16 Aug 2015 16:46 IST

Dark films from the land of the rising sun

A still from The Happiness of the Katakuris

Japanese films have changed from being gentle to exploring extreme themes like sadomasochism, incest and gratuitous violence

Japanese cinema has come a long way since the halcyon days of Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Imamura. From the comparatively gentle films of the masters, contemporary Japanese films, at least the kind that get considerable international festival exposure, now appear to veer towards the extreme, with a focus on sex and violence. These are the kind of films that would either receive an outright ban in contemporary India, or get badly butchered by Nihalani (Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification of India) and his merry band. One of the most prolific contemporary Japanese filmmakers is Takashi Miike. Including video and television, he has an astonishing 98 credits since he began his career in 1991, which translates into a shade under five projects a year.

To give you an example of Miike’s oeuvre, look at Visitor Q (2001). The film packs in gay rape; a mother moonlighting as a sex worker, who lactates on demand for a client; a prostitute daughter who convinces her father to have sex with her; a son who randomly and mercilessly beats up his mother; and so on. Or Ichi the Killer (2001), where the opening sequence of a man masturbating, as a pimp beats up a sex worker, is merely a prelude to extreme sadomasochistic violence. I must hasten to add that Miike does not confine himself to these themes. His Audition (1999) is a horror masterpiece; The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is a musical where the hills are alive with the sounds of horror, and Rainy Dog (1997) and Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) are worthy successors to Kinji Fukasaku’s 1970s The Yakuza Papers series.

Miike’s contemporary, Sion Sono, seems hell-bent on catching up with him. Having begun in 1984, Sono has racked up 45 credits already. This year alone, he will have six releases. I first came across his work at a film festival. Love Exposure (2008), a four-hour epic, is a triangle between a sometimes cross-dressing young lad, who specialises in up-skirt photography, a sexually abused girl who cuts her father’s appendage off, and a cultist. Sono’s delirious Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) follows an indie-film crew embroiled in a Yakuza war, with much ensuing bloodshed. Sono returns to up-skirt photography amidst scenes of carnage with his latest release Tag (2015).

If all these seem bizarre, it is not without precedent. Japan has a long history of ‘pink’ films, or sex and violence exploitation movies, funded by major studios, Nikkatsu and Toei. Many Japanese masters have cut their teeth in the genre, including Koji Wakamatsu, who would go on to make the acclaimed dramas United Red Army (2007) and Caterpillar (2010). Similarly, Nagisa Oshima, who won global acclaim for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), is also equally famous for his tale of sexual obsession, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and its follow-up, Empire of Passion (1978). While these extreme themes may not be for all tastes, they do provide a window into what can be an impenetrable filmmaking sub-culture.

(Courtesy Cinema Plus, The Hindu)

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