Roman Porno DVD Double Feature: DEBAUCHERY & (TRUE STORY OF A WOMAN IN JAIL) SEX HELL

Charlie Hobbs, Contributing Writer
About 18 months ago Impulse Pictures, in cooperation with Synapse Films, released the Nikkatsu Roman Porno Trailer Collection on DVD. This disc was a ninety minute journey through that strange world of the Roman Porno series, one of the most unique genres of film there is.  These films are modestly budgeted softcore sex films, often with some extreme thematic or visual flair, and they often allowed fledgling directors to spread their creative wings as long as they stayed within the budget and served up plenty of sex. The series lasted eighteen years, and delivered some fantastic and very original films. Impulse Pictures has acquired about two dozen of them for US DVD release, and the first two, Debauchery and True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell, are finally hitting shelves on April 10th.

Debauchery is the story of a housewife, Ami, who finds herself getting bored of the tender loving she gets from her doting husband and decides to try for a little action on the side. Enter the Madame Machiko Society Club, a daytime brothel that caters to wealthy clientele and employs the odd horny housewife. At first, Ami is timid and scared by the prospect, but her increasingly adventurous libido continues leading her back to Madame Machiko, where she experiences all kinds of sexual depravity, including a whole lot of humiliation, and learns that she likes it. When an old friend carrying a torch for her shows up and Madame Machiko's, she tries to get away, but her animal instincts force her into submission and she finally learns what she needs to be free.

When Luis Bunuel released his classic Belle de jour, it was quite scandalous. Catherine Deneuve's performance as a sexually frustrated housewife with fantasies of bondage and masochism was breathtaking, in more ways than one. Debauchery takes that story and removes the political subtext, replacing it with raw sexual fireworks. The story is nearly identical, except for the fact that it is pared back for time and stripped of all frivolous elements. Ami is awakened to her sexual desires as a result of curiosity, rather than seeking out fulfillment of desires she'd suppressed actively. In that way, this film is less of a feminist statement that Belle de jour, which was more about the sexual politics of women, and making explicit that their libidos are just as active as men's.

What Debauchery lacks in depth, it makes up for in extended horizontal grappling. After a rather odd opening featuring two of the principals playing racquetball, the film goes for the gusto early and often. Ami is naked frequently, and typically if she's within earshot of a man, she's working hard to please him and embarrass herself. Masochism is her thing, and her overworked libido finally receives its outlet at Madame Machiko's place. In spite of her burgeoning sexual self-discovery, she still feels immense shame constantly, to the point that even when her loving husband is trying to do the deed, she can't enjoy herself as fully as she does with someone who doesn't have any respect for her at all. This self-realization is both liberating and devastating to Ami, who has trouble finding that middle ground.

As much as I liked Debauchery, I have to say, at the risk of missing the point, that I would have liked more character development. These films are typically no more than seventy or seventy five minutes, and when 45 of those minutes are spent on rather graphic boning, it can get tedious. There is no levity in this film, Debauchery is kind of a downer, but for the Roman Porno fans out there, it's definitely a keeper.

sexhell.jpgThe second film in the new series from Impulse is the decidedly more entertaining True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell. With a name like that, it's got to deliver the goods, right? Sex Hell is one of a surprisingly small number of prison-set Roman Porno films. One would think that it would be the perfect setting for exploitation films.  However, there weren't a whole lot made in the Roman Porno series, which makes this one all the more interesting.

Women in prison films have been a staple since the early years of Hollywood, but it wasn't until the late '60s and early '70s that film producers began to truly recognize their potential. In America, we had Roger Corman and Jack Hill making films like The Big Doll House and The Bird Cage. Films that took the idea of women in desperate conditions committing horrible acts of violence as retaliation against the dominant men in their lives, usually prison guards. Japan's most well known WiP film series was the Female Convict Scorpion, or Sasori, series, that began in 1972  with Female Convict 701: Scorpion and launched Meiko Kaji and her iconic Sasori character into the minds of film fans all over Japan.

Sasori was made in the mold of all previous WiP heroines, a woman done wrong, seeking out revenge against those who'd wronged her. In Sex Hell, we get a similarly tortured soul in Mayumi, a woman determined to get back outside and correct her mistakes one way or another. Where Scorpion focused on debasement by the prison guards and wardens, Sex Hell focuses more on the cruelty among the inmates. Forced lesbianism, initiation rituals, even sex for food schemes dominate the films brief runtime. The potential for exploitation in films like this is endless, and director Koyu Ohara left few stones unturned.
 
It is almost unfair to compare Debauchery with Sex Hell, but there are stark differences worth noting. Debauchery is a more contemplative piece, though I use that term loosely, which focuses on character more sharply that Sex Hell. The former film certainly has more to say about libido than the latter. However, Sex Hell is a whole lot more fun, combining the craziness of Sasori's outrageous behind bars behavior with crazy body cavity searches, vaginally-concealed cigarettes, plenty of shower scenes, and more all-around fun. I will definitely be revisiting Sex Hell before I pop Debauchery in again. Sex Hell's title is a bit misleading, it's not really a film about torture or debasement in the way that I expected it to be, it is more about good, old fashioned exploitation, and that's what I enjoy about it. Both films are worth checking out, especially if you're a newbie to the genre, but if you have to pick one, I highly recommend True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell.

The Discs:

Collectors warning! If you have OCD, beware of these discs! They have the dreaded spine numbers that will activate your compulsion and force you to catch 'em all! That being said, the discs look surprisingly good. I can't imagine that these were taken care of that well, but apart from a bit of milky haze during a few scenes in Debauchery, I found nothing distracting in the transfers at all. The audio is similarly serviceable, and the newly translated subtitles are easy to understand with no major hiccups. Overall, a fantastic job from Impulse Pictures.

There are no video extras to speak of on either disc. They both features a sexy sounding and great looking new Nikkatsu Roman Porno Collection bumper that I imagine will grace the rest of the series, as well as their own theatrical trailers. The real gems in terms of bonus materials are the essays from Jasper Sharp in the liner notes. Sharp literally wrote the book on Japanese sex film, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the topic makes for engaging reading, if brief. They may only be two pages long, but these essays are definitely worth your time.

If you're a sexploitation fan and you've never seen what Japan has to offer, you owe it to yourself to check some of these films out. While they never quite reach the same pitch as something like Sex & Fury, they are definitely aiming at a different market, and satisfy that niche quite successfully. Great discs to open up the series, I can't wait to check out the rest.
Special Features:
- Both discs feature theatrical trailers and liner notes from author, Jasper Sharp (Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema)
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