The pink film, or "eroduction" as it was first called, is a cinematic genre without exact equivalent in the West. Though called pornography, the terms "erotica," "soft porn" and "sexploitation" have been suggested as more appropriate, although none of these precisely matches the pink film genre. Due to the nature of Japanese censorship laws, the display of genitals, and even pubic hair, were long-held taboos in the genre. This restriction forced Japanese filmmakers to develop sometimes elaborate means of avoiding showing the "working parts", as Richie puts it. In order to work around this censorship, most Japanese directors positioned props – lamps, candles, bottles, etc. – at strategic location to block the banned body parts. When this was not done, the most common alternative techniques are digital scrambling, covering the prohibited area with a black box or a fuzzy white log (known as "fogging")
Some have claimed that it is this censorship which gives the Japanese erotic cinema its particular style. Donald Richie says, "American pornography is kept forever on its elemental level because, showing all, it need do nothing else; Japanese eroductions have to do something else since they cannot show all. The stultified impulse has created some extraordinary works of art, a few films among them." Writing in 1972, at the commencement of the Second Wave of pink film, he qualifies his statement with, "None of these, however, are found among eroductions. Contrasting the pink film with Western pornographic films, Pia Harritz says, "What really stands out is the ability of pinku eiga to engage the spectator in more than just scenes with close-ups of genitals and finally the complexity in the representation of gender and the human mind."
Richie and Harritz both enumerate the fundamental elements of the pink film formula as:
Foreign films of this time, such as Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika (1953), Louis Malle's Les Amants (1958), and Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) introduced female nudity into international cinema, and were imported to Japan without problem. Nevertheless, until the early 1960s, graphic depictions of nudity and sex in Japanese film could only be seen in single-reel "stag films," made illegally by underground film producers such as those depicted in Imamura's film The Pornographers (1966).
In 1964, maverick kabuki, theater and film director Tetsuji Takechi helped invigorate the "First Wave" of pink film, by directing Daydream, the first big-budget pink film. Takechi's Black Snow (1965), resulted in the director's arrest on charges of obscenity, and a high-profile trial which became a major battle between Japan's intellectuals and the establishment. Takechi won the lawsuit, and the publicity surrounding the trial helped bring about a boom in the production of pink films.
In her introduction to the Weisser's Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films, actress Naomi Tani calls this period in pink film production "The Age of Competition". Though Japan's major studios, such as Nikkatsu and Shochiku made occasional forays into pink film territory in the 1960s, such as director Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (1964) – the first mainstream Japanese film to contain nudity, the pink films of this era were mainly independent, low-budget productions. Independent studios such as Nihon Cinema, World Eiga and Giichi Nishihara's Aoi Eiga made dozens of cheap, profitable "eroductions". Among the most influential independent studios producing pink films in this era were Shintoho, Million, Kanto, and Okura. Typically shown on a three-film program, these films were made by these companies to show at their own chain of specialty theaters.
Three of the most important pink film directors of this time, Hiroshi Mukai, Kinya Ogawa and Shinya Yamamoto are known as "The Heroes of the First Wave". Another major pink film studio, Wakamatsu Studios, was formed by director Koji Wakamatsu in 1966, after quitting Nikkatsu. Known as "The Pink Godfather", and called "the most important director to emerge in the pink film genre", Wakamatsu's independent productions are critically-respected works usually concerned with sex and extreme violence mixed with political messages.
The "first queen of Japanese sex movies" was Noriko Tatsumi, who made films at World Eiga and Nihon Cinema with director Koji Seki. Other major Sex Queens of the first wave of pink film included Setsuko Ogawa, Mari Iwai, Keiko Kayama, and Miki Hayashi. Other pink film stars of the era include Tamaki Katori, who appeared in many films for Giichi Nishihara and Koji Wakamatsu; Kemi Ichiboshi, whose specialty was playing the role of a violated innocent; and Mari Nagisa. Younger starlets like Naomi Tani, and Kazuko Shirakawa were starting their careers and already making names for themselves in the pink film industry, but are best remembered today for their work with Nikkatsu during the 1970s.
In order to tap into this lucrative audience, major studio Toei entered the sexploitation market in 1971. In films like his ero-guro series and Joys of Torture series of the late 1960s director Teruo Ishii had provided a model for Toei's sexploitation ventures by "establishing a queasy mix of comedy and torture. Producer Kanji Amao designed a group of series – shigeki rosen (Sensational Line), ijoseiai rosen (Abnormal Line), and harenchi rosen (Shameless Line), today collectively referred to as Toei's "Pinky Violence". Most of Toei's films in the pink film style used eroticism in conjunction with violent and action-filled stories. Several of these films have the theme of strong women exacting violent revenge for past injustices. The series was launched with the Delinquent Girl Boss (Zubeko Bancho) films starring Reiko Oshida. Other series in the Pinky Violence genre included Norifumi Suzuki's Girl Boss (Sukeban) films, and the Terrifying Girls' High School films, both starring Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto. Other examples of Toei's films in this genre include Shunya Ito's Sasori (Scorpion) series of women in prison films based on Toru Shinohara's manga. Starting with Female Convict #701: Scorpion (1972), the Scorpion series starred Meiko Kaji, who had left Nikkatsu Studios to distance herself from their Roman Porno series.
