Interview with Sachi Hamano

A pioneering filmmaker in Japan, Sachi Hamano was the first woman to become a pink film director without having been an actress first. In the 60s, only male graduates could become directors in Japan, so pink film was Hamano’s way into filmmaking. She got her start working as an assistant director at Wakamatsu Productions before founding her own production company. A prolific director, she claims to have directed over 300 pink films and has also made a handful of non-pink films since 1998. She visited the UK to present her non-pink film Lily Festival (2001) at the Raindance Film Festival in October 2009, as part of a strand devoted to Japanese women directors. A witty, funny and cheeky meditation on old age, love and sex, Lily Festival is set in a retirement home inhabited exclusively by women whose desires are rekindled when a charming 75-year-old man moves in. I had the pleasure of talking to Sachi Hamano about porn and feminism during the Raindance Festival. The interpreter was Sayaka Smith.

VS: What made you want to become a director?

SH: I love movies and I watched so many films while I was in high school. That was the time of the nouvelle vague, and in European films women were depicted in red coats and high heels and they were very cool-looking ladies, whereas in the Japanese films of the time the women only played domestic roles and epitomised the good wife, a Virgin Mary sort of figure, or the lovely daughter. It was a male-dominated world and the women were always serving the men. That was the way women were seen in Japan, and that was reflected in Japanese cinema. I was thinking, why is it always like that? And I realised that there were only men directors in Japan, that’s why you only had a male point of view. That’s why women were always like slaves, and that’s why I really wanted to make films from a woman’s point of view.

VS: It must have been difficult with this sort of feminist perspective to work in the pink film industry. Do you feel you managed to give a female perspective to the pink films you directed?

SH: It was really hard. In pink film, the woman is a sex object, but if you look at it from another perspective, pink film doesn’t exist without a woman, who reveals her sexuality to a man. That’s what the industry relies on, so I could use that as an advantage. Japanese films are normally male-dominated, like the yakuza movies – that’s a very masculine type of film, and it’s very representative of mainstream Japanese cinema. But in pink film, you can actually put the woman in front, the woman is the star. A pink film is all about fulfilling the distorted desires of men, so the sexuality is only perceived from the male point of view; so for instance, if a woman has been raped, she has to appear like she’s having a good time straight after, and obviously that’s not the reality. Male directors always use the same line when they shoot a rape scene – the male character always says something like this at the end: ‘Oh you hated it before, but five minutes later you’re having a good time.’ So I decided that I really wanted to turn that around, so that women would not be sex objects for men.

VS: These pink films are not easily available here but I’ve read about your Greedy Housewives films (2003) in Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain. From the description in the book, these films seem to shift the focus more on what women want sexually – they seem to present hyper-sexual women who are in charge.

SH: Yes, that’s the idea. Normally, women open their legs for men because men ask them to do it, but women have their own desire to open their legs. So my films are the other way around.

VS: Are your pink films as important to you personally as your non-pink films?

SH: I need to do pink film in order to make money. As a managing director of the production company, I have many employees to pay. At the same time, it’s difficult for young people to develop in the Japanese film industry, so I use pink film to nurture and foster new talent. I really like both, I can’t say which one is better because I think I can express myself in the pink movies as well as in the normal movies, so it really doesn’t matter which genre I’m working in. I never feel embarrassed about making pink movies. Pink film uses women to sell movies, and some people criticise female directors for making pink films, but I do like making them. If men directors make a pink movie, it’s always a male fantasy. But what I really want to do is punch that male fantasy and do something new and radical to change the perception of women’s sexuality.

In the 80s, Japanese women’s consciousness changed as Adult Video emerged. It’s completely different from pink film. Around that time, in pink film, there were many actresses who were very reluctant to show any flesh. They had to take their clothes off because it was pink film, but they didn’t want to do it. In Adult Video, the women were a bit different, they were willing to take their clothes off, they were not shy, they were saying, ‘why not, we’ve got great bodies’, and they wanted to show them off. Their attitude was, ‘why can’t I be excited about myself, not by the men’, and that showed the power of women. That made the industry change a little bit. And those girls gave me a lot of confidence and the power to shoot what I wanted to shoot in the pink film industry, and from then on it felt like it was going to be a women-dominated world, girl power (laughs)! That’s what I wanted to see in my movies and I could do it with those girls.

