambitions led by Sato’s audacious artistry. Whilst lots of people may now be aware of Pink Cinema, they will most likely not be aware that it was spearheaded by a woman, whose role was paramount to the success of these bizarre films.
Sato was known under the male pseudonym Asakura Daisuke since, as she notes in an interview with Berlinale Forum, “there were hardly any women in the industry in those days so we couldn’t use a female name.”3 Asakura Daisuke was a pun, “It comes 'from ‘asa kara,’ meaning ‘from the morning” and “daisuki,’ which means ‘to like very much’” So, as she said, the name simply means “we love (sex) from the morning.”’4 Sato’s witty subversion of social expectations in choosing her pseudonym is telling of her dedication to uprooting social norms through her bold film practice. Sato was determined to do something different with the sphere of Pink Cinema by producing films that were artistically engaging. She liked “directors that can make sincere films that manifest the distinctive personality or character of their makers, not just run-of-the-mill adult program pictures.”5 Sato was determined to challenge directors and to push them outside of formulaic comfort zones.
Taking them under her wing, she nurtured their talent helping to craft a generation of accomplished Pink Filmmakers, many of whom would go on to make internationally renowned films outside of the Pink Cinema industry. Many, drawing attention to the unique position of Sato as a lone woman in the Pink Cinema industry, have suggested that her gendered role should change the perception of Pink Cinema. However, while Sato’s role as a hidden figure is no doubt worthy of our attention, it is worth noting that it did not change the landscape of the industry more widely. Her ambition was solely to create compelling and creative narratives, that would, as Abé Mark Nornes notes, “fly in the face of our conventional understanding of porn as having an overriding masturbatory function.”6
Above: Abnormal Family
Masayuki Suo’s Abnormal Family (1984) is a comedy unlike any other in the Pink Cinema genre. Parodying the classic work of Yasujirō Ozu, Suo subverts the normative family dynamic to create an erotic pastiche. With the support of Sato, Suo was able to experiment with his filmmaking capabilities before moving on to foster an award-winning career in the mainstream. Likewise, Mamoru Watanabe’s and Kan Mukai, who became the major trailblazers of the Pink Cinema industry, were guided by the close support of Sato, who encouraged them to experiment and push the limits of the genre.  Atsushi Yamatoya's crime thriller Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967), which parallels Branded to Kill (1967), the acclaimed screenplay he wrote alongside this one, is a testament to the flexibility of the Pink genre and Sato’s dedication to supporting heavily narrative-based work that was distinct and compelling. This freedom also enabled the political appropriation of the Pinks by activists such as Masao Adachi. Gushing Prayer (1971) is a distinctly eerie anti-authoritarian melodrama, which chronicles a group of school kids ambitions to “beat sex.” Adachi’s films are often political allegories, which explore the relationship between sex and political liberation. Although, no doubt undisputed by Sato, it should be noted that the revolutionary struggle tends to be made at the expense of women’s bodies who are not seen as political agents but rather tools through whose bodies a revolution may be achieved. While Sato’s position in the Pink Cinema industry does not offer any radical introspections into the ethical questions surrounding Pink Films, nor any alterations to the gendered hierarchy of the industry, she did decidedly influence the trajectory of Pink Cinema—Sato promoted the production of films that transcended the stereotypes of the porn genre to create a plethora of sophisticated and compelling work that challenged the conventional understanding of the Pink Cinema and garnered international attention. 

1. Srinivasan, Amia, How to Do Things with Philosophy / On Nancy Bauer’s How to Do Things with Pornography (Wiley and Sons, 2018) p.6
2. Donald Richie in Bock, Audie Japanese Film Directors (New York: Kodansha, 1990) p.9
3.  “Difficult, Dark and With No Sex” An Interview with Keiko Sato - Berlinale Forum 2018.  https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/print/berlinale-forum/archive/program-archive/2018/magazine/difficult-dark-and-with-no-sex.html
4. “Difficult, Dark and With No Sex” An Interview with Keiko Sato - Berlinale Forum 2018.  https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/en/print/berlinale-forum/archive/program-archive/2018/magazine/difficult-dark-and-with-no-sex.html
5. Sharp, Jasper, Behind The Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (Fab Press Limited; 1st edition, 2008) p.327
6. Nornes, Abé Mark, The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and Its Contexts (University of Michigan, 2014) p.14

Tags

Now ShowingKeiko SatoPink CinemaYamatoya AtsushiMasao AdachiMasayuki SuoKan MukaiMamoru WatanbeKokuei Productions
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