Also in 1971, Takashi Itamochi, president of Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest major film studio, made the decision to take his own company's high production values and professional talent out of action films and put them into the pink film genre. Like Toei, Nikkatsu had made some previous films in the sexploitation market, such as Story of Heresy in Meiji Era (1968) and Tokyo Bathhouse (1968), which featured over 30 sex-film stars in cameo appearances. Nikkatsu launched its Roman Porno series in November 1971 with Apartment Wife: Affair In The Afternoon, starring Kazuko Shirakawa. The film became a huge hit, inspired 20 sequels within seven years, establishing Shirakawa as Nikkatsu's first "Queen", and successfully launched the high-profile Roman porno series. Director Masaru Konuma says that there was essentially no difference between the pink films and Roman Porno except for the studio's higher budget. Nikkatsu would make these higher-quality pink films almost exclusively, at an average rate of three per month, for the next 17 years.
Nikkatsu gave its Roman porno directors a great deal of artistic freedom in creating their films, as long as they met the official minimum quota of four nude or sex scenes per hour. The result was a series that was popular both with audiences and with critics. One or two Roman Pornos appeared on the top-ten lists of Japanese critics every year throughout the run of the series. Nikkatsu's higher-quality sex films essentially took the pink film market away from the smaller, independent studios until the mid-1980s, when the AV all but ended the theatrical pornographic film.
Tatsumi Kumashiro was one of the major directors of the Roman Porno. Kumashiro directed a string of financial and critical hits unprecedented in Japanese cinematic history, including Ichijo Sayuri: Wet Desire (1972) and Woman with Red Hair (1979), starring Nikkatsu's second "Queen", Junko Miyashita. He became known as the "King of Nikkatsu Roman porno Noboru Tanaka, director of A Woman Called Sada Abe (1975), is judged by many critics today to have been the best of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno directors. The S&M subgenre of the Roman Porno was established in 1974 when the studio hired Naomi Tani to star in Flower and Snake (based on an Oniroku Dan novel), and Wife to be Sacrificed, both directed by Masaru Konuma. Tani's immense popularity established her as Nikkatsu's third Roman Porno Queen, and the first of their S&M Queens. Other subgenres of the pink film developed under the Roman Porno line included "Violent Pink", established in 1976 by director Yasuharu Hasebe.
The dominant directors of pink films of the 1980s, Genji Nakamura, Banmei Takahashi and Mamoru Watanabe are known collectively as "The Three Pillars Of Pink". All three were veterans of the pink film industry since the 1960s. Coming to prominence in the 1980s, a time when the theatrical porn film was facing considerable difficulties on several fronts, this group is known for elevating the pink film above its low origins by concentrating on technical finesse and narrative content. Some critics dubbed the style of their films "pink art".
By the time Nakamura joined Nikkatsu in 1983, he had already directed over 100 films. While the plots of his films, which could be extremely misogynistic, were not highly respected, his visual style earned him a reputation for "erotic sensitivity." Nakamura directed one of Japan's first widely-distributed, well-received films with a homosexual theme, Legend of the Big Penis: Beautiful Mystery (1983), for Nikkatsu's ENK Productions, which was founded in 1983 to focus on gay-themed pink films. Some of Nakamura's later pink films were directed in collaboration with Ryuichi Hiroki, and Hitoshi Ishikawa under the group pseudonym Go Ijuin.
Banmei Takahashi directed "intricate, highly stylistic pinku eiga", including New World of Love (1994), the first Japanese theatrical film to display genitals. Another prominent cult director of this era, Kazuo "Gaira" Komizu, is known for his Herschell Gordon Lewis-influenced "splatter-eros" films, which bridge the genres of horror and erotica.
Three of the most prominent pink film directors of the 1990s, Kazuhiro Sano, Toshiki Sato and Takahisa Zeze all made their directorial debuts in 1989. A fourth, Hisayasu Sato, debuted in 1985. Coming to prominence during one of the most precarious times for the pink film, these directors worked under the assumption that each film could be their last, and so largely ignored their audience to concentrate on intensely personal, experimental themes. These directors even broke one of the fundamental pink rules by cutting down in the sex scenes in pursuit of their own artistic concerns. Their films were considered "difficult" – dark, complex, and largely unpopular with the older pink audience. The title was applied to these directors, at first sarcastically, by disgruntled theater owners. On the other hand, Roland Domenig, in his essay on the pink film, says that their work offers "a refreshing contrast to the formulaic and stereotyped films that make up the larger part of pink eiga production, and are strongly influenced by the notion of the filmmaker as auteur."
Recently, director Mitsuru Meike's pink film The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (2003) made an impression on the international market and gained critical praise uncharacteristic and unprecedented for the industry.