What happens when a major studio, successful with films both high (artful social allegories) and low (angsty youth dramas and gangster flicks), runs into hard times?
In America, the possibilities might include seeking a Chinese investor or selling yourself to Disney. In 1970s Japan, Nikkatsu — which rode high through the ’60s, featuring the galvanizing work of directors like Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki — took a different approach. It bet the studio on soft-core pornography.
The result, over 17 years, was more than 1,000 studio-backed sex films that adhered to a firm set of guidelines: low budgets, short running times, one-week shooting schedules and female nudity at least four times an hour. The Nikkatsu films became their own genre, known as roman porno (either shorthand for romantic pornography or a term derived from the French word for novel, roman).
Those same rules were in effect for the Roman Porno Reboot Project, a set of films commissioned by Nikkatsu last year to celebrate the 45th anniversary of its big gamble in 1971. It asked five Japanese directors to put their own modern spin on roman porno, and three of those works are among the 57 features in this year’s edition of the New York Asian Film Festival, which begins Friday in Manhattan.
The festival’s roman porno offerings — Akihiko Shiota’s “Wet Woman in the Wind” (July 4), Kazuya Shiraishi’s “Dawn of the Felines” (July 4) and Isao Yukisada’s “Aroused by Gymnopédies” (July 14) — follow the regulations. Each is about 80 minutes long, and loud, enthusiastic but relatively tame sex scenes crop up every 15 minutes or so.
They also reflect one of the fundamental truths of roman porno, which, like Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, was a proving ground and zone of experimentation for young filmmakers: With a little imagination, a sex film can be about anything.
“Nikkatsu told me that, like in original roman pornos, I could do whatever I like in subject and style as long as I stick to the manifesto,” Mr. Shiota said by email.
His “Wet Woman in the Wind” does stick closely, beginning with its title — “wet” was a popular adjective, as in “Wet Lust” and “Lovers Are Wet,” films by Tatsumi Kumashiro, one of the heroes of the genre.
“Wet Woman” is, indeed, an hommage to “Lovers Are Wet,” which ends with a scene of a man and woman riding a bicycle into the ocean. Mr. Shiota’s film begins with a woman literally crashing into a man’s life by riding a bike into the water near the pier where he sits. Then, this being a roman porno, she takes off her shirt (to wring it out) and asks if he can put her up for the night, a privilege for which he will have to pay 5,000 yen.
The film is a freewheeling sex farce, with a large cast of characters engaging in the mandatory couplings (and thruplings and quadruplings). But it’s also a psychological drama. The man, a theater director, has sought solitude (and celibacy) by the seashore to escape the hamster wheel of meaningless sex in the city, and the woman is determined to break him out of his isolation. In this contest of wills, she taunts him by having sex with other men, which helps Mr. Shiota meet the roman porno requirements.
“It is very hard these days in Japanese cinema to produce original work that is not based on manga or novels,” he said, echoing American complaints about the ubiquity of superhero franchises. “But in the genre of roman porno, this is not the case.”
Mr. Shiraishi and Mr. Yukisada also find inventive ways to make the steady progression of sex scenes feel like part of an organic plot. Mr. Shiraishi’s “Dawn of the Felines,” which examines the lives of three women working for an escort agency — a “health express,” in Japanese parlance — harks back to the social protest themes prevalent in many of the original roman pornos.
Currents of alienation and fatalism run through the story. One of the women is homeless, sleeping in all-night cybercafes; another has taken the job after finding out that her husband is cheating on her. A regular client, a wealthy young man, doesn’t take his eyes off his multiple computer monitors while telling his escort to strip. The sex is arousing and, more often than not, sad.
“Obviously I wanted the nudes to be seen as beautiful and sexy as possible,” Mr. Shiraishi said by email, “but I emphasized the ‘roman’ over the ‘porno.’”
Mr. Yukisada’s “Aroused by Gymnopédies” — the Erik Satie piano composition plays a role in the plot — is both the most melancholy and the most humorous of the three. A tortured-artist satire with echoes of Woody Allen and the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, it follows an esteemed but broke filmmaker as he trudges around Tokyo trying to raise or borrow money.
On his journey, a series of improbably attractive women — a crew member, a film student, an actress — insist on having sex with him, and he grimly complies. Or tries to. At one low point, his ex-wife volunteers to have sex with another man to raise money for him.
“When I moved to Tokyo to be an assistant director of roman pornos and approached Nikkatsu, an executive there told me that the roman porno era has ended,” said Mr. Yukisada, who was 20 when Nikkatsu stopped making the films in 1988. “That came as a big shock for me.” Happily, he got a second chance.