Whip it All Out: The Naked Director

There is a part of me that has always thought I got to Japan “too late” to experience all the fun. At first I lamented the fact that I arrived post-Haruhi (or post-Akiba stabbing, take your pick), being unable to enjoy all the fun of cosplayers singing and dancing in the streets, and random women showing off their panties. Once my desire to experience otaku chaos faded and I found my way into the professional world, I noticed that I was surrounded by Japan’s equivalent of “boomers”–folks who came up during Japan’s Bubble Economy. Unsurprisingly I fell deeper into despair, and began to lament not being born a full 20 years earlier than I actually was, so as to reap the same benefits of Japan’s infamous era of excess. This build-up of lament eventually developed into an increasingly sensitive itch to seek out any records or photos of “The Before Times” preceding my arrival in Japan to get an idea of what Things Were Like. Alongside this interest in the Japan of yesteryear, I have always been a fan of stories that depict the underworld, and it’s no secret that I love tales that examine the sordid side of humanity. So it goes without saying that The Naked Director is right up my alley. 

As this show is a huge, highly-publicized Netflix entertainment extravaganza, I imagine many already know what it’s all about. But for those just tuning in, The Naked Director is a heavily-fictionalized account of the career of Japanese adult video director Muranishi Toru. His work came to prominence in the 1980s, turning heads with his unique approach to otherwise straightforward smut, and giving birth to many of the tropes still seen in adult videos to this day. He was also famous for starring in his own videos, engaging in sexual acts with actresses while filming them. Hence, The Naked Director. The series is based off of a 2016 biography on Muranishi’s life titled Zenra Kantoku Muranishi Toru Den (The Naked Director — The Story of Muranishi Toru). While characters representing Muranishi and some of the key actresses he discovered appear in the series under their real names, for the most part the characters in The Naked Director are stand-ins for either one or more actual people Muranishi worked with, or are completely fictionalized. If you’re looking for a straight account of the dude’s life, this isn’t quite it. 

Testament to how cut off I am from the mainstream, my first exposure to the Naked Director did not come via the Netflix marketing machine, but from a tweet. The tweet in question was a screenshot from the show depicting the Shinjuku cityscape in 1984, noting that the shot was created entirely with miniatures. This devotion to period accuracy intrigued me, forcing me to seek out the series. Its pervy subject matter was merely a bonus.

The Naked Director is two seasons, and its release was highly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The first season dropped in the summer of 2019, and the second came out in June of this year, despite its announcement being made shortly after season one’s release. There is a very distinctive difference in tone and approach between season 1 and season 2, despite being helmed by the same core creative staff. This is likely due to the large gap between seasons, but it’s also due to the material covered in each. I’ve sat down to watch season 1 three times–once on my own, another time with friends, and prior to embarking on season 2. Meanwhile, I’ve only seen season 2 once, so that will affect my opinions and insights on the series in this review. 

Before diving into the story, it is important to sing the praises for the casting of The Naked Director. Despite how awful the real Muranishi Toru is, Yamada Takayuki’s portrayal of him as an underdog trying to make it to the top is compelling, and watching him transform from a struggling salesman to a fast-taking peddler of smut is just hilarious. Muranishi is known amongst a certain generation of people in Japan for his slimly, snake oil salesman-style of speaking, and Yamada takes this caricature to the next level. However, what really makes Yamada’s performance work is his expert depiction of Muranishi’s two personas–there is a stark contrast between when Muranishi is behind the camera or addressing the outside world, and when he’s with his inner circle. When either shooting or hawking his works of filth, Muranishi is filled with extreme passion and compelling insanity–but when talking business with the crew, his speech is terse, and he takes on an otherwise quiet demeanor. Yamada’s performance is also notable for getting all of the quirks of the real Muranishi down, perfectly. While it likely resonates the most with the generation that experienced the height of Muranishi’s popularity in real-time, each time Yamada mimics one of Muranishi’s of key catchphrases like “nice desu ne!”, he hits a homerun out of the park (and into the nostalgia). 

In the first episode, Muranishi meets Arai Toshi, who is portrayed by Mitsushima Shinnosuke. Toshi is modeled after Yamada Mitsutoshi, leader of Japan’s largest underground porn ring, and Mitsushima naturally slips into the character–a low-level thug who is more bark than bite. After Toshi and Muranishi’s fateful meeting, the immediate level of respect and chemistry they share comes thoroughly amazingly in their performances, with Toshi quickly becoming buddy-buddy with Muranishi, clearly putting trust in the to-be director’s ambitions.

The third main pillar of this smut-hungry crew is Kawada Kenji, portrayed by pretty-boy actor Tamayama Tetsuji. But you wouldn’t be able to tell, because he plays the perfect deviant between his quivering voice, intense stares, and sudden, uncomfortable laughter. The intensity to which Tamayama portrays Kawada’s devotion to creating top-tier smut, and how it immediately gels with Muranishi’s ambitions, comes through remarkably clear in his performance. 

