The Japanese film industry loves making films about the process of filmmaking. From “The Woodsman and the Rain”, the smash hit “One Cut of the Dead”, Sion Sono’s Roman Porno entry “Antiporno” to even director Eiji Uchida’s own “Lowlife Love” and more, there have been several films about filmmakers and filming from there. The last two of the aforementioned films particularly hold strong relevance for “The Naked Director”, the new Netflix series which has been co-written by Uchida and tells the real-life story of Toru Muranishi, one of Japan’s most prolific, innovative and famous pornographers and the rise of the porn industry in the country.
As an English Encyclopaedia selling door-to-door salesman in Hokkaido, Japan, Toru Muranishi isn’t doing too well. Just as he’s beginning to gain confidence and getting the ropes of marketing, the company he works for folds and a crestfallen Muranishi then witnesses the infidelity of his wife. Drowning himself at the bottom of the glass, he meets Toshi, a fast-talking wannabe yakuza who introduces Muranishi to the world of erotica, through self-recorded audio tapes of people copulating in motels and binibon, locally produced erotic magazines wrapped in plastic.
Ever the forward-thinker, Muranishi plunges head-first into the binibon manufacturing business along with Toshi, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable censorship as far as he can. This catches the attention of pornography supremo Ikezawa and the authorities, led by Inspector Takei, both of who are working in cahoots. Fleeing to Tokyo, Muranishi, Toshi and their partner Kawada take the pornography world by storm, delving into the newly introduced format of video, breaking taboos and pushing boundaries as they go along. Ikezawa and Takei, however, do not seem to give up on them and try their darnedest to bring Muranishi to ruin.
Simultaneously, we also meet Megumi, an Arts student at University living with an overbearing mother. Oppressed for most of her life, she has grown up very protected and naive, until a chance run in with one of Muranishi’s binibons opens a whole new world to her and leads her to discovering her blossoming sexuality. When an incident breaks the veneer of a happy family that her mother maintains, she rebels in a wholly unexpected way: by going to Muranishi and showing willingness and enthusiasm to act in his erotic videos.
The project is based on a namesake book on Muranishi’s life and Masaharu Take, the director of the boxing drama “100 Yen Love”, who oversaw the project as supervising director, said the real-life Muranishi allowed them to be as free with the facts as they wanted, as long as it was interesting. The result is a half-fact, half-fiction screenplay, co-written by Kosuke Nishi, Yoshitatsu Yamada and director Eiji Uchida, that is a wonderful mix of comedy and drama. Take shares directorial duties with Uchida as well as tv director Hayato Kawai over the show’s 8-episode run. Carrying a predominantly humorous tone, the series doesn’t shy away from tackling some important themes and subjects either with its drama.
In terms of telling Muranishi’s story, the series effectively manages to feature several of the key incidents from his life, including the many arrests and convictions that he had to endure in his insistence to stick to his vision of revolutionary and freeing pornography. This is the man who introduced real sex and POV shots to the then mildly conservative Japanese porn industry and the series does not shy away from depicting this in graphic detail. Considering the industry he worked in as well as the fact that Muranishi’s videos often featured himself, he is not shown to be an exploitative individual, unlike his competitions. Instead, he is extremely respectful and compassionate towards his actresses. Considering the subject matter, nudity and sex scenes are of course plenty, making the show often feel like a tv version of a pinku film, but they are tastefully, and often hilariously, done and feature extremely good looking actors.
The series sheds a light on the minute workings of the porn industry, while also exploring several themes about sex, the taboo that the subject of the sex industry comes with as well as individuality and identity. Most fascinating among them is the journey of Megumi, who goes from repressed young art student to the sexually liberated Kaoru Kuroki, the first real AV star of Japan, as soon as her mother’s finger which has been pressing her down all these years lifts. Both Muranishi and Kuroki want to establish themselves as key individuals of the industry without losing their identity, come what may, which is why Muranishi refuses to give in to the Adult Video Commission’s demands to soften his content or implement stricter censorship or why Kuroki refuses to shave her armpits. Through Kuroki, the show also comments on feminism and how the female body can be rather empowering in its natural form. The lesson to be yourself against all odds and not give in to society pressures is honed in. On Muranishi’s part, his vision and ethics are a strong part of his identity and he refuses to compromise on them even to make more money, either by getting rid of real sex in his videos as per the Commission’s wishes or by selling uncensored videos on the blackmarket.
Society’s lack of acceptance towards people who make or act in adult videos is also well touched upon. Take, for example, the plight of Miku or Naoko, two actresses that feature in two separate Muranishi videos. Miku performs in Muranishi’s first ever unsimulated sex film and is very happy at having done so under the tutelage of the visionary director, but her world crumbles when her pictures are printed all over newspapers and she learns that her parents have been informed of her profession. Likewise, Naoko has a perfect life after quitting porn, working in an office where she is liked, but the moment her uncensored video leaks, society’s evil side shows up. These are just some of the show’s darker emotions in an otherwise humorous narrative. Contrast that with the treatment that Kaoru Kuroki receives, simply because she proudly owns up to her body and her sexuality, showing the audience something they’ve never witnessed before.
The narrative, while for the most part smooth, does tend to show a downward slide in some episodes. The one in Hawaii, in particular, is probably the show’s weakest episode. In trying to include Muranishi’s real-life arrest and imprisonment overseas, the episode’s weak writing, and the show’s worst acting from the non-Japanese actors, comes forth. But the very colourful cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto, which is consistent throughout the series, more than makes up for those shortcomings in the show’s few weaker moments. The nostalgia that the photography evokes of 80s and 90s Japan is noteworthy. Equally praiseworthy is Taisei Iwasaki’s music, which includes everything from 80s pop music to Amy Winehouse, and highlights not just the show’s more sombre moments but also the fun, energetic sex scenes.
As Muranishi, Japanese superstar Takayuki Yamada was the first to sign on to the project and is the show’s backbone, carrying it through with aplomb. As a Takashi Miike regular, he is quite accustomed to the whimsical and he ups the ante here. The writing required a whole graph of emotions out of him and he shows his full range effectively, his acting not missing a beat even as Muranishi’s changing hair heralds the development of the character from a failing but rules-abiding man to a complete individual artist. Misato Morita was selected from a long audition process as Megumi/Kaoru and she sheds all inhibitions to play the character. The scene where she confronts her mother, played by model and actress Koyuki, is a highlight.
Every actor cast in Muranishi’s crew is likeable, as is Tetsuji Tamayama as his business manager and friend Kawada. But it is Shinnosuke Mitsushima’s performance as Toshi that remains the most memorable. His is the strongest character arc of the series and it is very safe in Mitsushima’s hands. Watch out for his confrontation scene in the final episode. One of Japan’s foremost actors, Lily Franky plays Inspector Takei to immense dislikability. Veteran actors Ryo Ishibashi and Jun Kunimura are a joy to watch together again after Miike’s “Audition” as Ikezawa and yakuza boss Furuya and will leave fans wishing there was a scene where the two sat at a table as Ikezawa auditioned actresses for his videos.
Much like the real-life Muranishi, “The Naked Director” is a big thinker and a bold risk taker, thoughts and risks that pay off to delightful results. It is a love song to a time and an industry that fascinated and scared the public in equal parts, to the trailblazers and the risk-takers, to the innovators and the individuals that led the way into making society a liberating one and making sex, one of the most natural acts, an acceptable and open subject. At eight episodes long, it is not an arduous task to sit through at all, absorbing, pleasing to the eyes and well worth the binge.