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March 12, 2008

1000 Words: Naomi Tani

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Welcome to another entry in "1000 Words," a series of postings where I explore underknown and/or quirky cultural phenomena. Previous installments here, here, here, here, here. Today: the Japanese movie actress Naomi Tani, who was a star of what's known as the Japanese "pink cinema."

A quick word of explanation. The pink cinema developed in Japan in the 1960s, flourished through the '70s, and died out in the '80s. It was, as its name may suggest, a sex-and-violence movement.

It came about because of the way TV and American films were hitting the Japanese film audience. With theater audiences for mainstream Japanese films shrinking, independent production houses saw an opportunity to make money by producing low-budget exploitation pictures. It was a gamble that paid off. By 1970, even the big studios (Toei, Nikkatsu) had joined in the fun, putting aside most of their larger ambitions to make instead cheap and dirty movies that were heavy on the sex, the violence, and the kinkiness.

Some of these pictures were flamboyant action pictures. Some of the films belonged to new or oddball genres -- I wrote here about a beautiful and poetic (if trashy) film in the "nunsploitation" genre.

Others were straightforwardly porn, or near-porn. When Nikkatsu took on the sex-film genre, the studio gave its directors a little more money to play with than other porn-filmmakers had access to. These slightly-higher-budget Nikkatsu sex films became known as "romans porno." They were shot quickly, often in a week or less, and for very little money. They typically had a runtime of only 70 minutes.

They were thrown together like Roger Corman's movies were -- with relative freedom so long as a concept was adhered to and a specified number of whammies (in this case, sex acts) were delivered. This being Japan, bondage, schoolgirls, and torture played a large role in the proceedings. This being Japan, large dots or blobs were inserted in the imagery to cover crotches and pubic hair. Despite the dots, though, the films were quite explicit -- what we'd consider today hard-R, or maybe even NC-17.

(By the way: talk about rapid cultural change. Kissing wasn't seen on the Japanese movie screen until 1946. By 1970, theatrical films in Japan were showing everything but hardcore closeups. From the first onscreen smooch to a flourishing sex-film business in 24 years -- now that's a culture that was moving very fast.)

The roman porno films were hugely popular, and remained so until the mid-'80s when the home-video revolution wiped out the theatrical porn-film business. But for a couple of decades, paying audiences were back in the movie theaters, and business was flourishing. A galaxy of stars emerged. Directors and writers got work and cashed paychecks.

As it turns out, some of these hastily-shot, trashy movies have lived on. Some of the films are now respected; some of the stars are now in the reference books; some of the directors and writers are now recognized for having done talented and rewarding work. Quentin Tarantino and the ambitious-video-clerk crowd adore the pink action films. As inventive as it may appear to those who haven't seen its sources, Tarantino's "Kill Bill" is little more than a collage of lifts from such films as "Lady Snowblood" and "Sex and Fury." Meanwhile, people who prefer sex to action -- that'd include me, a lov-air not a fight-air -- have discovered titles among the roman porno films that offer a lot in the way of distinction: sizzle, mood, personality, and intensity.

Naomi Tani was one of the stars of the roman porno movies. Born in 1948, she entered the film business as an actress in the mid-'60s, just as the pink movies were becoming a major entertainment force. She came up with her screen name by lifting from the writer Junichiro Tanizaki; "Naomi" comes from the title of one of his novels, "Tani" comes from Tanizaki.

(Incidentally, I warmly recommend Tanizaki -- "Naomi," as well as "The Makioka Sisters" and "The Key." Tanizaki is a special fave of mine.)

Ambitious to make a career for herself, Tani targeted the BDSM micro-genre. (For the wet-behind-the-ears among you: BDSM stands for "bondage, domination, sadism, maschochism.") She almost immediately found an enthusiastic audience. In films with titles like "Bed of Violent Desires" and "Carnal Punishment," she became a huge national favorite.

It's easy to see why. Tani had lusher than average (for a Japanese woman) breasts; a melodramatic, diva-esque temperament alongside a hyper-responsive physicality; and a deep respect for what gave her audiences pleasure.

"Schoolgirl" may not have been in her range. But "mother" certainly was, as was "goddess" and "wife."

As was, especially, "bondage and torture object." Seldom has anyone looked so good wearing nothing but ropes, or maybe ropes and a half-ripped-off kimono. Suffering (and achieving ecstasy) on camera while being bound and sometimes beaten was Naomi Tani's metier, even her vocation, and she did it beautifully.

