I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Hisayasu Satô and the History of Japanese Porn: Naked Blood


by Nathaniel Ketcham
July 18, 2014

It might as well be got out of the way as it is eventually mentioned in every reference to the film that you are likely to find: Hisayasu Satô’s Naked Blood has a scene in which a woman, ever so delicately, slices off a meaty chunk of her own labia with a knife and fork before devouring it with obvious pleasure. At the time of its Japanese release, in 1996, this scene caused a certain amount of controversy (though it was by no means unique, historically, in the degree of violence depicted). To this day, Naked Blood manages to raise the hackles of the squeamish while also attracting single-minded fans on the basis of its gore. It seems quaint, actually, that such images should still attract particular interest considering the real, brutal violence now available for viewing at the click of an Internet link. Film violence that once may have assured a “cult” following on the basis of taboo-breaking explicitness must now compete for audience attention with cell phone footage of murders and video memes showing teenagers kicking kittens. The continuing popularity of films such as Naked Blood might demonstrate that, over time, even in depictions of violence and horror, it’s the art that wins out. There is, presumably, a difference between art and pornography. Art is often considered distinct in that it has revolutionary meaning. Its generative ambiguity asserts itself against any one reductive interpretation or use. It transcends. The visual poetry of a sliced eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, for example, will certainly outlast the exploitation of violence that empowers your local 5 o’clock news, or “CSI: Special Victims Unit,” or whatever else you wish your weren’t watching. Or maybe it won’t. In any case, you may find a fine, high-minded, metaphorical argument for this kind of Surrealist optimism in a viewing of Naked Blood, even as you also find a generous portion of needle pokes, arterial spray, nipple dissection, and cactus sex.

As a Westerner, it’s hard not to reference Surrealist philosophy when considering the strange excesses on display in Naked Blood. In Western culture, the Surrealists were the first to overtly act on the proposition that pornographic, highly individualistic, and taboo-breaking images could function within popular culture as tools for revolutionizing society. This philosophy influenced the films of Hisayasu Satô, but its origin in Japanese culture can be traced back to a more direct demonstration of pornography’s revolutionary impact that began in the early 17th century. At that time the new Tokugawa government was trying to maintain social order and legitimate its rule by enforcing traditional Confucian law. Confucian standards emphasized the control of the body and an individual’s deference to family and society. While the ruling class attempted to maintain power on the basis of this classical order, traditional class hierarchies in Japanese society began to disintegrate and, in some cases, reverse. This called into question the ruling government’s claim for power, allowed once distinct classes to socially mingle, and encouraged a corresponding questioning of fundamental values. The locus of this transformative social conflict was Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Edo. It was here that, in the pursuit of every kind of hedonistic pleasure, the “leisure industry” and the rising mercantile class became forever linked with political and social rebellion against Tokugawa stability. In 1858, when the government finally fell, it “marked the beginning of an irrevocable process of westernization and industrialization that would see the irrepressible rise of the merchant class, and ensure the continuation of the Edo sex industry as a commercial phenomenon in Japan’s modern age.” i From the beginning, pornography was the cultural expression and catalyst for this sociopolitical revolution. While the government encouraged the submission of individual bodies to the public good, and thus to procreation, marriage, and traditional gender roles, pornography became a popular oppositional art celebrating the autonomy of the body and individual desire. The more extremely specific and fetishistic the representation, the more dissociated from procreation and traditionally sanctioned sexual expression, the more the pornography represented a release from the repressive powers of the status quo. The absurd, apparently self-destructive sexuality sometimes portrayed in contemporary Japanese media (such as in Naked Blood) is the latest example of this highly developed aesthetic tradition. Within this tradition, the body represents the body politic and, within that suppresive order, individual limbs and organs may rebel against the body as a whole. The body’s deconstruction in Edo-style pornography, through intense fetishization, reversal of the “natural,” or apparently destructive abstraction, represents the capacity for eroticism to overturn social conformity and assert individual autonomy.ii It is not just the expression of Freudian neuroses; it is the development of a deliberately revolutionary artistic tradition. In many ways, pornography has been Japan’s equivalent to Modern art in the West.

When Japan developed its own cheap, sexploitation film industry in the 1960s, young Japanese filmmakers drew upon popular innovations in European cinema while also incorporating the aesthetic of Edo period pornography. Unlike the best of European sexploitation, these films were not so much a fusion of “high” and “low” culture as they were a cross-cultural mixture of several already existing avant-garde movements. This genre of film, partly commercial exploitation and partly a reaction to new repressive tendencies in Japanese culture, was called Pinku Eiga, or Pink film. While some directors incorporated stylistic experimentation and direct socio-political criticism into Pink films from the 1960s into the 1980s, their quality varied. In some cases stylistic experimentation developed only as a result of the censorship laws preventing Pink films from showing genitalia or pubic hair (one can see how the depiction of sex without genitalia would lend itself to new forms of abstraction). Hisayasu Satô was one of several Pink film directors who, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, embraced the revolutionary aesthetic of Edo pornography and pushed the subversive aspect of Pink film into a new level of socio-cultural criticism and artistic expression. Not content with simply challenging the status quo (and the censors) with shocking imagery, Satô used the Pink film genre to explore the emotional ambivalence he felt about contemporary Japanese culture. Like his predecessors, he depicted bodies, pierced and distorted, in open violation of social norms. He eroticized resistance to Confucian based ethics that still dominated Japanese culture, but he juxtaposed these rapturous images of transgression with the emotional pain and internal conflict felt by those who seek cultural change while also fearing the loss of a traditional cultural identity. His characters actually suffer from the social alienation their transgressions create. In the specific exploration of these cultural conflicts and psychological reactions, he also addresses universal, existential issues related to sexuality, death, alienation, shame and identity.iii

Naked Blood represents a high point in Hisayasu Satô’s career and its international distribution brought increased critical attention to the Pink film genre. It primarily critiques the obligation to family, procreation, and professional achievement required by Japanese cultural traditions, but it makes its case by presenting a series of dichotomies and then collapsing them so that, for example, pain equals pleasure, failure equals success, and family becomes, as in the climax of Cronenberg’s The Fly, a metaphysical form of sexual bondage. The overall effect is of an ambivalence that is intensified to the point of orgasm…or death. Whether that constitutes a “happy ending” is up to the viewer to decide. I’ll only say that, though it is a brutal and bloody death, the orgasm is artfully described and, like all art, it will benefit from more than one tasting. Eat it up.

i The Body In Art: Pornography and the Japanese Culture of Play, Majella Munro

https://www.academia.edu/1671213/The_Body_in_Art_Pornography_and_the_Japanese_Culture_of_Play

ii McRoy, Jay (2005). "Cultural Transformation; Corporeal Prohibitions and Body Horror in Sato Hisayasu's Naked Blood". In McRoy, Jay.Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu:University of Hawaii Press.ISBN 0-8248-2990-5.

iii Ibid.

Nathan Ketcham is a near recluse currently hiding in Detroit, Michigan. He spends way too much time in front of the TV treating very trashy horror films very, very seriously. Until someone pays for his PhD in Media Studies/Cultural Criticism (feel free to recommend a program to him) or he overcomes his laziness long enough to finish a book length, scholarly analysis of art films that failed, you can find some of his less-than-serious horror film suggestions and impromptu writing at his annually expanding Halloween blog: https://30daysofhorror.wordpress.com.