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Pornographers, The

Pornographers, The(1966)

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It's easy to praise composition, but Shohei Imamura's classic film, The Pornographers (1966), deserves special mention as one of those rare films that truly goes out of its way to make the bulk of its footage worthy of the pause button. With its CinemaScope frame, surrealist tinges, and whacked-out ideas, the camera takes the viewer on a Kaleidoscope peepshow that is full of surprises. It is also the first film Imamura would direct for his own production company after spending time as an apprentice to Yasijuro Ozu, at Ofuna Studios, and later Nikkatsu studios. His newfound freedom might account for the vigor with which he threads his crazy quilt of outrageous ideas into The Pornographers, a film lauded by many as one of his best creations.

Sabu (Shoichi Ozawa) puts his 8mm camera to ample use for explicit films that he feels are helping a repressed society. (Comparisons between the real director and his protagonist are fair game.) Sabu lives with Haru, a woman who is always under the watchful eye of a pet carp that she believes is the reincarnation of her deceased husband. Haru's two children include a teenage daughter that Sabu is attracted to and posits a future conundrum. This strange family unit starts to unravel as several topics bubble about the corners; including insanity, incest, orgies, impotence, and more. Imamura, never one to shy away from taboos, never titillates the audience with the base pleasures that are the trade of his protagonist, but he's also not beyond presenting his audience with an uncomfortable situation and playing it for a laugh (or trying to, at least), such as when Sabu, in an effort to deliver on one schoolgirl fetish, finds that his two actors are a mentally challenged girl and her father. It's the kind of thing Todd Solondz would gleefully indulge in now, but back in 1966 this was not derigueur. By some accounts, Imamura was purposefully pushing the envelope to get a rise at the prestigious film festivals where it screened.

The Pornographers is based on a critically acclaimed novel by Akiyuki Nosaka and presents its story with a unique sense of style and structure. Admittedly, the fragmentation, flashbacks, and crazy set-ups sometime threaten to capsize an otherwise coherent narrative, but through every detour the use of heavy symbolism remains a strong, constant, and rewarding experience for the attentive viewer. The Criterion Collection dvd release of The Pornographers features a new high-definition digital transfer of the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and includes the original theatrical trailer and an essay by The Village Voice film critic, J. Hoberman, originally published in 1987.

For more information about Ther Pornographers, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Pornographers, go to TCM Shopping.

by Pablo Kjolseth