VS: Is there one pink film that you’re particularly proud of?

SH: I’ve made 300 (laughs). I’m often asked this question and my answer is always that the latest one is my favourite, because not just the pink film industry, but the culture as a whole is changing all the time.

VS: You changed your name from Sachiko to Sachi to make it sound less feminine – did you feel that you had to act like a man to be able to direct films?

SH: I didn’t want to change it, I wanted to call myself Sachiko. It was actually a compromise. There were no female directors in pink film, so I was told to change my name completely from Sachiko to a man’s name. At that time, if men saw a woman director’s name on the poster of a pink movie, they were not going to get excited. They would go, ‘woman director, I’m not going to watch it’. That was the sort of attitude. That’s why they wanted me to change my name completely, but I wanted people to know that my films were made by a woman. So we compromised. Sachiko is definitely a woman’s name, but if you take ‘ko’ out, it could be the name of a man or a woman.

The other thing is that I was only 21 when I made my first pink film. A 21 year-old female director was not going to sound very convincing to the customers of pink theatres. That’s why it had to be Sachi, and not Sachiko. At the time, you didn’t have lots of sexual experience at 21, and it was really difficult to make a pink film. So I used my cat! I opened her legs – I didn’t do anything to her, but I used her to study poses (laughs). There was sexual harassment as well. The male actors were older than me. They wore a robe before shooting, and they would call me over as if to talk to me, and they would open the robe and show themselves to me, and I would get embarrassed. That happened so many times, that’s the way it was.

VS: Does it mean you had to learn to be very tough and dismissive, sort of like ‘I’m not impressed’?

SH: (laughs) Yeah, it was exactly like that!

VS: What was it like working for Kôji Wakamatsu’s company?

SH: I never worked as an assistant on his movies, so I don’t really know him as a director. I think what he wants to create with his movies is completely the opposite of what I want to create, because he’s really masculine and his films are always made from a very male point of view. Wakamatsu Productions is a very male, macho place. In his pink films, he treats women as objects of male desire, something I’m very critical of. I don’t agree with the way he films women – it always involves raping and sometimes killing women. But I have a lot of respect for him. He’s wanted to make United Red Army (2007) since the 70s, so I respect that he’s achieved what he really wanted to achieve.

VS: Your break into directing came with Masao Adachi’s Sex Play (1969), which was produced by Wakamatsu Productions, is that right?

SH: Sex Play was the first movie on which I was assistant director. There was a funny episode during the shooting. Because I’m a woman, I didn’t have a place for myself. I couldn’t sleep in the men’s room, so I normally slept in the main actress’s room. One night, I was sleeping in the corner of her room, and the main actor came in and they started having sex. In front of me. I asked them to stop because we had to start early in the morning and I really wanted to sleep (laughs). But they didn’t, so I went up to Adachi’s room and complained, but he told me off, and said it was my fault. I’m not sure what he meant. He said, ‘they’re allowed to do it, they’re free to do anything they like’. I got upset, and I told Adachi that if he thought it was my fault, I’d move to another studio, and I left the company that day. But we were in the middle of nowhere. It was past midnight. It took me 12 hours to walk back from the location to Wakamatsu Productions offices in Tokyo. I told Wakamatsu what had happened. I asked him, is it my fault? Wakamatsu said, whatever the reason, you’re the assistant director and you left the location and that’s your fault. So I was told off by him too. That’s the reason I left Wakamatsu Productions. People always say I came from Wakamatsu Productions, but I only worked there for six months and I didn’t really like it. It was a way of climbing up the ladder. But sometimes I still argue with male pink film directors, and they all know what happened with Wakamatsu Productions, so they always laugh – they say, ‘you will never change!’

VS: In 1998, you made your first non-pink film, In Search of a Lost Writer: Wandering the World of the Seventh Sense, based on the life and work of the writer Midori Osaki. Why did you choose to make a film about her?

