Though largely unknown in the West, Noboru Tanaka, like his counterpart, Tatsumi Kumashiro, is one of the most important Japanese directors to emerge during the 1970s. Tanaka came to prominence during a tumultuous period in Japanese cinema: due to the popularity of television and Hollywood movies, revenues were at an all time low; Japan's finest directors, including Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima, were forced to seek funding abroad; and the popularity of the yakuza genre, a mainstay for a number of studios, was beginning to wane. Studios were forced into drastic actions in order to forestall their inevitable demise. A once prestigious studio on the verge of bankruptcy, Nikkatsu announced in October, 1971 that it would begin mass-producing a variety of soft-core porn called Nikku Roman Porno (literally Nikkatsu Romantic Pornography). Tanaka rose to be one of the premier directors of roman porno, and his works proved to be so adventurous and bizarre that he soon became one of Japan's most celebrated directors.
Born in Hakuba (located in the heart of the mountainous Nagano prefecture) on August 15, 1937, Tanaka studied French literature at Meiji University in Tokyo. After securing a small job on Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), he decided to pursue a career in film. Soon he took and passed a directorship exam at Nikkatsu and worked as assistant director under such cinematic luminaries as Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Tanaka made his debut not long after Nikkatsu began mass producing roman porno, though he did not garner much critical attention until his 1974 work Mauhi: Shikijo Mesu Ichiba. Unlike Kumashiro, who depicted lusty coupling with a certain straightforward rawness, Tanaka's films were much more studied and intense. Shot in stark black and white save for the final reel, Mauhi details the bleak, disconnected lives of a mother and daughter who work as prostitutes in a run-down corner of Osaka. Though the film has a gritty neo-realist quality that does not shy away from the brutal and vulgar existence of these two women, Tanaka consciously distorts reality, rendering it grotesque; the film's end consists of a mentally challenged boy killing a chicken and then himself, and it is one of the most jarring and surreal of the roman porno genre. Sex is drained of passion, making the act seem futile.
Tanaka followed Mauhi with two of his finest and most celebrated works, Jitsuroku Abe Sada (1975) and Edogawa Rampo Ryokikan: Yaneura no Sanposha (1976). Based on the same true story of which Oshima based his Ai no Corrida (1976), Jitsuroku is a masterwork in its own right. Featuring an astonishing performance by veteran roman porno actress Junko Miyashita, the film brilliantly portrays the increasingly destructive behavior of two lovers (culminating in a sex-induced strangulation and bloody castration) and Japan's growing militancy during the 1930s in a manner that is more grotesque and unnerving than erotic. Jitsuroku is considered to be one the finest films of the roman porno genre as well as one of the finest films Japan produced in the 1970s.
Though ostensibly a sex film, Yaneura is so garish and rococo that it barely fits within the genre. Adapted from the work of Japanese fantastic Edogawa Rampo (whose name is an odd Japanization of Edgar Allan Poe), the film concerns the owner of a boarding house who enjoys spying on his tenants, until his obsession with one woman, a beautiful heiress, results in perversity, madness, and murder. Tanaka's camera in Yaneura is consciously voyeuristic, recalling the perverse psychosexual tension of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) or Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers (1966).
Since his peak in the mid 1970s, Tanaka went on to produce a dozen or so more roman porno, including such works as Semeru (1977) and Tenshi no Rarawata Nami (1979). Noboru Tanaka died in 1991 just as his work started to gain an audience in Europe.