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Pink Films: A Transgressive History of Hisayasu Satô


Inflatable Sex Dolls of the Wasteland film screenshot Atsushi Yamatoya
Inflatable Sex Dolls of the Wasteland (1967), dir. Atsushi Yamatoya

CW: Sexual Assault, Blood, Nudity

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A gay couple's liaison devolves so far into sadomasochistic torture that the submissive can only retaliate by cutting his partner's arm off. A man kidnaps schoolgirls and imprisons them in a freight container where he rapes, tortures, and murders them. A woman, reeling from a brutal sexual assault, copes with her trauma by seducing strangers and gouging their eyes out — in the harsh realm of Hisayasu Satô's pinku films, desire is pushed to its most uncomfortable extremes, down the transgressive avenue of the genre's grammar. Satô understands how, in the words of Martin Scorsese, "the camera violates," an aspect explored in the world of pinku eigas since the '60s, when Atsushi Yamatoya's Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands had his protagonist receive a film showing the rape and murder of his girlfriend which, in a moment of searing black comedy, a private investigator then critiques as a piece of art, griping about the lackluster cinematography.

A Short History of Pink Film

Inaugurated by Saturo Kobayashi's 1962 film Flesh Market, pinku eigas, or "pink films," found success in the liberalized climate of '60s Japan, occupying a comparable, though not identical, cultural space to the sexploitation films of the U.S., although the genre quickly set itself apart with its capacity for pushing boundaries and incursions into complex and often controversial subject matter. While quite a few of these pink films were mainly preoccupied with providing cheap, disposable thrills — the genre's origins were economic in nature, its emergence largely a response to the dwindling theater attendance in the early '60s, which itself was a consequence of the growing popularity of television — there was an auteurist undercurrent present from the genre's inception. Early pinku filmmakers like Kôji Wakamatsu and Teruo Ishii (the latter has been described as the Takashi Miike of the '60s due to the graphic nature of films such as Shogun's Joy of Torture) augmented their lurid provocations with subversive socio-political ruminations. Wakamatsu, in particular, found ways to lament the inner turmoil, paranoia, and eventual demise of the Japanese far left, notably exploring the movement's decline in 1972's Ecstasy of the Angels — a subject he further elaborated on with his 2007 non-pinku United Red Army, a kind of mea culpa for the violent excesses of the student movement he helped build.

As the production companies that released the pinku eigas — bigger names such as Nikkatsu and Toei, as well as influential independent studios like OP Eiga and Shintôhô Eiga — steadily increased their output throughout the '60s, a formula emerged that was less related to content, and rather to the logistics of production. Directors were given relatively free reign as long as their films fulfilled a certain quota of sex scenes, had a runtime of about an hour, were shot quickly — one week at most — on 16 mm or 35 mm, and could be completed on a limited budget. The artistic freedom afforded to the filmmakers transformed the world of pink film from an economic bivouac for a struggling Japanese film industry, into an arena for avant-garde experimentation and unflinching social critique. These creative endeavors tipped over into radical praxis for some: Masao Adachi, writer of several Wakamatsu-directed films and a director in his own right, went underground in the early '70s to join the Japanese Red Army. His involvement with the militant group led to a 28-year exile in Lebanon, imprisonment, and eventual extradition to Japan. He eventually resumed filmmaking, having most recently directed 2022's REVOLUTION+1, a film about the assassination of former Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), dir. Kōji Wakamatsu
Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), dir. Kōji Wakamatsu

By the 1980s the market for pink films had diminished considerably due to the arrival of adult videos. Coupled with the more heavy-handed approach from censors which made theatrical pinku releases increasingly difficult, the industry fractured — most notably, Nikkatsu discontinued their once-popular Roman Porno series — and retreated into the small-scale independent market. The decade's most prominent pink directors — Genji Nakamura, Banmei Takahashi, and Mamoru Watanabe, known as "The Three Pillars of Pink" — further prioritized style and theme over mere titillation, a move that would prove to be vital for the survival of the genre, not only because it led to its standing as one of the last refuges of auteur filmmaking in Japan, but also because this artistic context gave rise to one of its most exciting, radical, and intelligent voices: Hisayasu Satô.

