Film, Interviews

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! Shintoho Films at the Freer

Revenge of the Pearl Queen

Author and film critic Mark Schilling is the curator of our Shintoho retrospective, named “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” after the films’ sometimes-scandalous subject matter. Bento had a chance to interview Schilling in advance of his appearance and book signing at the Freer this Friday for the screening of Revenge of the Pearl Queen at 7 pm.

Bento: What first attracted you to chronicle Japanese culture, especially film? Was there an “aha!” moment?

Mark Schilling: I wanted to review films long before I became interested in Japanese culture. I was one of the many Woodstock-era wannabe critics under the spell of Pauline Kael. What made me first want to write about Japanese films in particular was the work of Juzo Itami, including The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1985). His social comedies weren’t about samurai and geisha, but rather contemporary Japanese citizens; that is, the sorts of people I saw around me every day. The films were saying something fresh and incisive about the Japan I had been living in for the past decade, and I thought reviewing them and other Japanese films like them would be more fun than being the one thousandth critic to opine on the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I still think so.

Bento: Tell me about movie-making in Japan after WWII, and the establishment of the Shintoho studio in 1947.

Mark Schilling: Shintoho began as a ploy by its corporate parent, the Toho studio, to keep production going during a prolonged period of labor unrest. Though it later became independent, Shintoho was the smallest of the six studios active in the 1950s—the Golden Era of Japanese cinema—and it was constantly struggling against bigger and better-financed rivals. It made quality films with name directors and stars in its early years, but box office hits were few.

When veteran showman Mitsugu Okura took over as president in 1955, he dumped the expensive auteurs and began to give more assignments to assistant directors on the studio payroll, while boosting unknown actors to stardom. He also began targeting young audiences with the same sort of exploitation fare that was filling drive-ins and grindhouses in the United States. His horror films and erotic thrillers didn’t win prizes, but they drew audiences—and enabled Shintoho to survive a few years longer than it probably would have otherwise.

Bento: I can’t remember a more memorable title for a film series than “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” What defines a film from Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: During the Okura era, which lasted from 1955 until the studio folded in 1961, Shintoho films were known for their racy, lurid titles and posters—all approved by Okura—that promised forbidden delights to their mostly young, male fans. Okura wasn’t particular about the films’ contents as long as they delivered on the promise of the title. This allowed talented directors such as Teruo Ishii and Nobuo Nakagawa to put their signature on their films and make them stand out over the competition. It’s hard to say that Shintoho had a distinct style, but its best films had a vitality that the staider products of other studios lacked and still makes them watchable today.

Bento: Since you’re coming to introduce Revenge of the Pearl Queen, can you tell us something about this film?

Mark Schilling: It was based on a true story about a Japanese woman who found herself on a small island in the Marianas with several dozen Japanese guys escaping the US invasion of Saipan. The men ended up fighting each other for her favors, while she played off one lover against another—and escaped the island unscathed in 1950. Her story inspired Anatahan (1953), the last film by Josef von Sternberg.

The Shintoho version resembles Sternberg’s in its focus on sex and violence, but the woman played by Michiko Maeda is no hapless victim or wily femme fatale. Instead she begins the story as a young woman who has it all, including a handsome, ambitious fiancé (Ken Usui), but loses it in a murderous corporate coup. She gets her revenge with her wits and by enlisting the aid of her male allies on the island, so she is really a strong figure, and one atypical for the era.
Maeda, however, became notorious for one brief, if striking, scene in the film, in which she was shot unclothed from behind. This was a first for an actress in a Japanese film, and paved the way for hundreds of nude scenes to follow in the 1960s and beyond.

Bento: If I’m not mistaken, you conducted Maeda’s most recent public interview. How did she remember her days at Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: She was very reluctant to speak with me and a Japanese journalist who helped arrange the interview. In fact she had given only one other on-the-record interview about her days at Shintoho. She had been burned badly by the Japanese media and was distrustful of journalists.

But when we finally met she was incredibly generous and forthcoming, even giving us little drink mats she had crocheted—a first for me as an interviewer! She resented the way she had been treated—she was fired from the studio and banned from the industry for a minor act of insubordination—but she was also proud of what she had achieved in her brief career. Even though she had had a hard life, working for years as a waitress in a noodle shop, she still had the aura of stardom and quality of steely resolve that come across so strongly in Pearl Queen.

Bento: Can we see any evidence of Shintoho’s influence in movie-making or popular culture in Japan today?

Mark Schilling: Shintoho’s strongest impact was in the horror and erotic genres. Every Japanese horror director today owes a debt to Nobuo Nakagawa, who pioneered the mix of modern and traditional kaidan (ghost story) elements that characterizes Japanese horror.

Also, Shintoho films about ama, women pearl divers who worked in figure-revealing attire, may be mild by present standards, but they were considered bold provocations in their day. In their commercial success and pushing of borders, these films laid the groundwork for the huge pinku (erotic) film industry that was to arise in the 1960s and play such a major role in popular culture in the decades to follow.