The protagonist of this film makes two pornography pictures a day. He does it to support his adopted family, but there seems to be something else below the surface that drives him. There are several scenes where he philosophizes his profession, talking about how he is giving an outlet to an oppressed population. This may seem like a ridiculous justification, but it comes off as earnest in a world where the elder woman is obsessed with a carp fish whose dead husband’s spirit is caught in. The Pornographers is a strange morality tale about a man’s obsession with making art in the porno world. It also is one of Shohei Imamura’s greatest films.
Mr. Ogata lives with a woman who was once his landlady. She is suffering from a mysterious illness and wants to give the family business over to Mr. Ogata as a token of his affection. However she cannot shake the feeling that her dead husband, reincarnated into a carp fish, would disapprove. Her son vocally does because it takes affection away from him. The daughter is more intrigued by Mr. Ogata then vengeful for taking away her mother. Mr. Ogata spends his days making pornographic films and pimping on the side. He lusts after the daughter and she coyly plays with him. Complications ensue after the mafia learns about his porn outfit, he gets busted by the police, the landlady dies, and the daughter rebuffs him even after she marries him. He spends the rest of his days perfecting a sex doll modeled after the daughter.
Although this might seem to be a drama in the way of Ozu, it is actually a black comedy with a tragic figure at the center of the narrative. Mr. Ogata’s visions and ideas are taken with a grain of salt and his actions directly contradict what his supposed ideals. In one scene, Ogata is shooting a porn with an older man and a very young girl in a school uniform. The girl is unwilling to follow instructs. When Ogata asks the older man if she is deaf, he replies that she is just slow (read: mentally handicapped) and gives her a lollipop to make her more complacent. She then calls him father. So without Ogata’s knowledge he is now stuck in a situation where an older man is about to have sex with his mentally disabled daughter. He is disgusted by this but sees no irony in a few scenes later, he lusts after the daughter of the landlady, whom he had married. There are several scenes like this and this is what makes the film so great. Imamura does not let his protagonist off easily at any point. He pushes this man to every extreme possible until he breaks under the pressure. None of the characters are without flaws and they are shown without polish.
Voyeurism is an important aspect of pornography as well as in the cinema. Imamura shoots scenes as if we are peeping into a window or behind a curtain in order to give the illusion of voyeurism. This is an inspired choice that allows us to see the action from a non-traditional perspective. At one point we watch intimate moments from the reincarnated carp which leads a sense of naughtiness to the scene that shooting it straight on would leave out. Not only is the landlady overtly going against her late husband’s wishes that she never love again but she also believes that this carp we are seeing the action through is actually her late husband.
The Pornographers is a nuanced potrayal of what people will do to make money and keep ahead.