This article considers the 1973 Nikkatsu Roman Porn film adaptation of a short story by Japanese literary giant Nagai Kafū, “Underneath the Papering of the Four-and-a-Half-Mat Room” (“Yojōhan fusuma no urabari”). This low-budget erotic film appeared in the international context of the “liberation” (or decriminalization) of pornography that had swept Europe by the early to mid-1970s and in the domestic context of a severe crackdown on such trends. At the time of the film’s release, both the story and the studio were at the center of high-profile obscenity trials in Japan. In this essay, I examine how and why these contexts led the filmmaker to take considerable liberties in adapting the story, in particular its conspicuous incorporation of archival photographs that document the rise of Japanese militarism in the mid-to late Taishō period (1912 – 26). I argue that the insistent injection of such politically and formally radical content strove to legitimize the film and, by implication, also its source text, as politically and aesthetically defensible in both legal and artistic circles.
But because the film had to function in its generic context as well, as a studio-branded “porno,” I insist also on considering the pornographic efficacy of such a strategy. I ask: What is the effect of injecting stilled historical images into a genre famous instead for its lush color moving ones? What can such a strategy tell us about postwar historical memory, the relationship of politics to pornography and of still photographs to moving film images, and the nature of film adaptations and their literary source texts? This film offers an extreme-limit case that brings to the fore the tensions between economic and generic demands on the one hand, and juridic, aesthetic, and auteurist imperatives, on the other, that are inherent in any film production.