Her skills may or may not have come to her naturally, but it's certain that she also worked at them. "Naomi Tani" the screen queen was a consciously-created artifact. Tani deliberately kept herself out of the sun because she felt that pale skin shows off blushes and bruises more vividly than dark skin does. She kept a few extra pounds on her frame because she felt that slightly-plump flesh takes welts and rope-marks well, and because ropes bite into plump flesh so appetizingly.

One thing Naomi was known for was her ability to take actual physical punishment. In "Wife to be Sacrificed," a Tani movie directed by the very talented Masaru Konuma that The Wife and I enjoyed the other evening, Tani's tormentor binds her tight, strings her up, drags her through mud, and whacks her hard, over and over. Tani gasps, protests -- and keeps on delivering the beauty and the emotions. What a trouper.

Alongside the man dealing out the abuse, we're invited to observe Tani's desperate reactions in a quiet and transfixed state. Hey, doesn't much of movie history consist of directors putting actresses in highly-charged fictional circumstances and helping us to observe them as they feel their feelings? In fact, much of "Wife to be Sacrificed" comes across as a kind of grotty, '70s variation on poetic silent movies.

Naomi Tani treated her work in sexploitation films with care, imagination, respect -- and perhaps even love -- in other words.

Despite the low-rent field that she worked in, it's hard to think of her as anything but a real artist. She worked hard with her directors and her writers to put over "Naomi Tani." Together they perfected her repertoire of tears, whimpers, ecstasies, pleadings, writhings, gaspings, and blushings. When asked by interviewers if she had drawn these behaviors from her private life, she explained that she put what she put onscreen purely for the sake of the camera. What a person does in his or her private sex life would almost certainly look laughable on a movie screen, she'd say. It's the responsibility of an actor not simply to express herself but to do so in ways that mean something to viewers.

Naomi Tan retired unexpectedly from acting in 1980, explaining that -- since no one escapes the ravages of aging, and since she wanted her screen image to remain pristine -- the time was right. She was 32 years old. These days she owns and runs a restaurant, as well as a video store specializing in pink movies. She says that she delights in the way that young people discovering pink movies today are excited to find action films and erotic material that aren't crude, blatant, and stupid.


If I can be allowed to riff on a few things:

  • Something that's striking about the roman porno films that I've watched is that they all have an aesthetic component. They're often bare-bones as productions; after all, they were made in a week. But they often have an "art" side too -- a refined tone, a meditative quality.

  • Isn't it amazing how often -- and, often, how beautifully -- the Japanese combine refinement with startling earthiness? In "Wife to be Sacrified," women are splayed out on filthy floors, are covered with mud, are dragged to outhouses. There's even a really startling enema scene. Meanwhile, distant birds sing, exquisite kimonos dazzle, and the director delivers beautifully-lit closeups of neck-napes.

  • Happy to be corrected by anyone with real experience here, but I'm often struck by the way the Japanese seem to accept erotic entertainment as a legitimate part of the cultural landscape. Pleasant erotic sensations aren't considered silly or laughable; they're valued and pursued. After all, what's the difference, really, between enjoying food or music, and enjoying a sexual buzz? In this, as well as in the way so much of their art combines earthiness and refinement, the Japanese remind me of the French. When I interact with French or Japanese art, I often feel like I'm being given a lesson in aesthetic appreciation. But in a good way.

  • I'm not scholar of Japanese porn, god knows. But I've certainly gone through a lot of their erotic art and a number of their hotsy movies. And what's most striking to me is how different it often is from American porn. As lowdown as the Japanese stuff often is, it's seldom nothing but crass, obvious, and literal. Where American porn filmakers can hardly wait to cut to the gruesome, overlit closeups, Japanese porn-makers are willing to pause for a couple of seconds to establish mood, to highlight personality, and to establish a context in which a fetish might actually feel significant.

  • I'm left reflecting about something that hyper-annoys me about American popular culture: the way that matters are split so completely here between 1) porn, which has zero aesthetic component (aside from what you bring with you to the game, of course); 2) the mainstream (which today seems to mean "corporate entertainments," and whose terms often seem dictated by soccer moms and frat boys); and 3) the indie scene, which, while occasionally showing a bum or a boob, tends to the emotionally and erotically anorectic. There's a lot going on, I suppose. God knows that our senses and our nerves are under assault from hyped-up, pumpy "sexiness" every day. But in the midst of it all, actual eroticism seems to slip through the cracks. What's with us?

  • Isn't it interesting, the way Americans are so prone to fretting that enjoying, say, bondage fantasies, or underage-sex fantasies, will lead to social chaos? (Meanwhile, of course, we're hardly bugged at all by enjoying violent fantasies.) Yet -- as I'm the billionth person to observe -- in Japan, where schoolgirl-rape fantasies are commonly enjoyed by commuters, the rate of sexual crimes is remarkably low. Can anyone explain this for me?