Satô: Age of Violence

Satô's beginnings are obscure and, aside from entries in online film databases, it's next to impossible to even verify the existence of his earliest works — an 18-minute short called Lovers of the Silver Screen, released in 1978, and a longer short carrying the wonderfully Satô-esque title, Desire for No Tomorrow — but in 1985 he properly debuted with a trio of films, Distorted Sense of Touch, Sex Virgin Unit: Party of Beasts, and Wife Collector. All three works told tales of sexual depravity and obsession amongst the dregs of society, its outcast characters all gripped by seemingly boundless desire — a premise that would come to dominate his filmography in a variety of ways. While delving into the psychological depths that his characters venture into in order to satisfy their libidinal impulses is perhaps the defining feature of his work, Satô uses this as a jumping off point to explore sexual and societal repression, media, technology, death, and even art itself. For instance, 1989's Muscle — a gay pinku which ranks amongst his best works — fused themes of queer desire and artistic expression: after a stint in prison, magazine editor Ryuzaki (Takeshi Itô, a frequent collaborator of Satô's) not only becomes obsessed with locating his former lover and tormentor Kitami (Simon Kumai), but also with locating a VHS copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Having been imprisoned for severing Kitami's arm in response to the sadistic treatment he was subjected to, he missed his opportunity to see the controversial film in theaters, and the faint hope of one day experiencing his favorite director's last opus, leads him to the same dark places that his masochistic obsession does.

1988's Brain Sex, meanwhile, exists at the blurry intersection of lust, voyeurism, and media sensationalism, its plot focused on the escapades of a teenage wannabe reporter (Marino Fujisawa) who gets sucked into a vortex of violence and sexual deviance when she begins pursuing increasingly depraved individuals for a pirate radio show. What works as commentary on the cruelty of media exploitation, also works as an early examination of the attention economy, and the moral lines that are regularly crossed in pursuit of that precious, increasingly scarce resource. The young main character feigns shock at some of the unusual sex acts she peeps on, but as she witnesses violent rapes and even murders, she can barely contain her excitement, going so far as to team up with a serial killer and rapist she comes across in order to generate content that's even more salacious and shocking.

Muscle (1989), dir. Hisayasu Satô
Muscle (1989), dir. Hisayasu Satô

Not merely a two-bit provocateur, Satô infuses his cinematic extremism with somber reflections on societal ruin and alienation. It's a theme common amongst the auteurs of the genre: Shûji Kataoka, who also directed several gay-themed pink films, including the Kenneth Anger-inspired Rope and Boys and its four sequels, rendered contemporary society as nihilistic and devoid of compassion in his Subway Serial Rape series of films, all of which, predictably, included graphic scenes of sexual assault. Conversely, Ryû Murakami's 1992 erotic drama Tokyo Decadence opted for a more deliberate, Bressonian approach when exploring spiritual decay in the Japanese megalopolis. Considering how much Murakami's cinematic sensibilities were shaped by his work as a writer — Tokyo Decadence is an adaptation of his own short story Topaz, and his novels Audition, Piercing, as well as Topaz II, have all been adapted into feature-length films, with the Takashi Miike-directed Audition being widely regarded as a cult classic — his more tangibly arthouse-inflected style makes for an interesting counterweight to Satô's messy splatter-infused eroticism, a dichotomy emphasized by the fact that Satô tended to churn out multiple, hour-long films per year while Murakami only ever made five.

It would be wrong, however, to say that Satô — aided by screenwriter and frequent collaborator, Shirô Yumeno — doesn't bring his own distinctly literate sensibility to his film work. Aside from obvious thematic nods to the Marquis de Sade, his films also touch on the works of writers like Franz Kafka and Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, whose short story In a Grove was famously adapted into Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece Rashomon. Satô's own take on the story, In a Thicket, added strange, ghostly, and folkloric phenomena to Akutagawa's celebrated tale — and boldly did away with its conflicting points of view, while the titillating Bondage Ecstasy saw its Kafka-reading main character frequently imagining himself as a bug, a nod to the famed Czech writer's most famous story, The Metamorphosis. By contrast, 1996's Splatter: Naked Blood projected its tactile obsessions onto a William Gibson-esque virtual reality while once again investigating extreme masochism through a contrived plot involving a drug that lets people experience pain as pleasure.

