If you’re looking for offbeat cult movies then they don’t come much more offbeat than Violated Paradise, a 1963 documentary/drama by Marion Gering. It’s a bizarre example of what might be called colonial film-making.
Russian-born Gering had been a Hollywood director in the 20s and 30s. Violated Paradise was based on the work of Italian anthropologist and photographer Fosco Maraini. Maraini had written accounts of his journeys to Tibet in the 1930s but his real obsession was to be Japan, and in particular the Ainu people, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Japan.
Violated Paradise follows the adventures of a half-Japanese half-Ainu girl. It’s a kind of fictionalised documentary, or perhaps it’s documentary-style fiction. What it’s attempting to be is an anthropological investigation of both the old and the new Japan. Like a National Geographic article filmed but with actors and a fictional storyline.
There’s no synchronised sound, but there are two voiceover narrators. The first one we hear is supposed to be the young woman who is the subject of the film. She tells us about the curious customs of the Ainu, their worship of their bear god, and their sacrifice of a bear cub to his deity. The young woman wants to sample life in modern Japan and sets off for Tokyo. On the way she stops off at a village to watch the ama divers.
At this point the movie crosses over into one of the most curious of Japanese exploitation genres, the ama film. The appeal of the ama to film-makers isn’t difficult to work out. The ama divers, who dived for pearls and various seafood delicacies, are all young women. And traditionally they do their diving wearing nothing but a very brief loin-cloth. It’s a perfect opportunity to get away with a lot more nudity than could be shown in any other Japanese movie in the 1950s which is when the ama film gene first appeared. These movies continued to be made into the 1970s.
For Gering this was an equally perfect opportunity to show a great deal of naked female flesh in the guise of a serious anthropological study. And conveniently this is an anthropological move about Japanese sex habits. Our young heroine soon arrives in Tokyo and discovers that the metropolis is the sex and sin capital of the word, or so the movie would have us believe. At this point a typical male omniscient narrator takes over temporarily, in the remarkably pompous style so prevalent in documentaries of that era.
We are then treated to a serious discourse on the decline of the geisha into no more than a glorified prostitute, as our heroine finds that the only employment available in the wicked city is in a geisha house. When she discovers she is expected to have sex with her clients she is shocked and runs away. Meanwhile we are taken on a tour of Tokyo’s fleshpots.
Our plucky heroine is not doomed however. A nice boy from the ama village arrives in Tokyo to marry her and take her home. She is saved from the wickedness of the city and is now free to embrace her new career, as an ama diver. Which offers an opportunity for her to take her clothes off for Gering’s ever-ready camera.
It’s the sort of movie that represents a point of view that will be extremely difficult for a modern audience to comprehend. It reflects an extraordinary vision of Japan as a primitive paradise being corrupted by western sexual mores. We are assured that in traditional Japanese cultures nakedness is next to godliness (yes, in those very words). This healthy view of nudity is contrasted with the depravity of the bar and night-club culture of Tokyo. It reflects the virtuous ethos of traditional rural life as compared to the sinfulness and corruption of cities and of modernity.
The one is staggeringly condescending. One shudders to think what Japanese audiences must have made of this strange little film.
With all its many many flaws it’s an intriguing window into an age that viewed pe-industrial societies in a bizarrely naïve and patronising manner.
It’s greatest asset thing is probably the extensive and truly fascinating footage of Tokyo nightlife in the early 1960s.
This weird little movie is included as an extra on Something Weird’s DVD release of The Notorious Concubines. I believe it’s public domain and that it’s widely available for download. It’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in the way the west viewed non-western cultures at the time, and the way movies portray those non-western cultures. For anyone else it’s an amusing oddity.