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The Pornographers (Imamura Shohei 1966)


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The Pornographers
[Jinruigaku nyumon / Introduction to Anthropology]

Genre: Existential Quest for Fulfillment

review in one breath

The Japanese title of this film is simply "Introduction to Anthropology". Only in the West was the prefix "The Pornographers" (or "The Amorists") added. The concise Japanese title is a much more accurate reflection of the content and message of this movie by Shohei Imamura. Although the story's three main characters are in the business of producing and selling underground pornography, their occupation merely sets the backdrop for an exploration of the larger human themes of love, money and fulfillment in life. This was actually a rather complex story which probably needs to be seen more than once to adequately unpack.


Our three pornographers are Banteki, responsible for the audio soundtracks, Kabo, the photographer, and Subu Ogata, the seeming leader of the group who is clearly a prominent contact for requests of pornography, aphrodisiacs, and sundry illicit rendezvous. The film is actually structured as a film within a film, with the inner story centering on Subu's business and family relationships. When this story concludes and the viewer assumes the movie's end, we suddenly realize that we have been watching simply one in a line of movies alongside Subu, Kabo and Banteki, who we hear discussing the film in the background. This not only brings the prior biography of Subu into question, but immediately relegates it to the status of fiction.

Subu is a boarder at the home of the recently widowed Haru Matsuda and her two teenage children Koichi, the rather spoiled and lazy son, and Keiko, the otherwise diligent daughter. Haru survives and provides for her children through renting out the room to Subu and through a barbershop operated out of the front of the house. Despite her husband's recent passing, and the fact that he made her swear on his deathbed that she would remain only his, Haru finds Subu's kindness and care giving attractive so that they soon are embracing and beginning a relationship of love. Haru's broken promise to her deceased husband immediately produces guilt, enhanced drastically by the fact that she believes that he has been reincarnated into the pet carp living in the tank in their living room. She justifies this belief with the carp being born on the day of the husband's death. Several scenes involving Haru and Subu's amorous relations are scene from within the fish tank, lending credence to Haru's superstition. Whether self-fulfilling or through supernatural retribution, Haru becomes increasingly ill as the story progresses, matched by ever ominous perspectives by and through the carp. Haru eventually loses her mind, becoming ill to the point of death. Following her funeral, Subu finally throws the carp into the river, only to be followed by a shot of two carp side by side at the river's bottom, while Haru's voice explains to her husband how and why her assets were split among her children and Subu. (!?)

As Haru increasingly spirals into illness and delusion, Subu finds himself becoming enamored with Keiko. Through a series of incremental events, Subu and Keiko's relationship evolves from that of a kiss, to physical contact, to regret. Keiko's regret seems to lead her into self-destructive behavior including drinking and dangerous adventures with boys. When the police finally bust into the Matsuda household to arrest Subu (whom they call Yoshimoto) for "sale of pornography", the otherwise nuclear family disintegrates into one of shame, especially in terms of Keiko and Koichi's stance toward Subu.

As the story progresses, Subu has an increasingly difficult time making a living through pornography, which he views as a necessary service to those common men who lack adequate sexual encounter. In addition to his arrest and the subsequent raid on their ad hoc production studio, Subu and Kabo discover that Banteki has run off with all of their equipment and film. In an effort to rejuvenate his passion for the industry, Subu and Kabo host an orgy (in which they do not participate). Subu confesses that this only has bored him and Kabo expresses his amazement that people get so wrapped up in pursuit of sex. During this discussion, Kabo concludes that the best partner would indeed be a machine which did not make demands, did not misunderstand, and would not cause heart ache. Upon hearing this, Subu, clearly excited, jumps into the air exclaiming "I will make a mannequin!"

The story suddenly jumps several years into the future, with a middle aged Keiko running a beauty salon out of the front of the house, and Subu introvertly working on a secret project in a small houseboat which also serves as his home. Koichi, now a business man, has brought his boss to see Subu's project, which they have heard consists of a living doll which can serve as a partner. Subu adamantly refuses to allow anyone to see his project and angrily returns to his work (but not until causing the boss to take a plunge into the river, still waving wads of cash at Subu). He and Kabo carefully place mannequin body pieces together under the stern instruction of Subu, who is lovingly talking to the developing doll throughout the procedure. On an evening in which Subu is intently working on her, he fails to notice that his houseboat has become unmoored from the dock and is slowly floating out to sea. He remains completely oblivious at the story's end as he drifts further and further out, until we realize he is past the point of return. It is here that the inner film suddenly appears as such and we hear Subu and Kabo discussing possible demises of the man in the boat, concluding with "Let's watch the next movie".

So what is the moral of the story? In several discussions, the characters are voicing the belief that "In the end, it's all about money". This line is found on the lips of Subu while he discusses the sale of pornography and again when denouncing the yakuza's attempts at controlling his business. The elder Keiko also declares this when talking about her salon business. Elsewhere there are several declarations that "Love" or "freedom" are the key inclinations of humanity. Subu employs this reasoning to explain why people turn to pornography and thus why his business is actually a necessary service. Subu also repeats this several times to Haru in his declarations of love and his explanations of why she rightly and naturally pursues relationship with him despite her promise to the husband. And finally, the story's conclusion with Subu transfixed on the creation of a sex proxy and big business' intense interest in the project seems to point to another underlying human reality, namely the pursuit of fulfillment by proxy where actual fulfillment is elusive. This last theme is actually woven throughout the entire film, though certainly crescendos into irony in the idea of Subu's living mannequin.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Black comedy aimed at the conflicts inherent between human nature and social taboo. Not a great deal of actual history interwoven, but certainly a classic presentation of Imamura's characteristically (and intentionally) naive notions of political and social structure. A face slap or two for drunken Keiko. You'll end up wanting to slap whiney Koichi around as well. Two scenes of carp-throwing. Despite its promising title, this movie contains no nudity and no sex. It does however address or imply human sexuality of several sorts in as many situations. This film is actually quite memorable. I have a hunch that the more times you watch it, the more understandable and plausible the movie's underlying message becomes.

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