Themes of pain and pleasure have been thoroughly explored in other films, of course. Yasuzô Masumura's transgressive 1969 drama Blind Beast, while not usually brought up in the context of pinku eigas, functioned in a way that fit neatly alongside what Toei's Pinky Violence films regularly explored, even if Masumara's style trended more towards the cerebral. The Pinky Violence series compounded eroticism with graphic violence — and sometimes off-beat humor — and carved out their own subgenre, ero guro, a wasei-eigo referring to "erotic" and "grotesque." Blind Beast's delirious take on anguish and ecstasy hyper-focused on the debauched pleasures of the body, descending into what the film's main characters describe as a "non-human abyss" — not dissimilar to what Satô achieved with the grotesque body horror of Naked Blood, a film in which scenes of extreme self-mutilation are shot and framed the same unflinching style his sex scenes are. A remake of his 1987 film Pleasure Kill, Naked Blood reexamines the original's self-destructive spiral by heightening it into a Cronenbergian sci-fi vision of apocalyptic transhumanism — the thirst for annihilation becomes a vision for the future.

Whenever pain and pleasure converge, and lines become blurred — including the lines between consent and non-consent — that is when Satô's films beam in all of their fucked-up glory. Not only do his most uncomfortable scenes radiate a twisted, unhinged eroticism, but they also encapsulate some of his most provocative ideas. A woman cutting off and devouring her labia, a young girl finding pleasure in the torture that a sadistic serial killer inflicts upon her, a man brutally beating another man to death for destroying a rare video cassette — all of these things become outgrowths of the same ur-instincts that contradictorily seek both survival and self-destruction, harmony and discord, submission and dominance. As a result, even his work which emphasizes the grisly over the erotic — a film like Lolita: Vibrator Torture comes to mind — is marked by a disturbing sensuality which even permeates scenes of gruesome murder. Desire becomes poison, a knife, release, violence — a desperate attempt at some form of liberation from the crushing despair that defines their existence.

Tokyo Decadence (1992), dir. Ryû Murakami
Tokyo Decadence (1992), dir. Ryû Murakami

The characters' despair is one of total alienation. Trapped in the age of neoliberal hypercapitalism that would eventually see Japan's economic bubble burst, they're all watched over by machines of loving grace — 1992's The Bedroom opens with a shot of a CCTV camera, its lens trained on the audience — and accordingly, Satô's wretched grimescapes are littered with flickery TV screens, fluorescent lights, and leering cameras and microphones. Remarkably, both Brain Sex and 1998's The Fetist make use of Satô's microphone grille cam, transforming the screen into a cage — really an illusory trap for an audience of willing participants. Brain Sex ends the film with a grille cam shot, confining Tokyo's glistening high-rises and implicating the society they represent.

Satô: Age of Voyeurism

The post-bubble '90s saw the pinku industry confronted with its worst crisis yet. Many of the smaller theaters were forced to close down and production of films declined rapidly. Aware that whatever film they were working on could well be their last, the filmmakers of the era — Takahisa Zeze, Toshiki Satô, Kazuhiro Sano, and Hisayasu Satô, dubbed "The Four Heavenly Kings of Pink" — pushed their work into new extremes, determined to imbue their films with a highly individual, often idiosyncratic, sensibility, strongly influenced by notions of auteur filmmaking. According to Zeze, the old pinku audience didn't always appreciate their level of experimentation and politicization which they felt sacrificed the genre's sensual allure in favor exceedingly grim and frequently complicated narratives. In the case of Zeze it's easy to see why, since his obscure — even by pink film standards — 1994 film The Dream of Garuda, is one of the genre's bleakest, following the exploits of a convicted rapist, Ikuo (Muscle main actor Takeshi Itô), who, after his release from jail, becomes determined to find the woman he raped. The film's crushing atmosphere and bizarre humor — Ikuo receives slithery, soaped-up, and oddly sensual massages throughout — rival the transgressive eccentricities of Satô's work.

Although Zeze would go on to work in mainstream productions, including box office successes like the mystery thriller duology 64: Part I & II, and the romantic drama The 8-Year Engagement — it wasn't unusual for directors to "graduate" from pinkus to more accessible material, as filmmakers as diverse as cult favorite Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Yôjirô Takita, director of the Oscar-nominated 2008 drama Departures, began their careers directing them — Satô stuck to his guns in the world of pink films. His own artistic radicalism during the 1990s escalated to the point where he cast notorious murderer, necrophiliac, and cannibal, Issei Sagawa, in the previously mentioned The Bedroom. Though ethically questionable and likely motivated, at least in part, by a desire for publicity, this choice does enhance the text in darkly intriguing ways. Setting the dubious morality aside, Sagawa's crimes, and the legal shenanigans that led to him going largely unpunished, were, at the time, regarded with a mixture of fascination, revulsion, and curiosity. Certain artist-types in Japan were infatuated with the killer, cerebrating on the artistic potential of his insanity, and even polite society had trouble looking away as he appeared on game shows, published books, and sold paintings — most, if not all of it relating back to his brutal 1981 murder of Dutch student Renée Hartevelt.