SH: I’d been making pink films for the last 30 years. In 1997, at the Tokyo International Women’s Film Festival, somebody said that the woman director who had made the most films in Japanese film history was Kinuyo Tanaka, who made six films. Nobody mentioned my name because pink film doesn’t count. I was really shocked that they didn’t even know about me. Up until then, I really enjoyed shooting pink films, but I realised that if I kept making only pink movies, nobody would ever know about me, and I couldn’t actually call myself a woman director. That’s why I had to make at least one normal movie.

VS: Why choose that particular subject?

SH: I was looking for a theme. Kuninori Yamazaki, the script-writer of Lily Festival, is a huge fan of Midori Osaki, so he introduced me to her and I read the novel, Wandering the World of the Seventh Sense. I was surprised because it was written in the 1930s, but it’s so fresh and new. The Cricket Girl is my favourite work and I made it into a film too (in 2007). It’s about the Scottish poet William Sharp, who creates another poet in his imagination, so there’s a doppelgänger effect, and it’s astonishingly moving. But in 1997, nobody in Japan knew who Midori Osaki was. The reason she was unknown was that a critic was holding her novel in his personal collection, so it hadn’t been published before. He wrote that Midori Osaki retired as a writer when she was 34 and went back to the Tottori Prefecture, and that she had a horrible, miserable life. He made other people believe this perception of her life. Reading her novels, I didn’t feel like she hated her life or that she was miserable. She had something new to tell, and the way in which she writes is completely radical. She died when she was 72 so when I went to Tottori, I found people who’d known her and I interviewed them, and found out that it was a completely different story. She retired from writing because around that time, before the war, any writer had to be a nationalist writer and had to write propaganda, but she refused to do that, she was an anarchist. She didn’t want to praise Japan during the war – that’s why she decided to stop writing. Therefore to reclaim Osaki’s life was like reclaiming my life, because Osaki is an unknown writer and I’m an unknown director. I’ve made lots of films but no one knows about them, and no one knew about Osaki’s work, so there was a really strong link between us. And I wanted to show that her life wasn’t a tragedy.

VS: In Search of a Lost Writer was financed in a very unusual way through donations, mostly from women throughout Japan, and it was screened independently by women in Japan. It seems that this film and Lily Festival have led to the development of a sort of alternative network for financing and distributing films.

SH: That’s right, the Tottori Prefecture and people in Tokyo gathered the finance for the Midori Osaki movie. Twelve thousand people in Japan donated money to create this movie. That wasn’t enough, obviously, but we also got government subsidies. I couldn’t show Lily Festival anywhere in Japan, no one would release it, but the people who were supporting me and women’s centres found funding to screen it themselves.

VS: Why do you think your films are so important to Japanese women?

SH: I think Lily Festival is liberating. In Japan, women are not supposed to talk about anything to do with sex in public, and I really wanted to get rid of that notion. I think it’s completely natural for old women to want to have sex and love somebody, but they couldn’t talk about it before. So by showing them this movie, I’m telling old people that they can talk about sex and still enjoy it. Japan is still a male-dominated world so the body of the woman has to be young and beautiful. If a woman over the age of 60 talks about sex or love, people will think that she’s gone mad.

VS: Is there still a taboo about female sexuality, or is it more about older women’s sexuality?

SH: The sexuality of post-menopausal women is particularly taboo in Japan. Everybody thinks that sex is about reproduction, so if you can’t have babies, you shouldn’t have any desires. That’s how the Japanese think. But it’s not just about old women, old men have the same problems. When Lily Festival was shown in France, this French gentleman of about 70 came up to me after the screening and he started crying. He explained that he was crying because he could no longer get a hard-on, but watching the film he realised that you can still enjoy sex with a soft penis, so he was very grateful and it gave him a little bit of hope. I think that Japanese men should be like this French man, they should accept that a soft penis is OK. But in Japan they still think that strong men have very hard penises, hard cock equals hard man, and they can’t accept that it doesn’t actually make you a hard man. They need to change so they can live a more fun life. That’s why old Japanese men are so miserable (laughs).

Pic credit: Lily Festival (Yurisai, Dir. Sachi Hamano, 2001)

First published in Electric Sheep Magazine, December 2009.

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