A film crew hikes to the outskirts of town in order to surreptitiously shoot a pornographic film. Flouting the law, a pornographer named Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) rationalizes his disreputable livelihood as a necessary commodity and public service for the continued well-being of society. The enterprising men screen their latest project, and the film opens with a comical shot of an amorous Ogata attempting to elicit a response from his wife, the widowed Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), on her preference of intimate partners. Haru evades the question, and the playful exchange is abruptly truncated when Haru’s coddled and insolent university-aged son, Koichi (Masaomi Kondo) barges into the room and hides underneath the blankets for warmth. Koichi is resentful of Ogata’s presence in the household, arguing that Ogata is nothing more than a former unemployed lodger with a criminal past, and that their relationship violates her vows to her late husband. Nevertheless, despite his animosity, Koichi is quick to exploit his mother’s influence on Ogata in order to obtain enough money to move out of the family home and rent his own apartment. In contrast, Haru’s daughter, Keiko (Keiko Sagawa) is more considerate of her stepfather and defends Ogata by rationalizing that his criminal history stemmed from nothing more than “election irregularities”. Having walked Keiko to school when she was a little girl, Ogata has demonstrated a fatherly concern for her well being – a close bond that is increasingly developing into an uncomfortable attraction towards the young woman. Years earlier, Ogata’s hopes for his own children with Haru were dissipated when she became convinced that the soul of her late husband has been reincarnated into an overgrown pet carp at her hairdressing salon, and that her late husband has expressed disapproval at their union. And so the bizarre puzzle that constitutes Ogata’s unusual life emerges, as the beleaguered Ogata strives to make a living through his illegal commerce, hide his activities from the police, elude gangsters demanding extortion, nurse an ailing Haru back to health, and resist his compulsion to pursue Keiko.
The Pornographers is an incisive, acerbic, and droll exploration of voyeurism, exploitation, and repression. By constructing a film within a film to depict the process of the inherently voyeuristic enterprise of filmmaking, Shohei Imamura exposes the underlying hypocrisy of government-imposed sanitized rules of conduct that suppress innate human instinct. Note the implicit dichotomy of social distinction in screening Ogata’s pornographic films for “quality” and anthropologically viewing the resulting Ogata biography. The pornographers’ clinical examination of Ogata’s life, the repetitive use of obstructions such as windows and doors to visually frame the characters, the interstitial scenes showing the refracted image of the omnipresent carp, the pornographers’ eavesdropping of their neighbors in order to compile prospective plots, and Ogata’s literally skewed view of Keiko through a door crack, further reflect the role of voyeurism in contemporary society. Through astonishing, surreal imagery and temporally fragmented narrative, Imamura hypnotically interweaves fact and fiction, illusion and reality, dreams and consciousness, and creates an irreverent, idiosyncratic, and fascinating spectacle that portrays the underlying core of human behavior.
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