The core group is rounded out with three amusing supporting characters. Emoto Tokio, skilled at portraying dorky characters, is a stereotypical 1980s otaku (complete with Cutie Honey t-shirt) in Mitamura, who is an all-around assistant for the crew. Goto Takenori, notable for his impressive physique, perfectly fills his role as the muscle-bound cameraman-turned-male-porn-star Rugby Goto, who is based off of the real-life porn actor Tarzan Yagi. Ito Sairi, who anime fans may remember from Eizouken ni wa Te o Dasu na!, puts on a great performance as the fiery makeup artist Koseda Junko, making good use of her rough cadence that is both unique and addicting. The gang quickly develops a great rapport, coming together as a convincing family unit in their garage/office/home in the center of Kabuki-cho. A lot of the feeling of comradery in the crew comes through in their shared meals, be it at their dingy office, or at some crusty yakiniku joint, where they all chomp down on pig feet and other grody animal parts. This comradery also comes through when the crew are in the midst of shooting their smutty videos. When a to-be Kuroki Kaoru visits the studio, the crew, without being asked, sets up for a shoot as Kuroki’s “interview” with Muranishi quickly changes into her first job with the director.

Kuroki Kaoru was a real adult video actress, who is brought to life by Morita Misato, in what turned out to a breakout role for the up-and-coming actress. Morita convincingly portrays the sexual hunger, sensuality and immediately-enchanting nature of the real Kuroki Kaoru, along with accurately mimicking her high-class manner of speech and assertive tone. Season 2 sees the introduction of Tsunematsu Yuri as Nogi Mariko, another top actress for Muranishi, who puts on another incredibly natural performance as a once-shy woman who is sexually awakened through her involvement in porn, much like Kuroki Kaoru.

There are also forces working either for, against, or in questionable relations with Muranishi and crew. Top on the list of ace casting for these side characters is Lily Franky as the corrupt cop Takei, who shotguns his way through the series with an amazing amount of sleaze; deliberately looking constantly tired, and slurring every single line with a shithead grin on his face. Next on the sleaze train is Ishibashi Ryo, who portrays Ikezawa–antagonist to Muranishi and crew, and top dog of the biggest porno house in Japan. His performance takes on a different flavor of sleaze compared to Takei, and is just what you would expect out of the president of a giant porno company, bordering on caricature in just the right way. Kunimura Jun, yakuza-actor extraordinaire, calls upon his years of expertise in playing hardened criminals to pull off another top performance as Furuya, a soft-spoken but vicious Yakuza boss who controls the underground routes Muranishi and crew initially use. Last, but certainly not least, Pierre Taki stars as the owner of a local porno shop in Kabuki-cho that gradually starts to support Muranishi’s endeavors. I’m pretty sure in this role he’s just being himself, and it was great to see him involved in the show despite shit that went down prior to its release, which saw his roles replaced in other terrestrial-airing television dramas at the time.

Story-wise, the two seasons are pretty evenly split between depicting the rise of Muranishi Toru in season one, and in season two showing the challenges he faces after grasping incredible success. The first season is simply compelling and irreverent fun–essentially an underdog story, season 1 illustrates the insane risks the gang is willing to take to make a hit. Muranishi, with nothing but unfounded confidence and a crew who doesn’t know what they’re doing, valiantly takes crapshoot after crapshoot against business rivals and local law enforcement. And believe me, the odds are not on his side. But what keeps you watching is how Muranishi and the team always find a way to move forward despite Muranishi being either arrested or on the run on multiple occasions, or his company being slimily one-upped by the competition again

There is something romantic about fictional-Muranishi’s experience in the first half of season 1. He escapes the law, drifts around Japan, and enjoys encounters with many women, which range from sad, sexual, to hilarious. Being freed from his salaryman and family life, his experience paints a picture of the kind of free man a certain segment of gross dudes (such as myself) secretly yearn to be. Once his business picks up steam, his one-sighted devotion to production and aggressiveness towards pushing his company forward unwraps another layer of what makes fictional-Muranishi so compelling. Essentially the story is something of a male power fantasy, but its cycle of extreme fuck-ups that precede great achievements is what makes it work, and drives season 1.

This dynamic is summarily smashed to pieces in the second half of the story.

Season 2 picks up a few years after the end of the rags-to-riches story of season 1, and focuses on the trials and tribulations of Muranishi and gang when it comes to dealing with success. It is also at this point in the story that we are treated to the grotesque excess and insanity that characterized the peak of Japan’s iconic Bubble Era, right as everything is about to blow. In this period of extreme economic abundance, Muranishi–who considers himself the King Shit of Porn–starts figuring himself to be a big enough guy to speak on the level with high net worth figures on far higher rings of the food chain than him, and makes extreme investments that, at face value, promise great return. We still see a glimpse of that charismatic and romantic Muranishi that every shitty dude wishes he was at the start of season 2–but along with the decline of Japan’s economy, Muranishi as a character starts to devolve into a gross mess, crushed by his own success. While season 1 feels like sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, season 2 feels like a lonely night in a bar where you find yourself ranting and crying at the bartender after 17 drinks.

