Gushing Prayer

Wild Japan: Sex in Japanese Cinema of the 60s and 70s

1-30 December 2008

BFI Southbank, London

BFI website

Among the rare delights offered by the Wild Japan season that ran at the BFI Southbank last December, three films stood out for their boldness, ambition and originality. Kan Mukai’s 1969 Blue Film Woman (Burû fuirumu no onna) was a delirious mix of grotesque horror, stylised sex, psychedelic visuals and 60s exuberance. The story centres on the family of a ruined stockbroker forced to acquiesce to the demands of the loan shark he is indebted to, a repulsive man called Uchiyama, who requests sexual favours from the wife as payment. After having his way with her, Uchiyama takes her to his house where he lets her be raped by his monstrous idiot son; her suffering ends tragically when she is run over by a car on her way home. Mariko, the daughter, takes up employment as a go-go dancer in a nightclub to provide for her father and herself. After he commits suicide, she becomes a call girl and records her sexual encounters with a group of wealthy businessmen, using the films to bring them down in revenge for the ruin of her family.

The plot takes a sinuous, unexpected path, and Uchiyama’s comeuppance is meted out not by Mariko but by his own son in a shockingly brilliant twist. Mariko aims higher, focusing not so much on the sleazy loan shark who is simply a middleman, but on the legitimate businessmen at the very top who think nothing of destroying whole families through their reckless actions (sound familiar?), an idea emphasised by shots of the enormous stock exchange building towering over people on the streets below. Add to the implied social criticism the rich, horrific inventiveness of the scenes involving the blubbering maniacal son, throw in the swirly sounds and stroboscopic lights of a hip, late 60s Tokyo nightclub, and you have one of the most unpredictable and pleasurable films of the Wild Japan season.

For this writer, however, the unquestionable highlight of the programme was the pair of films from the independent Wakamatsu Pro company, including Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secret Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto, 1965), and Gushing Prayer: A 15-Year-Old Prostitute (Funshutsu kigan: 15-sai no baishunfu, 1971), written and directed by Wakamatsu’s long-time collaborator Masao Adachi. Both films were made as pinku eiga (pink film), a genre of soft-core porn that emerged in Japanese cinema in the early 60s. Wakamatsu and Adachi found in the erotic film industry an alternative distribution network that allowed them to get their uncompromising work shown. Sharing the same radical spirit and aesthetics, fascinating, articulate and beautifully filmed, Secret Acts behind Walls and Gushing Prayer are closer to European art films than to Western sexploitation of the same period. For both Wakamatsu and Adachi, sex is a crucial indicator of social relationships and as such, is political. Through their characters’ sexual encounters, the directors probe the state of post-war Japan, the repressive hypocrisies of its patriarchal society and the bitter aftermath of the student leftist protests.

Filmed in black and white, Secret Acts behind Walls opens with bleak shots of concrete blocks of flats before closing in on a couple in bed, injecting drugs, the woman caressing her lover’s keloid scar, calling him ‘an emblem of Hiroshima, of Japan, an anti-war emblem’. This confrontational opening is followed by a tightly framed study of the oppressive lives led by a number of the block’s residents. The couple are revealed to be disillusioned lovers whose youthful ideals have come to nothing. In the opposite building, a young student is driven mad by sexual frustration while his attractive sister has her first relationship with a man. Obsessions and dissatisfactions heat up slowly, bringing the characters together in a violent dénouement.

The sex acts are constantly associated with political and social events. The central couple read newspapers in bed, the man fondling his lover’s breast while reading an article about the Vietnam war. Their initial passion was linked to their shared beliefs in pacifism and their involvement in the student movement: in a flashback, they are seen making love in front of a poster of Stalin. He is now a stockbroker who makes money from the war, and she is an alienated housewife struggling to escape the confines of the small flat she shares with her husband, disenchanted by her lover’s increasingly cool, cynical detachment. He has no qualms about his current employment and seems happy to call their affair – and possibly their former activism – a ‘momentary passion’, in somewhat callous disregard to the momentous sacrifice she made to what she believed was their eternal love (she chose to get sterilised because his irradiation meant they could not have children). A sense of profound despair hangs over the residents, born of an awareness of the changes that could have been but never materialised, and of the characters’ resulting imprisonment in a claustrophobic present that offers no hope for the future and no solace in the past.

The opening of Adachi’s Gushing Prayer is as startling as that of Secret Acts behind Walls, framing the body of the vacant-eyed teenage Yasuko lying on the floor in a series of close-ups as she is fondled by two boys who ask her, together with another girl sitting nearby, what she can feel as they touch her. The four teenagers spend the film debating sex and their attitude towards it with the kind of dogmatic intensity and moral rigidity displayed by revolutionary students in other Japanese films of the same period. To establish whether Yasuko has betrayed their rules by sleeping with an adult (their teacher), and whether this means she is a prostitute, they decide she should begin taking payment to perform sex acts with strangers. What follows is a succession of bizarre, random, dispassionate couplings that are observed and discussed by the rest of the group. When Yasuko says she is four months pregnant, the group decide she should keep the child. Having managed to finally escape the overbearing attention of her friends, she ponders the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘mother’ in an effort to find her identity, but in a patriarchal society that restricts women to those two roles, her only way out seems to be suicide. This is emphasised by the soundtrack: throughout the film, disembodied voices read the suicide notes of teenage girls, grimly hinting at where Yasuko’s sexual exploration might lead.

Just as in Secret Acts behind Walls, sex is a social transaction and a political act. The film explores how what one does with one’s body, especially when female, defines their relationship to their community or society, and how that community may try and claim ownership of the body, controlling its perceptions and desires. The four teenage friends constitute a small, marginal social group trying to construct their own set of rules, different from the ones that prevail in what they dismissively call ‘the adult world’. In that sense they are social revolutionaries, akin to the rebellious students of the post-war years, and the genius of the film is to explore politics obliquely through the characters’ teenage anxieties and sexual experimentation. More cerebral and verbose than Secret Acts behind Walls, with a looser, rambling, experimental style that allows for the unfettered investigation of ideas, Gushing Prayer offers just as searing a depiction of a suffocating society with nothing to offer to its defeated youth.

Virginie Sélavy