Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from November 24 – December 24, 2017 as a Special Discovery.
Much like Hollywood, the Japanese film industry goes to the well as often as possible once it hits a lucky strike. Such was the case with the so-called Roman Porno films of the 1970s, an infamous genre of sexploitation primarily identified with Japan’s oldest major studio, Nikkatsu. Financial trouble necessitated a popular, inexpensive product, and these softcore numbers were just the ticket. This may have been the studio where Kenji Mizoguchi and Shohei Imamura made films early in their careers, but by 1971 the Roman Porno factory was in full swing, producing quick, cheap, titillating product for an audience hungry for female toplessness and a great deal of convulsive thrusting.
Now, of course, there’s real hardcore porn for anyone who wants it. But interest in the Roman Pornos has endured. The word “roman” derives from the French word for “novel,” and despite the focus on sex, the films are often characterized by bizarre, rather personal storytelling. This is mostly because, as with the great Hollywood B-pictures of the 30s and 40s, the producers of these films gave their writers and directors almost total freedom to do as they liked, so long as they hit their genre marks. Certain of them—Noboru Tanaka and Tatsumi Kumashiro, in particular—have been rediscovered as “outlaw masters” much in the same way that another Nikkatsu gun-for-hire, Seijun Suzuki, has been recognized as an artist whose sensibility frequently subverted the assignments he was given.
Still, the names of Tanaka and Kumashiro hardly possess the currency among contemporary cinephiles that Suzuki’s does. This is because, regardless of the cinematic quality or intellectual intent, pornographic cinema is always regarded as a disreputable genre. Attempts to consciously engage with formal questions within porn are typically seen as quixotic at best, pointless at worst. We can understand innovation within the melodrama, horror, or the gangster film. But even today, the Roman Pornos are regarded as something apart.
This is not to say that explicit sexuality was absent from “legitimate” Japanese cinema. It found its way into the Marxist art films of Nagisa Oshima and the sexual radicalism of Kôji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi. But in the 1980s and 90s, when genre films once again became the vanguard of Japanese art cinema, it was primarily horror and gangster cinema that led the charge. The yakuza films of Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike garnered well-deserved plaudits, alongside the disturbing atmospherics of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinji Aoyama.
It is within this general history that we should consider Akihiko Shiota and his latest film Wet Woman in the Wind. Shiota emerged on the scene in the late 1990s, right as Kurosawa and Aoyama were gaining traction in the international film world. Kurosawa’s first film was a “pink film” (soft porno) but he quickly moved on to horror and detective work; Aoyama started out in teen and horror films. Shiota’s debut film was an S&M-themed artsploitation piece called Sasayaki (Moonlight Whispers, 1999). The story of a young man who becomes enamored of a girl who eventually degrades him like a dog for their mutual sexual pleasure, Sasayaki was characterized by a flat, affectless style in both its acting and its camerawork. One could detect notes of Bresson and Kaurismäki along with the classic elements of the Nikkatsu Romans, and the film made a moderate splash on the festival circuit.
Almost immediately, Shiota began moving away from identifiable genre. His next noteworthy film was the ultra-low-budget Gips (2001). A black-comic riff on Japanese women’s imperative to serve, it focuses on two women, one of whom has a leg in a cast. The able-bodied woman assists her hobbling counterpart, and eventually discovers that the broken leg is fake, a ploy to generate sympathy. This was Shiota’s contribution to a direct-to-video series entitled “Love Cinema,” but it and Miike’s entry, Visitor Q, became breakouts and played in numerous festivals.
It’s with his next film that Shiota not only abandons all pretext of genre cinema, but actively critiques it. Harmful Insect (2002) is a near-masterpiece, as crisply, cunningly edited and designed a movie as you could ever hope to see. It is also emotionally excruciating. A young girl named Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) is left without parental supervision when her father leaves and her mother sinks into depression and attempts suicide. Becoming increasingly rudderless and feral, she becomes a target for bullies at school and is eventually molested by men who observe her vulnerability. In time, a desperate Sachiko starts charging the men for what they are going to do to her anyway.
Harmful Insect’s mise en scène is cramped and rectilinear. Shiota treats every composition as a potential prison. And unlike many films about kids (even those about children in peril, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows), this one tends to make Sachi look small, dwarfed by a world that is ready to exploit her but also wants her out of the way so that her existence will no longer provoke guilt or some vague urge to help. Only other outcasts even look at Sachi, much less engage with her, and it is not difficult to interpret the abuse she endures as Shiota’s view of what awaits any “inconvenient” subject.
