“Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands” is a genre fever-dream of Japan’s renegade film industry

MUBI kicks off its Keiko Sato series with this indelibly titled pink film from one of Japan’s few female producers of the 1960s.

MUBI kicks off its Keiko Sato series with this indelibly titled pink film from one of Japan’s few female producers of the 1960s.

A surrealist blend of tough-guy pulp and sleazy sexploitation, Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967), directed by Atsushi Yamatoya, is an early high-water mark of the Japanese “pink” (softcore) film industry. It’s MUBI’s first streaming selection this month in their Keiko Sato: Pinku Maverick series, highlighting the career of one of the industry’s few female producers.

Shot quickly and cheaply by independent companies, pink films were low-brow and salacious but extremely popular with audiences. Compared to working for major studios, they offered up-and-coming directors artistic freedom as long as the films contained sexual content. Sato especially gave her directors the chance to express themselves, resulting in everything from the politically-charged teen melodrama Gushing Prayer (1971) to Abnormal Family (1984), an erotic parody of Yasujirō Ozu. (Both of which will also be available on MUBI later this month, on March 24 and 30, respectively.)


Nowadays, most pink films are a tough watch due to their reliance on sadism and rape scenes; and, while more ambitious than other pink films of its era, Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, is no exception. Japanese cinema critic Donald Richie once patronizingly stated, “The West knows nothing of these pictures, nor should it.” Although most pink films have dubious artistic merit, they’re also a rare glimpse into a renegade film industry that valued experimentation and personal expression.

Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands director Atsushi Yamatoya was primarily a screenwriter for low-budget exploitation films, and best known for working on a number of films at Nikkatsu Studios with Seijun Suzuki. Churning out repetitive genre films on assignment, Suzuki and his collaborators (like Yamatoya) quickly became bored with the studio’s limitations and began adding stylistic flourishes that subverted genre conventions wherever possible. The culmination of this artistic rebellion was the absurdist noir Branded To Kill (1967), a cult classic spectacle of post-modern pop-art that promptly got Suzuki fired.

Released the very same year, Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands can easily be seen as its companion piece. Yamatoya saw it as a chance to blow off some steam by working in the relative creative freedom of softcore pornography. While it’s nowhere near as accomplished as Suzuki’s masterpiece, the film does have some obvious similarities, as it’s driven by fever-dream logic, bizarre imagery, and a playful self-parodying of genre tropes.

A still from Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands (1967).

A still from Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands (1967).

The film begins in a barren desert landscape, where hitman Sho (Yuichi Minato) is hired by businessman Naka (Masayoshi Nogami) to kill the sadistic yakuza gang who have kidnapped his mistress, Sae (Noriko Tatsumi). Naka asks Sho to shoot a bottle out of a small tree to prove his skills, but instead Sho cracks the tree in half with a flurry of bullets. At his office, Naka shows the disinterested Sho a film of Sae being tortured while her father, presumably driven mad by the ordeal, caresses the titular, inflatable sex doll. After discovering the gang’s ringleader is his nemesis Kô (Shôhei Yamamoto), a former friend who murdered his girlfriend, Sho arranges a Western-style showdown the next day. Returning to his hotel room, Sho is seduced and betrayed by Ko’s girlfriend Mina (Miki Watari).

From there, the film’s narrative becomes increasingly disjointed and dreamlike in a riff on Ambrose Bierce’s story, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. Sho takes on the gang in a series of deliriously shot action sequences before returning to the early scene in the desert where the sapling that Sho blasted in half at the beginning of the film is now a towering tree. Yamatoya relies heavily on symbolism as visual clues to narrative structure, littering the film with shots of flies, telephones, and clocks that represent both the murder of Sho’s girlfriend and his own fate.

While Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands has some obvious low-budget flaws (like the occasional glimpse of the cameraman’s shadow), some of the budget restraints add to film’s surreal charm, like the effect of having actors stand motionless in an action sequence instead of using freeze-frames. As the protagonist of Branded To Kill is an absurdist skewering of contemporary macho heroes like James Bond, in this film Sho is also a satirizing of an imagined tough-guy who has an overtly Freudian obsession with guns. During his sex scene with Mina, for instance, Sho refuses to let go of his pistols, describing his killing prowess in an innuendo-laced monologue.

In all Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands’ attempts to be an avant-garde art film, metaphysical crime thriller, and softcore sex film at once, it doesn’t quite succeed. However, it is still a boldly ambitious work that shows how out-there pink films could get during their first decade of existence.

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