Sunday, February 26, 2012

#207: The Pornographers

(Shohei Imamura, 1966)

There's one pretty major problem with this project that I haven't really addressed on this blog. Watching every Criterion movie is largely viewed as a "completist" mission, and obviously in one way it certainly is. But because Criterion only picks (for the most part) individual films, many of these "important" releases are unmoored from their context. This is less of a concern with filmmakers who are well represented in the Collection like Kurosawa, Godard, or Bergman. Even Ophüls or Melville - who have large swaths of their careers unavailable even on non-Criterion DVD - at least have their most fruitful creative periods represented to a significant enough degree that each film's place within a body of work can be largely understood. But with lesser-known filmmakers and/or more seemingly standalone films, this process means missing some of the understanding that comes with viewing a piece of art with a firm understanding of an artist's themes, career-trajectory, and historical context. (In case anyone doesn't know, one completist, Dave Blakeslee, is doing a pretty good job of avoiding this pitfall over at Criterion Reflections.)

This is where Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers sat until recently. The film was released by Criterion years before they packaged Imamura's previous three films as a boxset. This is not especially surprising as it is certainly his best-known film in the US. But I think watching the film out of the context of Imamura's body of work would lead to a huge misunderstanding of its point of view and (no pun intended) intentions. Knowing Imamura's fascination with the lower depths (both socially and physically) and his persistant focus on both women and the overlooked protagonist makes the film's dark humor and ironically casual attitude toward serious issues like rape, prostitution, and incest feel much less irresponsibly provocative and instead thoughtfully satiric.

All that being said, I didn't love The Pornographers. The film's characters all have such twisted motivations and backwards world views that it becomes difficult to sympathize with anyone - which can be difficult in a film world that lacks any similarity to my recognizable reality. And this movie is dark - like Fat Girl dark, only with a sly tone that persists even when the protagonist unknowingly attempts to shoot a smut film between a mentally challenged girl and her father - so there isn't a lot of room for sympathy to sneak in. There's still one more Imamura film I've yet to see and I'm hoping I enjoy it more. Even so, the 60s-era Imamura selections in the Collection make up a challenging but rewarding set of works.


  1. Thank you for that plug! I just stumbled across it while looking for your comments on INGMAR BERGMAN MAKES A MOVIE. :)

  2. Having now watched THE PORNOGRAPHERS and re-read your own concise summary just now, I join you in expressing similar ambivalence about the movie in question. That same scene that you cite, about a father who's basically preparing to rape his own developmentally disabled daughter for the payoff (financial and presumably psycho-sexual) of making a cheap porno film, really threw me off because it's just too close to the work I do in my day job. I was able to recover sufficiently enough to acknowledge Imamura's poignant insights into human nature and his contemporary culture, but beyond that, this isn't a film that I can casually or enthusiastically recommend without at least voicing a caveat or two.

  3. Yeah, this was not an easy one for me, and I can only imagine how odd it would have been to watch it in the early 2000s when it was released without seeing any other Imamura movies. Of the five films of his in the collection, this is easily my least favorite. But I've always found Japanese comedies difficult to translate, so when you add in the weird taboo elements it becomes even more alien - and not in a compelling way.