Harmful Insect is as thoroughgoing an indictment of the Japanese nation as we’ve seen since Oshima in the 1960s. The film’s formalism is a cage barely suppressing a seething anger, and it’s hard not to feel as though Shiota put everything he had in this film. The fact that it received mixed reviews, and did not catapult Shiota to the A-list of Japanese directors, had to be disappointing. So a decision to retreat into genre filmmaking is not altogether surprising. His next film, Yomigaeri (2002), was an undistinguished film about resurrection that performed well at the Japanese box office.
Shiota was apparently able to parlay that success into another big arthouse swing, 2004’s 132-minute Canary, about children of members of the Aum Shinrikyo gas-attack cult. Two kids who’ve been abandoned by their families struggle to understand what their parents have done. Coming between two higher profile films on the topic of the Aum cult—Kore-eda’s Distance (2001) and Aoyama’s Eureka (2006), both of which secured Competition slots at Cannes—Canary got lost in the shuffle and failed to make much of an impact.
Shiota worked consistently after this, but his highest profile project was Dororo (2007), a big-budget adaptation of a popular TV manga series. Other intermittent projects were low budget and genre oriented, and it was only with the 2016 Nikkatsu Roman Porno “reboot” that Shiota once again became a significant film festival presence. Wet Woman in the Wind, Shiota’s entry in the series, world premiered in Competition in Locarno, the highest profile berth for Shiota in quite some time. The film is one of five new Roman Pornos commissioned for the Nikkatsu series, which also includes entries by the likes of Hideo Nakata (The Ring) and avant-garde genre-fucker Sion Sono (whose contribution, Antiporno, will debut on MUBI soon after Wet Woman).
One gets the sense that the assignment rekindled Shiota’s mojo in more ways than one. He not only colors wildly within the lines of the Roman Porno template, but seems to openly make fun of the fact that, as a Japanese art director, this naughty genre is his best, maybe only chance to get something in the can. Wet Woman in the Wind is a story of sex, of course, but also self-sufficiency, experimentalism, and the worker’s ethic of delayed gratification.
Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) is a playwright from Tokyo who has decided to leave the bustle of the urban theatre scene and move to the woods, where he resides in a large canvas tent he has outfitted with a battery-powered generator. Not unlike Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who subjected himself to a similar cabin-bound exile in the documentary self-portrait Arirang (2011), Kosuke is a coffee connoisseur who has jury-rigged his own primitive espresso set-up outside his canvas lean-to. Suffice to say, this is camping on another level.
Into his life wanders Shiori (Yuki Mamiya), a loose cannon who announces almost immediately that she intends to seduce Kosuke. He brushes her off, but she insists that she gets what she wants. And thus begins the greatest “cuck” story ever told. Shiori has brazen, athletic sex with virtually everyone in Kosuke’s orbit, at first merely annoying him but eventually driving him mad with desire. Why can that guy, and that guy, and that woman have it, but I can’t?
The premise, of course, permits Shiota to more than fulfill his designated quota of sex scenes. And although the most erotic sequence is between Shiori and Kosuke’s old (female) theatre director (Michiko Suzuki), the other couplings are largely exaggerated in—how do I say?—their probable attention to the pleasure center. That is, Wet Woman in the Wind has Shiori shrieking and orgasming left and right, firmly establishing that penis / vagina sex is the greatest thing that can happen to a woman ever.
Shiota so overplays this hand that the joke is clearly on us. Roman Pornos are silly, and they are a man’s game. Shiori, meanwhile, is a male fantasy turned against itself, the crazy chick who’s so DTF that it’s disruptive and scary. Kosuke tried to build himself a rustic getaway in the tradition of Thoreau. In addition to turning his back on Tokyo and on art, Kosuke is implicitly turning his back on sex. (The fact that he and the theatre director were once an item only confirms this.)
But Shiori is the “harmful insect” who infects everything. (Upon first meeting her, Kosuke dismisses her as a “stray dog.”) When she eventually relents and has sex with Kosuke, their convulsive, animalistic lovemaking actually destroys his tent. As if to drive the point home, we see a long horizontal rip across the canvas, and then Shiori pops up from the hole, riding cowgirl on an unseen Kosuke. She is, at this point, essentially fucking the downed tent, the promise of shelter and isolation, and the (now invisible) male sexual prerogative. As for Shiota, he has literally brought down the house. This time, he is intent on screwing genre before it screws him.