Netflix’s latest boundary-pushing original series is an action-packed dramedy imported from Japan. The Naked Director, which is now streaming, delves into the competitive underground world of porn during the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s.
Directed by Masaharu Take, it dramatizes the true story of filmmaker Toru Muranishi’s rise from down-on-his-luck encyclopedia salesman to the self-proclaimed “Emperor of Porn.” Muranishi became known for rejecting old-fashioned Japanese views of sexuality and inventing famous adult film tropes like the first-person POV shot.
He rose to prominence at a time in Japan when censorship laws were strict and real sex was unheard of in the pornography industry. Muranishi, played by the excellent Takayuki Yamada, was arrested several times for refusing to adhere to regulations. He was regarded as revolutionary for the way he embraced human sexuality as a part of life that should be free from censorship. And he often appeared in his own films, hence the name: The Naked Director.
In the opening seconds of the show, Muranishi, clad only in white briefs and balancing a video camera on his right shoulder, says, “People have seen my asshole. But I’m not embarrassed. To be human is to live as who you really are. In other words, adult videos show humanity itself.” Those few, um, blunt lines are enough to give you a comprehensive idea of who Muranishi was and what he stood for.
Based on Nobuhiro Motohashi’s book about the smooth-talking criminal/auteur, The Naked Director is, for the most part, a gritty, entertaining romp. Toru Muranishi is at his lowest point—left dejected and in dire financial straits after the company where he works goes bankrupt and he learns his wife has been cheating on him—when he meets a charismatic porn peddler named Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) with an affinity for garish silk shirts. The former star salesman realizes that he could easily use his schmoozing skills to hawk plastic-wrapped dirty magazines, or bini-bon, the latest pornography craze. The two become partners and the rest is history.
Another narrative thread follows the sexual awakening of a teenage girl named Megumi (Misato Morita), who feels ashamed of her desires and resentful toward her controlling, hygiene-obsessed mother. Upon learning that their life is entirely financed by her mother’s married lover, Megumi becomes disillusioned by her mother’s oppressive religiosity and seeks financial independence by deciding to act in adult films. She eventually becomes Muranishi’s muse, Kaoru Kuroki, and does her part to influence the industry by introducing the idea that women can be just as sexually assertive as their male partners. As Muranishi’s filmmaking team watches the footage from Megumi’s first shoot, jaws on the floor, the production assistant exclaims, “He’s not fucking her. She’s fucking him.”
As the season progresses, The Naked Director begins to feel more like a crime show than anything else—a Japanese interpretation of Breaking Bad. (At one point, a character says, “Soon, porn will make more money than meth.”) Much of the action revolves around Muranishi and Toshi building up their entourage, sparring with competing porn distributor Ikezawa (Ryo Ishibashi), conspiring with a mob boss, and dodging the cops. It is also beautifully shot throughout—a fantasia of neon signs, shadowy karaoke bars, and colorful interiors in hues of fuchsia and red.
But the way The Naked Director careens between comedy and drama can be whiplash-inducing at times. In the fourth episode, Muranishi decides to throw caution to the wind and film his actors actually having sex instead of simulating it. The sex scene is four minutes of pure physical comedy, with the actors so caught up in the euphoria of the moment that they don’t notice the shocked expression of an elderly passerby watching them, half-dressed, fornicating on the sidewalk in broad daylight.
In a scene just minutes later, however, the young actress, Miku, is arrested for engaging in real sex on camera. Humiliated, she weeps and begs the detective not to tell her parents. The detective (Lily Franky) coldly informs her that they already called her parents, then hands her a tabloid featuring an article about her arrest and a photo of her exposed breasts.
It’s one of The Naked Director’s darker emotional moments—and it’s a tough pill to swallow after the show’s hero, Muranishi, manipulated her into having sex on camera by saying her acting was a joke and promising to take the fall for her if the police go after them. The introduction of real sex into Japanese porn is presumably meant to be interpreted as one of the positive ways Muranishi shaped the industry, by eliminating the cultural stigma surrounding human sexuality. So while Miku’s demise offers one of the show’s only real glimpses into the harmful double standards of pornography for women, it feels undeserved amidst the vaudevillian comedy, party montages set to pulsing electronic music, and fast-paced action sequences.
Nonetheless, understanding the limits of what was considered revolutionary and sexually liberating in the ‘80s helps shed light on the misogyny that is all too present in modern pornography. In that regard, The Naked Director compensates for its sometimes overly lighthearted tone and is worth the extremely bingeable watch.