Shinji Imaoka made waves (if you’ll pardon the pun) a couple of years ago with the unlikely splicing of a whimsical musical romance with the softcore porn genre pretty unique to Japan known as ‘pink film’ in his fantastical comedy Underwater Love. Since then pink film’s fortunes have continued to decline, with the specialist cinemas which housed the films having all but disappearing from the Japanese landscape. However, a committed few like Imaoka himself have held true to the pink film cause and tried desperately to ensure the genre’s survival, albeit in a slightly different form.
The film begins in a slightly run-down, low rent backstreet bar run by a kimono-clad mama-san, Kisumi, and denizened by a collection of misfit drunks with nowhere else to go. Tonight though, there’s a new customer. A woman, Toko, is sitting with her back to us, drinking heavily but seemingly brushing off the obvious ‘are you okay?’ questions coming her way. That is until she hears her favourite song, gets up - leaving all her stuff behind - and collapses in the street. Being the kind of community spirited dive it is, the customers help get her into one of the upstairs rooms to sleep it off. However, it seems Toko may have had another reason for coming to the Redemption Bar - Kisumi’s boyfriend, Gunji!
The original Japanese title of the film bears the subtitle “Women of Shinjuku Golden-gai” - Golden-gai (literally ‘golden street’) is a hive of tiny alleyways packed out with hundreds of tiny bars offering actually quite expensive if slightly ramshackle places to enjoy a few drinks. In many ways it’s a snapshot of a bygone era and one of the last remnants of the way the city the looked before the economic miracle. However, like pink film it’s permanently on its way out and parts of the surrounding area were even burned down by yakuza back in the 80s so developers could buy the land. Maybe for these reasons it’s regarded as a kind of ‘hip’ place for artists, writers and musicians etc. In short, it’s the sort of romanticised environment you find in a Tom Waits song full of depressed, misunderstood lonely people all looking for their ticket out of the gutter. Indeed, Unlucky Woman’s Blues, which is the song Toko seems to cling to is just such a lament for her unhappy destiny.
It’s a far cry from When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, but the women of Golden-gai do seem to be an unlucky bunch. Seduced and betrayed by faithless men, some are driven to violence and others to a life as an ageing mama-san always waiting for that one special customer who’s going to take them away from this life of sake-drenched misery. It’s difficult to see what so many ladies have found so irresistible about the apparently much lusted after Gunji - he’s not particularly handsome, rich or in any way interesting, but still he seems to have some kind of all-powerful allure. He’s nobody’s way out of the Golden-gai though - he’s the very embodiment of being trapped within the destructive cycle of this world of drunks and wounded gamblers.
Oddly, according to an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, Unlucky Woman’s Blues was actually partly conceived as a sort of advert for the area and was pitched by its star - herself a former pink film icon turned Golden-gai mama-san. Despite its romanticised trappings, it does little to make the area seem appealing or glamorous - rather the atmosphere is one of faded grandeur and forever lost hopes. Apparently ticket buyers to the film in Japan were entitled to a discount coupon to enjoy the many charms of the area and get to know some of its famous bar staff, though given the depressing picture painted of the Golden-gai in the film you have to wonder how successful that may be.
In the same interview, which is mostly about the decline of pink film as an industry, Imaoka states his intention to move on from the pink film or at least to make pink films which are more easily marketable. To this end, his sponsors requested R-15 style sex scenes rather than the more explicit (simulated) eroticism of the R-18 world of "pinku eiga". In an R-15 film almost anything goes but you can’t show the lower half of the body, which may account for the impressive array of blankets on show in this film. As in Underwater Love, the sex scenes themselves end up feeling quite shoe-horned in and actually a little bit boring. Melodramatic as it is, the plot feels as if it wants to do something different and strange as it is to say the film may have been stronger without all the sex.
Unlucky Woman’s Blues is entertaining enough but ultimately forgettable. Typically low production values and fairly basic direction never really lift it above its fairly modest origins and its overwrought atmosphere makes it something of a depressing watch. It lacks the whimsical exuberance that made Underwater Love so popular and may struggle to find an overseas audience unfamiliar with the area that seems to be almost a character itself. That said its main fault is not being hugely interesting, which doesn’t make it bad, and those looking for an even softer pink film may find more to love in Unlucky Woman’s Blues.
Unlucky Woman's Blues was screened as part of the 2014 Raindance Film Festival on 26th September 2014.