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Thoughts on the Netflix Series The Naked Director

The Naked Director promo image by Netflix Japan

The Naked Director promo image from Netflix Japan. The title has been cleverly 'mosaic'ed.

[Disclaimer: This contains some spoilers for the Netflix series The Naked Director.]

The Netflix series The Naked Director (called 全裸監督, Zenra Kantoku in Japanese) has caused a bit of a sensation. Unlike the previous Japanese Netflix original series like the whimsical Samurai Gourmet and the contemplative Midnight Diner, it is very brash and loud and also definitely for adults only. I believe it's a lot of fun even if you don't know anything about its background, but knowing a bit more about the times the events depicted in it took place in might make it even more enjoyable to watch.

The Naked Director is based on a somewhat exaggerated biography by Hiroyuki Motohashi of the real life adult video/movie director/producer Tohru Muranishi (村西とおる), whose real name is Hiromi Kusano. (It also contains a lot of fascinating history about the pornography industry in Japan in the 1970s to 1980s in excruciating detail.) Muranishi was as outrageous in real life as his on-screen counterpart, if not more so in some ways, and was at one point a media darling, appearing on many variety shows throughout the 1980s. His nickname was The Emperor of Hamedori, a term for what's known in English as gonzo pornography (see Wikipedia entry.)

Kaoru Kuroki, a pioneering porn star

A character in the series that also existed in real life, and whose real name is used, is actress Kaoru Kuroki, who is played by Misato Morita in the series. Kaoru Kuroki was a full time student at Yokohama University, a public university (public universities are generally more prestigious than private ones in Japan, with some exceptions) majoring in fine arts education. She appeared in her first adult video to help pay for her expenses to study art in Italy, but her plans changed when that video became a huge bestseller.

Shortly afterwards she became a sensation on TV, appearing in several variety/chat shows, where she spoke in very in very polite, refined tones about sex. Her demure demeanor and her "good girl from a good family" background helped to make her a star far beyond the adult video world. And as in the series, she sported unshaven underarms, which she would flash on command. Because of her background and manner, she (according to several accounts) helped to legitimatize the idea that women could and did enjoy sex, even adult video stars. She was for a time Muranishi's lover, but when they split up she retired from the industry and withdrew completely from public view.

The wild and wacky late 1970s and 1980s

As I wrote in my previous article about JAL Flight 123 and Beat Takeshi, the 1980s, which really got going for all intents and purposes in the later 1970s, were a really wild time in Japan. The economy was going gangbusters, money was flowing freely, and old mores in many aspects of life were getting smashed.

I still remember that in the late 1970s1, even regular TV was pretty much open to anything, especially after 9pm when presumably the kids had gone to bed. I used to sneak down to the living room (this was in the days before everyone had their own TV) to watch American TV shows like Soap and Soul Train after my parents had gone to sleep, but when I was switching channels I could see that there were dramas with full on sex (lots of naked boobs and panting women, but never showing the groin area), and variety shows with topless dancers galore. They didn't catch my attention as much as the American shows I loved - they kind of went over my head I guess. But I do remember watching one of those late night variety shows where a kindly older woman gave advice to a young topless dancer with smaller breasts than her colleagues, that when she found a good man (implying a husband) that he would help to "cultivate her boobs". !! (In retrospect, my parents probably should have kept a closer eye on my TV watching. But I swear, Soul Train was way more my groove.)

In any case, in this kind of permissive atmosphere, the adult video industry in Japan flourished, as did Muranishi and Kuroki. As the series suggests the advent of video cassette machines was a critical part of that.

The yakuza were a part of daily life

Organized crime in Japan, whose members are referred to as the yakuza, used to be a much more visible part of daily life in Japan, especially for those who stepped close to the boundaries of what is considered "proper" society. When Muranishi got into binibon or vinyl (plastic bag) covered pornography magazines, he was stepping beyond that boundary, so you see him borrowing money from high-interest lenders (aka sarakin), as well as hiring a down-and-out yakuza figure, Kuniya, to mind his shipments.

But the yakuza were quite openly active even in ostensibly legitimate businesses such as construction, the restaurant business, and entertainment. I even remember some yakuza figures coming over to New York City in the 1980s looking for investment opportunities, and also throwing their weight about in a certain ways amidst the Japanese expat community. (I've seen two men with the telltale missing finger tip in my life; one was in Fukuoka, and one was in Manhattan.)

But then, the 1980s ended

Series One of The Naked Director ends in 1989, at the end of the Showa and beginning of the Heisei period. The Heisei emperor, Akihito, is the one that recently abdicated, giving way to his son Naruhito and the Reiwa era in May 2019. Netflix Japan has already announced that Season 2 will be made; unless they do something odd, chronologically the story will plunge into the 1990s. Things will look fine for a couple more years, but then in 1991 the asset price bubble, namely the price of land* burst, and the country gradually plunged into what is now called the Lost Decade.

It's important to remember that not only did the economy flounder in Japan when the "bubble" burst, so did its collective spirit. A lot of people lost a ton of money, and as the years progressed and the depression dragged on, and formerly seemingly unshakeable institutions like the big banks and investment companies started to fail, the go-go party atmosphere of the Bubble Economy period, as it's now called in Japan, gave way to austerity and a clamping down on whatever was seen as excessive or immoral. That included the porn industry, as well as the activities of the yakuza.

In 1991, the Act on Prevention of Unjust Acts by Organized Crime Group Members was put into effect; this has been followed by more anti-organized crime laws on both the national and local (prefectural and city) levels. Whether the yakuza continue to be able to turn a profit, as it were, is debatable2, but they certainly become a lot less obviously visible. While a casual association with yakuza if you owned a restaurant or bar or a local shop, or you were in certain types of entertainment or the adult industry used to be a given; but now, even a whiff of an association with organized crime can ruin your career, if not your life.

