by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford
NANAMI – INFERNO OF FIRST LOVE (NANAMI FIRST LOVE)
(1967 Japan release; 1969 U.S. release) Director: Susumu Hani
Orientalia staked out its place in Times Square in the late 1960s with the Bijou Theater. The Bijou was a small Asian run house on 45th Street off Broadway up a flight of stairs. The Bijou was dedicated to Japanese fare like samurai epics and Nikkatsu productions, which were movies, like Violated Angels, that depicted severe rope bondage fantasies. When Yukio Mishima checked out via Hari Kari on stage, the Bijou showed a film of it, on a double bill with Mishima's underground featurette, The Rite of Love and Death. The Bijou regularly advertised in the New York Times, and attracted a quiet, steady, predominantly Oriental crowd, with a sprinkling of kink seeking round eyes.
Although sexually explicit movies like Violated Angels and Gate of Flesh played the Bijou, Nanami was the first Japanese import to cross over into the American sexploitation circuit. Nanami opened in 1969 at the World 49th Street Theater, which became infamous three years later when it premiered Deep Throat. Its distribution was handled both through the adult movie outfit Distribpix and the Japonica fueled Golden Eagle Pictures. Nanami then became an occasional replay at the well frequented arthouse, the Bleecker Street Cinema, throughout the late 1970s.
Nanami is unique in that it creates its own aesthetic as it progresses. The film expands on a straightforward narrative to encompass bits of style that include hand held cinema verite, angular, subjective mental images, and bits of sound fragments. This stylistic mosaic is highly innovative and appropriate, as Nanami traverses a sexual universe that ranges from norms to taboos. Presenting a romance involving a massage parlor girl and a mentally shaky young man, the film encompasses S&M, voyeurism, exhibitionism, narcissism, male and female homosexuality, pedophilia, impotence, nude modeling, prostitution, and love at first sight - all in equal proportions.
Nanami opens as we trail the protagonists, Nanami, (Kunio Ishii) and her boyfriend Shun (Akio Takahashi) walking down a crowded street. In that resolute Oriental way, it’s never explained how they met. The Japan of Nanami is a cold and dismal postwar atmosphere, even in the mid-1960s, when the film was lensed. It’s simultaneously urban and primitive.
Nanami and Shun go to a lover’s hotel, which is little more than stalls with dividers. It’s permeated by the sexual noises of adjacent couples. A leering mamasan delivers them towels. Although Shun proclaims his love for Nanami like a mantra, he quickly proves impotent.
Nanami appreciates Shun’s sincerity, that he likes her for more than just sexual reasons. She doesn’t hold Shun’s failed performance against him. Nanami means no one ill. Although she’s barely out of high school, sex work has made Nanami a functional Darwinist with a tolerance and understanding for men’s sex hang-ups.
Nanami’s empathy prompts Shun to supply a thumbnail autobiography, which we see in flashback. Shun's mother abandoned him as a toddler to go off with her boxer lover. There's a brief view of a woman in a kimono next to a vague male figure waving "bye Shun" to a little boy in a desolate landscape. Shun is adopted by a metalworker and his wife, who he calls his mother and father. He becomes the metalworker's apprentice. Shots of both men, in a traditional, minimal Japanese room, tapping rhythmically on tiny objects, are hypnotic.
Shun and Nanami agree to give it another try soon. They return to their respective lives, with Nanami working as a photographer's model at a massage parlor in the city’s red-light district. The girls stand at the doorway, shouting out to passerbys to drum up business. Old men take nude snapshots of them, sometimes in pairs, verbally subjugating one girl for a sadistic twist now and then.
Shun plays in a park with a little girl, Naomi, who's just above a toddler, around his age when his mother abandoned him. He likes being with Naomi because he’s so lacking in familial affection and is a little stunted himself. All this leads to a somewhat sexual edge to their games that disturbingly illustrates that Shun’s set of life circumstances have warped him.
Shun not exactly innocently touches Naomi's behind as she gets on a slide. A bunch of Nipponese bystanders see this, and assume the worst. They chase Shun through crowded streets, shouting, "bastard! You dirty pervert!” past rows of street peddlers. The police break it up. Shun is put under hypnosis by a psychiatrist via a shot of sodium pentothal. Clouds of smoke billow through a fishbowl lens. Shun starts re-living his stepfather, who has strange, effeminate eyebrows, trying to sodomize him in a bathroom. His stepmother interrupts, demanding, "stop the hypnosis!"
