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Friday, Feb. 15, 2008
Pensioners can do 'porn' too
Pinku eiga (pink films) — hourlong soft-porn flicks with simulated sex and real, fleshed-out stories — aren't what they used to be in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, they served as the training grounds for many of the top directors in Japan today, as well as often being more interesting and boundary-pushing than so-called straight films. The number of such productions has declined from the genre's peak, and many of the directors still making them aren't in the same class as their elders.
One big, talented exception is Shinji Imaoka who, working under the indulgent auspices of the Kokuei studio, has turned the pink film into his own quirky, quietly brilliant ends. His "Uncle's Paradise (Ojisan Tengoku)" from 2006 is a surrealistic comedy about the erotic trials and triumphs of a pep-tonic addicted middle-age man and his squid-fishing nephew, climaxing in a descent to love-hotel hell, with Satan as the desk clerk.
Imaoka's new film, "Tasogare (Twilight)," has the same sort of down-to-earth ambience, shrewd humor and lovable but hopelessly horny hero as in "Uncle's Paradise." But the story, about two former classmates — now in their 60s — who are enjoying a more-than-nostalgic reunion, is also tenderly insightful into the realities and joys of old love. Calling it "good for a pink film" is like calling Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)" "good for a home drama": though hardly a worldwide classic, it transcends its genre.
The hero, Funakichi (Masaru Taga), is a 65-year-old plasterer whose wife is dying in hospital. He's carrying on an affair with a youngish snack bar mama-san, and he still flips up the skirts of lovelies he encounters in the supermarket. When the aged rake goes to a junior high school reunion, he reminiscences with two buddies about their adolescent forays into Eros, including one memorable peep at newlyweds in their bridal bed. (The flashback scenes are shot with the three geezers in school uniforms, not the standard young stand-ins.)
Then Funakichi spies the late-arriving Kazuko (Yasuko Namikibashi), his idol from junior high, looking elegant and refined in a kimono — and still, to Funakichi's infatuated eyes, looking out of reach. But something clicks between them, and despite Funakichi's fumbling attempts at conversation, Kazuko, recently widowed, gives him her cell-phone number. Then one thing leads to another — that is, to a love hotel.
The story, however, is more than a lubricious romp. Humor of the raunchier sort is plentiful, but Funakichi and Kazuko also have lives outside the bedroom and thoughts beyond erotic thrills. Confronted by the first man in years who sees her as a woman, not a sexless wife, mother or grandmother, Kazuko doesn't know how to react. Isn't she too old? Isn't this whole sex thing absurd? Isn't cuddling enough? But Funakichi is gently persistent, as well as genuinely enamored, and Kazuko's defenses begin to crumble.
What transpires next is more than the mechanical rumpy-pumpy of the usual pink pic. It is instead a poignant, hot, profoundly human transaction that changes them both — Kazuko, especially. She has been cherished and respected as a sexual being, and no one, including her disapproving family, can take this from her. Their sex scene, and all that follows, feels absolutely right and natural, but I have never seen anything quite like it in Japanese films, Ozu's included.
The big reason, I think, is that the persistence of Eros to the end is a human fact, but a social — and cinematic — taboo, one of the last ones to exist. Imaoka, who knows the erotic the way a plumber knows pipes, breaks it with an ironic, casual shrug and a sharp, knowing eye. As Hillary Clinton controversially said about the enactment of civil-rights legislation in the United States, "It took a president." Something similar could be said about the sex lives of old folks in films: It took a pink film director to do it right.