The details of his horrific crime don't need to be recounted for the umpteenth time, but its psychosexual dimension is what makes his inclusion simultaneously potent and troubling. The film, also known as Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture, as well as a few variations thereof, follows Kyoko (Kiyomi Itô), a worker at a secret underground sex club called "The Bedroom," where the women are willingly drugged with a powerful hallucinogen called "Halcion." Incapacitated, they are then subjected to bizarre sex acts by the male members of the club. One of these men is Mr. Takano, played by Sagawa. It's worth mentioning that, although the film revolves around a series of murders committed in the club, Sagawa is not cast as the killer, nor does his scene stand out for the depravity it depicts — at least not on its own.

Mr. Takano enters the scene with a camera and proceeds to take pictures of Kyoko's nude, motionless body, eerily mirroring Sagawa's photographing of Hartevelt's corpse in various stages of cannibalization. Kyoko, who at that point in the narrative has stopped taking the paralyzing drug, choosing to experience the sadistic treatment she receives while fully conscious, lies there motionless while Mr. Takano, dressed only in his underwear at this point, stares at the camera, his eyes obscured by dark sunglasses. Although he is the only character to meet the gaze of Satô's non-diegetic camera, the choice to hide his eyes behind dark specs highlights his notoriety as a monster, something below humanity — his very eyes are made into the kind of "non-human abyss" that Blind Beast's amoral artist character and his model plunge themselves into. Provocatively, he begins licking Kyoko's body, starting with her buttocks — the part of Hartevelt's body he tried eating first — before moving on to her lips, the camera circling around them. As the macabre spectacle plays out, Kyoko's haunting inner monologue summarizes Satô's thematic obsessions: "Often, I would like to open my eyes... But I absolutely didn't open my eyes and look at them. Because I had the feeling I would see hell in there... I began to learn that pain is pleasure and that pleasure is pain."

The Bedroom (1992), dir. Hisayasu Satô
The Bedroom (1992), dir. Hisayasu Satô

While Sagawa's character is the only one to truly break the fourth wall, the film frequently takes on the POV of one of the many camcorders seen throughout, and the characters end up flashing the audience a glance as they look into the lenses of the devices they have such an affinity for. Similarly, the sex club itself uses surveillance cameras to film the deranged sexual encounters that take place in its private rooms. This clash of gazes makes for a supremely oneiric experience as The Bedroom — also known by what is maybe the most thematically instructive title in Satô's oeuvre, An Aria on Gazes — disintegrates amidst sexual perversion and Kyoko's increasingly worrying attempts are regaining some sense of autonomy. There has always been a hallucinatory element present in the genre: Inflatable Sex Dolls of the Wastelands took its characters to both a barren, blown-out desert, and on a hazy trip through the surreal cityscapes of Tokyo. Even inessential pinku fare like Naosuke Kurosawa's impeccably shot but thematically inert 1985 pseudo-thriller Hit Woman — coincidentally, its alternate title, Dream Crimes, fits nicely with the point being made — boasted the same dreamlike aesthetic tendencies, framing its characters against imposing buildings and barren parks, and distorting their bodies in diamond mirrors.

Keeping with that tradition, Satô shoots Tokyo as an oppressive assembly of towering skyscrapers and filthy back alleys. His approach to filming the megacity would prove influential on filmmakers like Shinya Tsukamoto, whose 1989 body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, defined the Japanese Cyberpunk movement by taking Satô's trash-littered production design to sickening new extremes, and more recently, Hong Kong director Soi Cheang, who imagined his own city as a dystopian, monochrome junkyard world in his stylish 2021 action thriller Limbo. Another thing that Satô has always exceeded at, though, is morphing his interiors into insulated worlds, an uncanny ability he shares with David Lynch, whose surreal 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, contorts its spaces into nightmare zones, dread oozing from every inch of the frame. Lost Highway, like many of Lynch's works, operates in a twilight world between dream and reality, and this one makes memorable use of a grainy, scanline aesthetic to conjure the unheimlich. Satô's films tend to inhabit this same space, and its aesthetics are most interestingly applied in The Bedroom's titular bedroom, a dark kind of non-place — filled with "non-humans" like Sagawa's Mr. Takano — cloaking itself with the name of what might just be the most intimate space we know. This effect becomes especially apparent when we see the world through the cool and unsympathetic eyes of a surveillance camera or a camcorder, both of which feature prominently in Lost Highway and The Bedroom.