How far into these difficult years will Season 2 of The Naked Director go, and how it deals with them, will be very interesting to see.

The real Muranishi and Kuroki now

Muranishi is now 71, and has been appearing on several variety-chat type shows on Japanese TV again, albeit fully clad this time around. He seems to be reveling in the renewed interest in his past, especially by a generation that weren't born when he was in his heyday. But the real Muranishi comes off as a rather misogynistic asshole really. He can be very charming, but a week or so ago I saw him on a TV chat show called Out Deluxe, where he spent most of his time making sexually suggestive remarks to a female guest who was pregnant. He also makes comments on social media like "that female lawyer [an anti-pornography activist] doesn't have to worry about anyone raping her because who would want to" and that kind of thing. The on-screen fictionalized version is much better, not to mention more good looking.

As for Kuroki, as mentioned above she retired from the industry and withdrew completely from public view. She has also sued publication companies and video producers successfully for violating her privacy, when they have tried to re-issue her videos or photos. I have seen Muranishi admonish the media for trying to find her to get her comments her renewed notoriety. But that in itself seems rather disingenuous, especially since her most famous video, her debut work, is still available for sale on his web site3.

Netflix Japan has responded to media queries about whether her consent was obtained for the series by saying that any consent issues are between Kuroki and the publisher of the original biography. So far, Kuroki has not said anything in public about the series, that could be true. Still, it is a somewhat troubling aspect of the series. I hope that she will get compensated in some form, if she wishes it, because her story is almost as important as Muranishi's to the story.

Addendum: why did Netflix produce this series?

Japanese TV dramas are not anywhere near as popular internationally as other East Asian dramas (K-dramas, C-dramas). For one reason, there are way more people of Chinese and Korean origin in the diaspora than Japanese, but another more straightforward reason is that Japanese live-action production companies really haven't been targeting the international market at all. The focus is almost entirely on the domestic market, as is the case with J-pop. However, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services are battling hard in the Japanese market for viewers, where there is a ton of competition from both international and domestic providers.

So The Naked Director, which has an all-star cast of well known actors4, starting with the star Takayuki Yamada5 is aiming at gaining subscribers in Japan as much as anything. If it manages to increase the interest in Japanese television internationally, that's a bonus. It also fits into a recent trend of looking back to the 1980s with some nostalgia by people who were in the thick of it back then, and curiosity by younger people who were too young to remember it or weren't even born yet.

I have to say though that scripted series of this level are rare in Japan these days. A few outlets, like the premium satellite network WOWOW and some independent networks like the TV Tokyo group do produce some interesting and high quality series, as does the national broadcaster NHK sometimes. But the major commercial networks mostly air cheap to produce chat-variety or travel-type shows, with just one scripted program airing per night at most, and most of those scripted programs are very mediocre, to put it mildly. I am hoping that The Naked Director does indeed draw a lot of new subscribers and makes TV producers in Japan take notice.

One more thought: The first season of The Naked Director at least is a full-on depiction of the late 1970s to the 1980s. Contrast the bright colors and the outrageous storyline with the quiet, contemplative world another Japanese series on Netflix, Midnight Diner. Midnight Diner is based on a manga by Yaro Abe, which made its debut in 2006. The contrasts between the two series in terms of mood, focus and more says a lot about the Japan of the 1980s vs. the Japan of the 2000s.

  1. Does anything say 'late 1970s' more than Space Invaders? I remember sinking quite a lot of the money I earned tutoring the little girl next door in Space Invaders tables. ↩︎

  2. The main sources of income for organized crime groups these days are rumored to be cybercrime, and a series of scams that mainly prey on senior citizens, chief amongst them the "It's me" (ore ore) fraud scheme↩︎

  3. This is a very thoughtful article (in Japanese) by a female writer, about the series and Kuroki. ↩︎

  4. Actually, while most of the main male actors (including one-episode guest stars) are well established veterans, none of the actresses, with the exception of Koyuki, who plays Megumi/Kaoru's mother, and Kimiko Yo, who plays Tohru's mother, are that well known. You can guess why well established young actresses might be reluctant to appear in this though.

    Adding to this later: I am just speculating that the degree of sexual explicitness in The Naked Director might be an issue. It's not that Japanese actresses don't do nudity or sex scenes. For example, Sakura Ando did a nude sex scene in Shoplifters, which appeared around the same time she was the heroine of the entirely family friendly morning serial on NHK, Manpuku. No one thought any less of her or anything for doing the nude/sex scene - she won the Best Actress award at the Japanese Academy Awards in fact.

    A very famous example from the past of an actress doing something rather X-rated was when Rie Miyazawa, who started as a child actress and grew up to be a very young-and-innocent teen idol type of actress, came out with a nude "gravure" photo book in 1991. That totally changed her innocent image, although I'm not sure if it helped her career immediately. Her personal life went a bit haywire shortly after the photo book, but she did return to become a steadily working actress afterwards, starring in prestige roles.

    Misato Morita (Megumi/Kaoru Kuroki) has gotten tons of critical praise in the Japanese media for her role. She wasn't a total unknown, but was one of many young actresses around her age and hadn't gotten a big break yet. So it's likely this one has given her career a boost, but we'll see. It is very hard to imagine an already successful actress in her early 20s taking that role though. But again, it's just my speculation. ↩︎

  5. Yamada has been starring in a series of popular ads for Georgia Coffee, a bottled/canned coffee brand from Coca-Cola, since 2014. He always portrays an overworked and very sincere worker in those ads, with the same deadpan intensity he brings to the Muranishi role. Here's a compilation of some of those ads↩︎

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