As mentioned above, I have only seen season 2 once, so further viewings may change my perspective of the second half of the story. But for now, I gotta say it–season 2 follows a pretty standard trainwreck formula. Sure, you’re driven to turn on the next episode to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT… but sometimes you have to avert your gaze. And again, it’s all on Muranishi. In stark contrast to the fictional Muranishi in season 1–who is a compelling force of nature with razor-sharp business sense and love for all the women who appear in his films–in season 2, he starts to lose his grasp on the difference between shit and Shinola.

Coupled with the natural decline of our main character, season 2 can get quite dark. While season 1 has a handful of dark moments, this stark undercurrent starts to come to the forefront in season 2. Looking back at the real history around Muranishi, I understand that it all can’t be fun and games–but my initial impression upon watching season 2 is that the staff is better suited to delivering lighter stuff as seen in season 1, and struggles with the heavier load of dramatic material that drives the last half of the story. Don’t get me wrong–The Naked Director 2 is very watchable and compelling, but the staff’s difficulty in handling the heavier content means that certain scenes unfortunately fall into cliché, and on the whole I could do with a little less shouting matches between the characters.

Across both seasons though, the irreverence never quite goes away, and on the whole The Naked Director remains a particularly quirky and fun look at an industry that typically doesn’t find itself in the spotlight for obvious reasons. And it’s this subject matter that makes the existence of The Naked Director in and of itself quite curious. It’s more or less unheard of for a mainstream Japanese production to be so upfront with sexual content. Sure, content like this can be found direct-to-video or in film–but for a serialized drama on a major platform with high production values and an a-list cast to fire on all cylinders for a story that is very sexual, and at times dark and violent, is incredibly unique. Case in point: I screened the show for some Japanese friends of mine, and they all exclaimed in delightment, “is that Yamada Takayuki’s ass?!”

Bringing it all back, it’s worth it to mention the efforts The Naked Director takes in establishing its period setting. Indeed, while it was that Shinjuku cityscape rendered entirely in miniatures that drew me in, actually watching The Naked Director, one learns that where the show really shines is in its set design. While suburban Sapporo likely hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, any scene that takes place in a major city center has been created lovingly as a set, or has a heavy CG makeover. The amount of effort put towards sticking you straight into the world of The Naked Director is no joke. However, as someone who has recently been binging on Abunai Deka and other Bubble Era dramas actually shot in the 1980s, upon re-visiting the The Naked Director, one notices that its set design is less about being period-accurate, and more about establishing an atmosphere. 

Of course, the many discotheques and cabarets that appear in the show are likely either real relics from the Bubble Era or really accurate recreations, and do well to instill the air of financial excess that is required when telling a story about this period in Japanese history. But where the show stretches its muscles is with its gigantic and immersive set of 1980s Kabuki-cho, complete with Iranians hawking telephone cards on the street, and the iconic Shinjuku Tiger. A similar approach is taken to urban centers in Sapporo earlier in the show. As someone who wasn’t in Japan during the 1980s, I cannot vouch 100% for accuracy, but based on media actually shot during that time, it seems like the sets in The Naked Director work to paint on an extra level of grime to establish a distinct atmosphere, as mentioned in the paragraph above. While perhaps not perfectly period-accurate, the amount of care taken into developing the visual look of the world is incredible. It’s like if Disney Land had a “Sleazy Japan in the 1980s” area, or something. 

Outside of some key sets, the show does its best to CG-up current-day Tokyo to look like the 1980s and 90s. As someone who lives in Tokyo, I can see the cracks, but for the international audience it’s fine. They do up the ante in season 2, completely repainting a section of Shibuya in special effects, bringing to life a convincing rendering of Dingy Tokyo circa 1990. The famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing makes an appearance in the beginning of season 2 as well, with top effects work bringing the area’s 1990s face back to life, with no giant Starbucks in sight. As the story gets further into the 1990s, outside of the fashion and brands, it gets easier on the crew to just film Tokyo and other locations as-is. However, I will take this opportunity to get on their case for not erasing the Enoshima Sea Candle–that wasn’t completed until 2003!

But I digress. The bottom line is, The Naked Director is a wild ride. While it does stumble somewhat in its second season, it’s still an incredibly entertaining and excellently packaged look at a figure who very strangely affected Japanese culture in a major way. Sure, the real Muranishi Toru may be a completely disgusting person, but the heavily-fictionalized account of his story is both a hoot and extremely sobering. And in a weird way, experiencing the rollercoaster ride of a career led by Japan’s King of Smut should be chaotic enough to make anyone feel a little better about their perceived lot in life. 

Muranishi said it best: “If you want to die, just look at me! I sunk lower, but I’m alive!”

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