Selling Sex on Screen: Post-war Japanese cinema and the representation of prostitution - Dr Irene González-López

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5:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Brunei Gallery
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About this event

Dr Irene González-López

First PhD Film Studies Inaugural Lecture

Cinema plays a significant role in shaping identities and attitudes; especially so in times of profound change. That was indeed the case in post-Second World War Japan, where cinema bore witness to the country’s transmutation from a devastated occupied nation into an economic superpower in just a few decades. In this talk, I will examine the representation of prostitutes in post-war fiction films to further our understanding of the transformations of social and sexual mores taking place in Japan at the time, and of the cinema industry’s position towards them.

The fictional prostitute is an extremely recurrent character in Japanese cinema, conspicuous in all genres and played by the most famous actors of the national cinema. I will argue that her appeal partially lies in her ability to encapsulate, perhaps as no other, the tensions and hopes sparking in post-war Japan. To understand the significance of analysing how this trope was constructed it is important to also bear in mind that the status quo of the sex trade in any given context tells us a lot about broader issues concerning the entire society, such as sexual mores and gender economies, family structures, and the control of the public space, to mention but a few. In the case of Japan, the controversial relationship between prostitution and the state, especially during the twentieth century, further marks the sex trade as a problematic mirror of national and international power dynamics. Yet, the analysis of numerous films complicates the interpretation of the prostitute as either victim or subversive hero, and problematises the cinema industry’s attitudes towards the sex trade.

In analysing the trope of the prostitute, I will provide some insights into how Japan’s drastic socio-economic transformations and their political implications were being articulated in popular culture, how they were being framed, and in which terms they were being discussed, justified or negotiated. For this purpose, films need to be analysed not only in terms of their content and aesthetics, but also as commercial products bound by industrial practices, popular trends, and regulations. This analysis invites us to reflect on the ideologies imbedded not only in the cinema industry and film criticism but also in academia as on-going discursive practices.

Chaired by Dr Lola Martinez (Emeritus Reader, SOAS)


Irene González-López is a postdoctoral researcher at the Visual and Material Culture Research Centre in Kingston University. After living in Japan for eight years she came to SOAS where she was awarded her PhD in Film Studies. Her doctoral thesis examined the representation of prostitutes in postwar Japanese cinema and analysed the role of cinema in the negotiation of changing social and sexual mores. Her main research interests are Japanese cinema and popular culture, gender and sexuality studies, and stardom. Irene’s recent publications include Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity (co-edited, 2018); ‘In Search of the Authentic Japanese Taste: Solitary Gourmet and Cultural Tourism’ (2018), and ‘The Profound Desire of the Goddess: Sexuality and Politics in The Insect Woman ’ (2017).