Satô's fascination with examining the gaze of the camera finds its clearest expression in 1988's Celluloid Nightmares. Taking cues from Michael Powell's 1960 classic Peeping Tom, and the techno-horror of David Cronenberg's Videodrome, the film transforms the camera into a weapon. Like The Bedroom, Celluloid Nightmares opens by confronting the audience with the eye of a camera, only here the technology is almost fetishized, captured with a particular '80s sleaze that was often reserved for the muscular male bodies of Hollywood action stars and their weapons — a stark contrast to the decidedly unsexy, frail CCTV camera that introduces The Bedroom. A harsh industrial soundtrack blares and VHS footage flickers across the screen, depicting the sexual assault and murder of a young woman. From there, Satô spins a perverse tale which takes his characters into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche, where death and eros once again congeal.

Satô: Age of Tenderness

Even though the genre is permeated by these disturbing visions, there is often a (sometimes twisted) tenderness, sometimes even veering into lightheartedness, tucked deep inside the works of pinku filmmakers — no matter how gruesome they appear on the surface. It's an aspect that is routinely neglected when discussing the already under-discussed genre but it is perhaps what makes it so enduringly captivating. One of the most obvious examples is 1994's A New Love in Tokyo, ostensibly a sequel to Tokyo Decadence, which likewise focused on the lives of sex workers but imagined its milieu as something more ambivalent, making room for some breezy, slice-of-life displays of camaraderie alongside its frank, sadomasochistic sexuality. Directed by one of "The Three Pillars of Pink" Banmei Takahashi, whose 1980 film Girl Mistress stood out for its unusual aching romanticism, the film's warm, comedy-drama sensibility is interspersed with extended sex scenes — many of them centered around Rei's (Sawa Suzuki) work as a dominatrix — and erotic photographs of lead actress Reiko Kataoka, shot by controversial photographer and co-writer Nobuyoshi Araki.

This misfit solidarity that marks Takahasi's film is inherent to many pinku eigas, even if it can be hard to make out, hidden behind a gloomy facade. Left-brain filmmakers like Masumura were generally more coy about their sympathies but for someone like Zeze, even The Dream of Garuda's reprehensible main character was deserving of some kind of empathy, the director inculcating his desolate world with a strange, magnetic beauty as Ikuo looks desperately for redemption. Like Takahasi and Zeze — to name two — Satô has, at least on some level, a genuine affection for his degenerate characters. It's an affection that's easily tangible in his comparatively less dour works, like the previously mentioned Bondage Ecstasy and the 1995 comedy Rafureshia, the latter being both an attempt at catering to the studios after several exceptionally dark films, and supposedly Satô's favorite film he's ever directed.

More remarkable, though, is that for all the elaborate gore and sex scenes — although it features perhaps the least amount of sex out of all of his films — Splatter: Naked Blood is also noteworthy for how a warped spirituality exists alongside the film's gallery of atrocities. The virtual reality the characters slip into enables them to connect not just with each other, but all living things, even plants, as Rika (Misa Aika) is shown regularly communing with her cactus. After having VR-assisted sex with Eiji (Sadao Abe), the young man responsible for giving her the drug which has slowly turned her into a sadist, she slits his throat and the blood geysers hit her face and exposed chest like ejaculate. She then gets up to find her beloved cactus has sprouted beautiful flowers before she looks out of the window at a new day, determined to infect the rest of the world with the drug. Sex and violence morph together to create something liberatory.

Splatter: Naked Blood (1996), dir. Hisayasu Satô
Splatter: Naked Blood (1996), dir. Hisayasu Satô

But it might be Muscle's haunting coda which best exemplifies the enticing contradictions inherent to his work: after finding himself involved in a bizarre, vaguely ritualistic performance, put on in an obscure theater by several masked dancers led by Kitami, Ryuzaki blinds himself in a masochistic gesture of submission to his dominant, saying, "Now I'll see your body the way it was when we met." The sadistic Kitami, who has been blindly obsessed with getting revenge on his one-time lover, pulls Ryuzaki on his feet and ushers him to the roof where the two share a tender dance, the scene accompanied — appropriately enough — by the spectral arpeggio of Coil's "Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)." The screen fades to black, the credits roll, and desire has claimed two more souls.


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