Nikkatsu Corporation, the studio responsible for Love Hunter, is one of Japan’s oldest movie studios. The company has been creating feature films intermittently since its founding in 1912. Nikkatsu hit its stride in the early 1950s, with a slate of well received action and gangster films, and an influx of talent lured away from other studios. Shying away from the kaiju movies that were very popular at the time, Nikkatsu instead focused on other aspects of the youth market, with occasional forays into comedy or historical drama to diversify their audience beyond the more action-oriented fare for which they were known.
By the dawn of the ’70s, Nikkatsu was in increasingly dire financial straits, as the popularity of television cut into profits and audiences for feature films. In order to remain profitable, the company switched their focus to more salacious and erotic content. Combining the French word for novel and the English word pornography, Nikkatsu branded their new cinematic focus as “Roman Porno”. These higher concept, higher budget erotic films were a resounding success. The first entry under the new brand, Apartment Wife: Affair In the Afternoon, was such a blockbuster hit that it spawned 20 sequels.
While the Roman Porno films were marketed in a similar manner to hardcore erotic features in their home country, their actual content is closer to the Western softcore or sexploitation features from the same period. Japanese censorship laws forbid the display of sexual organs or penetrative acts that are generally the distinguishing feature of Western hardcore pornography.
The massive financial and critical success of Nikkatsu’s new direction also drew an increasing amount of attention from the Japanese authorities. When Seiichirō Yamaguchi’s Love Hunter was released in January of 1972, the director was quickly arrested for obscenity, as well as several other Nikkatsu staffers. Though not arrested, multiple members of Eirin (the Japanese equivalent of the MPAA) were indicted for allowing the film to pass for exhibition at all. The resulting legal battle lasted eight-years, and to date was the last time a film was charged with obscenity under Japanese law.
The Impulse Pictures Blu-Ray of Love Hunter is the first time North American audiences have had an official release of this controversial erotic film. The case was a landmark moment for anti-censorship sentiment in Japan, but Love Hunter has remained a relatively little seen title in the West.
Kyoko (Hidemi Hara) is a beautiful older socialite, with an upcoming marriage to a wealthy man. Bored and jaded, she fills her days with hedonistic affairs. She is a sugar mama for a younger drag performer at a local swingers’ club, and throws wild sex parties at the beach house she bought with her fiancée’s money.
On a duck hunting trip in the countryside, she has a chance meeting with innocent college student Kazuo (Ryûji Ôizumi), and his virginal girlfriend Hisako (Mari Tanaka). Frustrated, and easily seduced by the older woman, Kazuo is soon enthralled by Kyoko’s sexual adventurousness. Hisako soon finds herself drawn into Kyoko’s web of decadence and debauchery, as the two women conflict over their unique ties to Kazuo.
While there is plenty of titillating material (as mandated by the studio), Love Hunter is more of a darkly psychosexual melodrama than the unhinged depravity one would expect given its controversial reputation. It is neither pushing the limits of allowed content like the 1960s spate of Japanese sexual hygiene films, nor does it border as far into eroticized violence and kink-fueled dynamics as many of its contemporaries. The most taboo of its subject matter is handled primarily in fantasy sequence, and is used to push forward the narrative that perhaps trauma and family bonds that are a bit too tight are the source of Kyoko’s hypersexual and predatory behavior. The film is more conceptually perverse than it is explicit or bizarre in showing those perversions.
Hidemi Hara is very well cast as the experienced seductress, and crackles with a charisma her two co stars don’t quite share. As she smokes and swans about in and out of a delightful array of ’70s fashion, it is very easy to believe that she could seduce and destroy an innocent young couple without so much as a smudge on her immaculate white ensembles.
Perhaps most surprising is the genuine tension between Kyoko and Hisako, as they struggle to win over Kazuo for their own purposes. Their delightfully bitchy, war of the roses passive aggressive sparring is something I would expect more from a midcentury Hollywood “women’s picture” than an early ’70s erotic film.
Censorship requirements are cleverly satisfied with careful placement of visually obscuring objects on set, and there is genuine beauty in the stylistic flourishes of the more narrative scenes. Be it a lone sex worker contemplatively sitting in front of an arched fireplace, or the reflection of Kyoko’s nightly pills and booze in the amber glass of a ballerina music box, the aesthetics here are far more developed than many of the Western sexploitation films of the same general era. Love Hunter tips its hand as to its roots with a tonally odd finale, but it’s a surprisingly engaging and stylish ride before it goes full tilt into the crazier corners of exploitation excess in the last few minutes.
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As for the Blu-ray itself, the restoration and transfer are likely as good as it’s going to get for the inexpensively produced source material, with defined lights and darks, vividly saturated color, and a retention of a pleasing amount of grain. The Japanese audio mix is well balanced, with no jarring transitions between background noise and dialogue. The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer. A commentary track or featurette with some additional historical context and information would have been a nice touch, given the lack of details available on the film in non-Japanese media sources.
Love Hunter won’t win over converts used to more mainstream fare, but those with a taste for exploitation cinema will likely find it an interesting, plot-driven first step into the vast world of Japan’s long history of erotic filmmaking and pinku eiga. The film also serves as an excellent time capsule of the fashion, fads and architecture of 70s Japan. It also vividly illustrates the the moral panics of its time period, given the film’s immediate negative reception. The movie isn’t nearly as scandalous as eight-years of legal battles and a company-wide raid would suggest. However, Love Hunter is an interesting footnote in the history of banned and censored cinema. The charges brought against the filmmakers seemed to be more geared toward setting an example for an era full of increasingly bold erotic film producers, rather than any part of Love Hunter being the extremity of cinematic obscenity for its time.
Wicked Rating – 7/10