If you watch enough of Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno” output from the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll discover that their most admirable aspects are their sense of economy and attention to craftsmanship.  These films rarely ran over 80 minutes, managing to pack both a plot and a sexploitation film’s worth of sex into this tight space as well as whatever other random strangeness the filmmakers could come up with.  Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish offers a trademark example of this craftsman-like economy in action, offering much more than its cheeky, throwaway title suggests.

Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish takes place in a sleepy seaside town where female pearl divers play an important role in the local economy.  The ambitious plot revolves around operatives of a sneaky tourism development company plotting to swindle the land out from under its occupants, using either the lure of easy money or sex.  The latter component is lustily represented by a Mata Hari type (Okawa Asami) who has seduced the local fishing chief to get him to play along with the company’s wishes.

Meanwhile, the pearl divers are dealing with their own troubles: the fishing chief’s daughter (Kyosato Megumi) is facing the realization that the town’s money troubles might endanger her dream of studying abroad and another diver (Itou Kumiko) is angry at her boyfriend/potential hubby for siding with the greedy developers.  These two women are also rivals but they also share a secret in their past that will be revealed before the credits roll.

Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish is a good example of a middle-of-the-road Roman Porno programmer: there are other Nikkatsu films that are kinkier or lustier but this film impresses because the discipline with which it is made.  It works about two hours’ worth of plot into a taut, 70-minute running time while also accommodating an array of sex scenes that make good use of real seaside locations, which allow for a lot of outdoor erotic setpieces.

The sex itself also accommodates a variety of styles, from rough/raunchy to sweet/tender, using the sex to accommodate the film’s unique shifting of tones: the film starts in a frisky, playful mood but eventually shifts towards wistful drama, with the sex scenes appropriately shifting from kinky to erotic as the story progresses.  The film also finds room for a trademark bit of Roman Porno weirdness with a nightclub scene where bar girls entertain patrons by using their nether regions to dispense soft drinks via a straw (!) and hide an octopus that can squirt ink (!!).

Director Atsushi Fujira is comfortable with both the sex and drama components of the film, juggling both nicely while keeping the film’s narrative drive nice and lean.  He also gets confident performances from his cast, particularly his leads.  Both Megumi and Kumiko take their roles seriously, with Megumi doing the more randy work as the chief’s daughter and Kumiko offering a more traditional dramatic performance without skimping on the skin.  Both director and stars approach the film as a story with sex rather than a sex film with a bit of story and their attention to putting work into both the story and the sex make the film watchable even when the eroticism isn’t bubbling up.

In short, you’d never expect a film with a title like Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish to be more than a cinematic repository for cheap sex… but it manages to deliver the erotica and an enjoyably melodramatic story, to boot.  It’s like a soap opera with a bunch of sex and a little weirdness crammed in – and a solid entry on the more lighthearted side of the Nikkatsu Roman Porno filmography.

DVD Notes: this film makes its American home video debut via a new disc from Impulse Pictures.  The anamorphic transfer was newly done and looks quite good, doing justice to the seaside scenery, and the English subtitles make it easy to follow the original Japanese soundtrack included here.  The one extra on disc is a trailer for the film that is typically wild in the Roman Porno tradition.