Japan has a complex relationship with depictions of sex and sexuality. As early as the Heian period sexual acts were being depicted on scrolls and other art works, while the invention of woodblock printing during the Edo period led to the proliferation of erotica despite regular government attempts to stamp out their distribution. Jump forward to the 20th century and the pinku eiga movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a key element of Japanese cinema’s attempts to maintain commercial success in the face of international films and domestic television. There were seemingly few restrictions in the varied representations of sex, save one – graphic footage of genitals was, for the most part, strictly forbidden by government censorship law. Even art picture were not immune which led to Nagisa Oshima’s celebrated In the Realm of the Senses (1976) being edited in France to escape censorship.
One minor example of Japanese censorship is the banning of French photographer Henri Maccheroni’s extended series of photographs ‘2,000 Photographs of the Sex of a Woman’, which caused an international sensation and remains banned in Japan. Ironically, the black and white close-up depictions of an anonymous woman’s vulva effectively rob them of any real sense of eroticism or sensuality, but banned they remain. Director Hitoshi Yazaki uses Maccheroni’s work as the jumping-off point of his drama Still Live of Memories.
Haruma (Masanobu Ando) is a successful art photographer in the middle of presenting his latest exhibition. He is approached by Rei (Natsuko Haru), a mysterious woman who offers him a valuable commission on two conditions: first, she will keep the film negatives, and second, that he is not allowed to ask her any questions. The photographic project for which Rei hires Haruma is a series of photographs of her own genitals. Haruma awkwardly complies with her demands, and begins meeting with her for a series of sessions, all the while living with an unsuspecting – and pregnant – girlfriend at home (Rima Matsuda).
Technically the film exercises most of the common tropes of independent cinema: handheld photography, a limited but effective musical score, and a slow-burning focus on its three protagonists. Yazaki keeps the audience at a fair distance from his characters, emotionally speaking – what we discern of their inner desires we only gain from their behavior. That creates a certain frisson in terms both drama and erotica, since at no point are fully exposed to anybody’s motivations. Rei has a hospitalized mother in a vegetative state, and whatever links her photographic project to both her mother and her own aging goes undisclosed. It is similar difficult to get a proper handle on Haruma’s young girlfriend Natsuki who, after learning of Haruma’s assignment, awkwardly pushes herself into the process. Rather than function as a flaw, this detached and uncertain presentation makes the film a fascinating one to watch. All three lead performances are excellent, particularly Matsuda and Haru.
If there is a key problem here it is one the film shares with its photographic inspiration. The very act of photographing a woman’s genitals seems a dehumanizing process; separating one’s private parts from everything else frames women as nothing beyond either a reproductive process or a sexual object. While many of the elements through the film feel involving, emotive, and artistically valid, at its core it casts the entire experience through a male gaze. Haruma is the audience’s point of view into the lives of two somewhat mysterious, unknowable women, and that male-dominated sheen hovers over Yazaki’s film like an uncomfortable fog.
Still Life of Memories still has much to recommend it, but it carries an awful lot of baggage. Its treatment of women, of sexuality, and the human body do not escape its own cultural context and the film fails in challenging those conventions. A partial success then, or a qualified failure. The answer likely lies in the eye of the beholder.