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If you’re interested in the subversive side of genre cinema, Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno” era is a fascinating subject for study. This was ostensibly a line of sexploitation films but they were often subverted by filmmakers who superficially satisfied the demands of the genre while working in experimental or thematic elements that cut against the commercial grain.  The viewers would get the required sex and nudity but it might be delivered in a way that confounds prurient interest.

Zoom Up: Graduation Photo is an interesting example of these concepts, playing like a sexploitation film plot that collided with a grim expose of sexuality. The plot largely revolves around Yoko (Reiko Nakamura), a young woman who looks for work as a model and stumbles into a porn magazine photography outfit led by Sakuma (Shinji Sekikawa).  To her own surprise, she impulsively takes the gig.

The resulting photos cost Yoko her boyfriend but she overcomes her embarrassment to stick with the job, becoming fascinated as the shoots become more perverse and demanding. She develops a strange, S&M style relationship with Sakuma. Her story is contrasted with that of Junko (Yuka Koizumi), another young woman who confronts the photographers after being raped by porn addicts who read one of the company’s magazines. She also finds herself drawn into their world, becoming a participant in the ever-edgier photo shoots.

The resulting film often feels like it is at war with itself. Zoom Up: Graduation Photo delivers on certain sexploitation expectations: the two female leads are often undressed and participate in a number of sex scenes. The plot dictates their participation rather than organic character or story-driven motivations.  This film is on the shorter end of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line, running just under 70 minutes, so it sometimes feels like dramatic beats that would explain the women’s’ choices are sidelined in favor of keeping the bare flesh and kink scenarios rolling out (by the end, the photo shoot scenarios go to heights of deadpan lunacy to shock the viewer).

However, it’s also worth noting that Zoom Up: Graduation Photo presents these elements in ways that are often more confrontational than pandering to the viewer. The key male characters who drive the narrative – Sakuma and the other photographers, Yoko’s boyfriend, the teens who rape Junko – are all presented in a distinctly unflattering light. They’re all compulsive and dysfunctional about sex, despite being “in power” in the conventional sense, and all hypocritical about the power they wield in the battle of the sexes. Sakura in particular is fascinating: he’s a predator who tries to con his victims into accepting blame for working for him, capable of showing tenderness then turning it off in a icy way when it’s time to take photos.

Director Yoshihiro Kawasaki takes a distance similar to his Sakura character in how he handles the film: the majority of the sex is filmed in a sterile, matter-of-fact way where the audience is spared none of the discomfort or confusion of the female characters. It never shies away from depicting the twisted photo shoot scenarios, which often include forced bondage going too far, but he also doesn’t try to force the audience’s sympathies in one direction or another. He also manages a coda that is both open-ended and darkly humorous.

Thus, Zoom Up: Graduation Photo is a fascinating artifact from the Nikkatsu era; a film that simultaneously “delivers the goods” for its target audience yet presents them in a way designed to make them uncomfortable about the pornography business and its predatory practices. Pretty heady material for a 70-minute skin flick, eh?

DVD Notes: Impulse Pictures has released this title as part of their ongoing line of Nikkatsu erotica. It offers a nice, anamorphically enhanced transfer that reflects the film’s early ’80s look appropriately and freshly translated English subtitles.