Nanami meets a bearded Yakuza member at her photo studio who offers her camera club work. The camera club scene in Nanami is one of the most remarkable scenes in film, very expressionistic and intense. It captures a certain type of S&M that Japan specialized in during the 1960s and early 1970s, mixing Oriental and Caucasian models.
The Yakuza greases the palm of a creepy shopkeeper to use his basement for the event. The male spectators snap away as the women engage in brutal girl on girl, Asian vs. Eurasian/American Caucasian beatings, slappings, and armed catfights that end in simulated death scenes. Drunk from sake, the men are bathed in sweat, gripping their camera. Each scene the women play out for them is accompanied by a cacophony of camera clicks. The p.o.v. angle goes upside down, right side up as Nanami is tied to an X-cross. A tall, longhaired Eurasian looking woman slaps her face, whips her, and rides her like a horse. The men sit in the throws of mania. A bespectacled man drops down into his chair, wiping his brow. The Yakuza arranger grabs his camera and keeps on snapping.
A sort of twisted male bonding occurs as the men exchange horror stories as they click away at the girls. The Yakuza talks about the death of a former model in a women's prison. One tells of hating his wife so much that he thinks about setting her on fire when she’s asleep.
A tall blonde American strikes a dominant stance, dressed in a riding outfit with high boots. The Yakuza admiringly tells her, "You look especially good today." Nanami wears a traditional Japanese robe. The blonde and Nanami play out various combat scenarios, some hand to hand, some sporting weapons. They end with Nanami choking the blonde, ending in a simulated snuff scene. The whole thing excites the Yakuza so much that he collapses drunk after it's over, the camera angle following his chess piece fall.
Shun has been peeking at the entire proceeding, close-ups of his face revealing a mixture of arousal and angst. He daydreams about the scenes the next day. The blonde and Nanami twist each other’s nipples in slow motion to white noise. This all adds more to his mental confusion. Shun shows up at the next camera club meeting. The women pose on rocks on a freezing beach. The blonde remarks to Nanami, "your admirer is here again." Nanami finally stops working for the camera club because she’s gotten so bruised up. The sex worker survival instinct is also telling her to avoid the bearded Yakuza.
Although Nanami is unused to the emotion of jealousy because of her job, Shun is disturbed and ragingly jealous. He feels hurt when they’re eating at a noodle shop and Nanami invites Algebra to join them. Algebra is her former high school classmate, the beloved class egghead. He invites them to school, where he shows a short film. Shun resists at first, but is very moved when he sees Algebra's film. It's an ode to a girl he was in love with called First Love. Shun enthusiastically calls it beautiful, asking Algebra if he’d ever shown it to the girl. "I wish she was here today for me to show it to her," he replies, sadly. Shun looks affectionately at Nanami, exuberantly declaring, "this is first love!" They agree to meet in a hotel the following day.
Shun greets Naomi in the park, but avoids engage any questionable play with her. Suddenly, there's a bizarre vision of nude little boys and girls wearing Kabuki masks running through the park, toward the camera, as if they were spirits Shun released.
Shun shaves, narcissistically admiring himself, before his date with Nanami. Shun’s stepfather starts in with the abuse again, feeling him up. Shun shoves him away. The stepfather shouts, "get out! Probably end up a delinquent!"
On his way to the hotel Shun is confronted by the Yakuza and his thuggish buddies. "Remember Nanami, the model from the camera club? Can you tell us how to reach her?" Shun runs and they follow in hot pursuit through the crowded streets, leading to Nanami’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street-like ending. Shun is struck dead by a car as Nanami watches sadly from the hotel window.
Nanami is flabbergasting in the complete metasexual turf it covers. It’s believable and moving as a love story, and includes the complex mental and social baggage its protagonists carry. Nanami is also among the few movies to give an exact, vicarious reproduction of a paid S&M performance. It brings the mental dynamics and physical pain into the hyperreality that S&M performances are. In these scenes, and throughout Nanami, you see director Susumu Hani inventing a fresh cinematic vocabulary
* * *
The original Golden Eagle release with the title card of Nanami First Love is available through Shocking Videos, as part of its extraordinary, expansive Japonica library.