Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969)

In the 1970's loosening censorship standards brought erotic imagery flooding onto cinema screens around the world.  Throughout North America, Europe and Asia, frank depictions of sex and nudity became normalized as part of the cinematic grammar.  Although the genie could never be put back into the bottle, the coming of widespread home video adoption in the 1980's meant that the prevalence of big-screen sexuality in the 1970's would never be matched in subsequent decades.  Yet even in the context of this global atmosphere of anything goes eroticism, the pinku eiga (or pink film) of Japan stands apart.  Nowhere else was softcore sex as readily embraced by both the mainstream and the avant-garde; nowhere else did one of the oldest studios of a national cinema devote itself entirely to the production of sexually explicit films.  The publication of Jasper Sharp's mammoth tome  Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, one of the most significant works of film history in recent years, is testament to the enduring popularity and critical interest in Japan's erotic cinema.  It would not be an overstatement, however, to say that this unique configuration of mainstream appeal and critical consideration would not have been possible without the daring early work of director Koji Wakamatsu throughout the 1960's. 

At the onset of the 1960's, as cinematic revolutions sprung up around the world, Japan's film landscape was in the grips of six major studios which controlled all aspects of production and distribution, much like the studio system of Golden Age Hollywood.  The Japanese majors saw family viewing as their true source of revenue, and so had little tolerance for films that were experimental or transgressive in any meaningful way.  After having a politically charged film pulled from cinemas by his studio on the grounds that it had the potential to incite unrest, Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) formed Japan's first independent distribution company, the Art Theater Guild.  Beginning as a chain of ten theaters, the ATG provided a venue for imports from Westerners like Bergman and Cassavetes, as well as an outlet for the growing number of young Japanese filmmakers who could find no place for their works in the rigid studio system.  This modest beginning helped to foster an environment in which, for the first time, ambitious filmmakers could produce, distribute and exhibit their films all without the help (or hindrance) of the majors.

This is the environment that spawned eroduction film.  Before the term "pink", and before the major studios conferred legitimacy on erotica, a group of young filmmakers began making sexually explicit films for independent distribution throughout Japan's major cities.  While many of these films were merely softcore sex romps of little enduring value, a few directors saw the independence of eroduction and its inherent transgressiveness as an invitation to embrace the avant-garde and the revolutionary leftist politics of Japan's burgeoning youth counter-culture.  Of these directors, none is more significant than Koji Wakamatsu.

Wakamatsu was a true "outlaw" filmmaker.  Legend has it that he got his start working in film production through his yakuza connections, assigned to stand watch over a crew's location shooting to signify that they had mob permission for their work, he ended up making connections that got him his first professional film work.  Like Oshima before him, Wakamatsu was not able to work within the confines of the traditional studio system, and so by the mid 1960's he'd gone independent and set up his own production company, Wakamatsu Pro.  Wakamatsu Pro could rely on the rapid growth of independent cinemas (made possibly by Oshima and the ATG) for distribution, so long as their films "delivered the goods" in terms of nudity and sexuality.  Wakamatsu and his acolytes would go on to produce films that wedded eroticism with shocking violence, political ambition and an avant-garde aesthetic that brought international intention to eroduction and made Wakamatsu the first "name director" of what would come to be called pink film.

Go, Go Second Time Virgin is a very representative example of the kind of film on which Wakamatsu made his name.  Shot for less than $5,000 on a single location (the tenement block where Wakamatsu Pro's offices were located at the time) with a total cast of fourteen, Virgin demonstrates well Wakamatsu's ability to make professional looking films on the most frugal of budgets.  There is a confident visual aesthetic to the film that clearly came to Wakamatsu through practice; IMDB's filmography for him (almost certainly incomplete) lists nearly 30 features between his founding of Waka Pro in 1965 and Virgin's release in 1969.  Filmed in black and white almost entirely with natural light, Wakamatsu uses every trick available within his means, including limited use of color tinting and full color photography, to ensure that Virgin has an aesthetic appeal that belies its budget.

Even the most cursory discussion of the plot of this film will reveal that it (like most of Wakamatsu's work) is a film not interested in simple titillation, and thus resistant to being labeled as "merely a sex film."  Mimi Kozakura plays a young girl, gang-raped on a Tokyo roof one night.  She comes to the next morning, stunned and bleeding, to find herself watched over by Michio Akiyama, a prickly and defensive young man, who took a front-row seat to her violation the night before.  They spend the next few days together on the roof and in the boy's rooms in the building, discussing their individual histories as the victims of sexual violence, the mechanics of suicide, and the possibility of love.  When the girl discovers that the boy (neither are named in the film or its credits) had killed his past aggressors, she begs him to kill her as well.

Towards the end of the film Wakamatsu inter-cuts the narrative with images taken from the hyper-violent historical manga Lone Wolf and Cub, a popular sensation at the time, as well as images of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate together, immediately before her murder.  The suggestion, I suppose, is that these young people find themselves as the subjects and objects of violence because that is/was the dominant cultural dialogue in which they could place themselves.  Frankly, though, the message is a bit muddled; Wakamatsu's political interests are best expressed elsewhere in the way he frames his story.  The rooftop on which the action is set is like an isolated bubble, around which Tokyo flows inexorably.  When the youths look over the edge and see all the busy activity of people and cars, the inevitable flow of commerce, it seems to belong to a different world -- one that produced them yet has no use for them.  A young mother comes to the roof periodically to tend her laundry, oblivious to the half-naked girl lying in a pool of her own blood.  The society that has failed to protect them or to cure them offers the final indignity of invisibility.

Although it prefigures both the rape/revenge thrillers and slasher films that would come to popularity in subsequent years, Go, Go Second Time Virgin withholds the catharsis and the moral clarity that can make those films relatively palatable to mainstream audiences.  It remains, until its final shots a painful and nihilistic film that will repel any viewers looking for easy or comfortable entertainment.  Yet, even forty years on, it's still a daring, challenging and aesthetically pleasing piece of film that should be essential viewing for those looking to understand the history of Japanese cinema.

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