  • It seems to me that there have been only a couple of moments in American cultural history when we have made serious efforts to raise our level of erotic appreciation and awareness. One -- sadly drug-fueled and short-lived -- was the 1960s. (That's a part of the '60s that I approve of. For a couple of seconds we tried to move beyond adolescence.) The other occurred around 1900. The art set was into expressive dance, into Eastern philosophies and religions, into non-modernist but "advanced" art ... As well as nudity, experimental living arrangements, and sophistication. Tiffany's designs set off exotic dreams. Audrey Munson posed for Frederic MacMonnies. Today some people laugh at the beautiful shapes and allegorical nudes of that "Aesthetic" era, finding them corny and reactionary. But perhaps the joke is on us; perhaps those quiet alabaster figures with titles like "Civic Fame" represent a rare and precious attempt to fuse art and eroticism. It was a really great era, IMHO, as well as a touching one -- something to be proud of, not ashamed of. Going through the art of that period, you can sense a squaresville, earnest Anglo-German culture starting to unfold, and learning how to savor life's goodies. Sadly, along came WWI, and then modernism ... And our native-born experiment in exploring and developing our own brand of sexual sophistication was over. It's interesting how much that 1900ish era was influenced by Japanese and French art, isn't it?

  • Aesthetic bliss, erotic rapture, and religious transport have a lot in common.

Semi-related: Donald wrote about pin-up art here. Friedrich wrote about pin-up master Gil Elvgren here. I wrote about "Secret Things," a pretentious-but-sexy French film; about an arty Japanese sex film directed by Yasujo Masumura; and about Jess Franco's wonderful low-budget sex-film triumph "Eugenie, The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion."

Ian Buruma's "Behind the Mask" is one of the best things I've ever read about Japanese popular culture. Learn more about Naomi Tani here and here.



posted by Michael at March 12, 2008


What a great post, thanks.

Only semi-related, but last night I had the joy of turning my teenage boys on to the wonders of crappy 1960's Japanese monster movies. I haven't heard them laugh so hard in ages.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 13, 2008 2:23 PM

Well there's a reason for the boom in pink movies that has a lot to do with other social institutions disappearing soon after WWII, but it's a long story.

I could have a lot to say on this post if I had time. My degree in Japanese religion came with a side course in Japanese erotic history, however I'm too busy getting ready right now to move to Japan, ironically.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 13, 2008 4:44 PM

"I'm left reflecting about something that hyper-annoys me about American popular culture: the way that matters are split so completely here between [...] actual eroticism seems to slip through the cracks. What's with us?"

I read something the other day (I believe from one of your "elsewhere" links) about how Americans have a delusion that most Europeans don't have in that we think we can become anything we want to; that we are not limited by class, lineage or money. We are each our unique little snow flake, the like of which the world has never seen.

The rest of the world realizes that where you come from to an extent limits who you will be. They know a few people just like you, so you're not that special. They even, heaven forefend, view some folks as lesser beings, or limited by their station in life.

Because we have this individualist streak that is tainted by this optimism, when we see someone doing porn, we feel they have somehow failed to realize a dream, become trapped in an unsavory life, or have been victimized. We can't see that maybe this is a step up for some.

So, since having sex on screen is equated with losing, we don't like to see our pretty actresses (and actors) subjected to doing the horizontal bop for real, right there in gargantuan Technicolor over our buckets of popcorn.

Elsewhere, perhaps making good money as a softcore/hardcore performer in movies that actually have an aesthetic or a plot is not such an outrageous proposition. Since others can be viewed as having less value as a human, it allows detachment, because that's just the servant class up there flaunting the pink, and hey she's not a bad actress either.

And, of course, I could be full of shit.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 14, 2008 2:37 PM

Radley Metzger tried to make American porn fun (although he was secretly a European in sensibility). We're not yet at the point of rediscovering the kitschy fun of 70s porn (Paul Thomas Anderson tried with Boogie Nights), but believe me, there are lots of gems out there waiting for Blowhards to blog about them. For starters, try the films by Svetlana (including the imaginative "F and Lots of It"), anything with John Leslie or Paul Thomas (no relation), and films by Rinse Dream or Candida Royale in the 1980s. BTW, I've been noticing a lot of 70s and 80s porn on Youtube these days (minus the dirty bits). People have always been fascinated by porn, and Internet distribution blurs the boundary between the tasteless and borderline tasteful.

Posted by: Hapax Legomenon on March 22, 2008 10:02 AM

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