Stolen Desire (1958), Nishi Ginza Station (1958), Pigs and Battle Ships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963), A Man Vanishes (1967), The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968), Vengeance Is Mine (1979), The Ballad of Narayama (1983).
Shohei Imamura began his film career as assistant to the legendary Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, working on classic films such as Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). Imamura went on to direct his own films from 1958, and he continued making films for his whole life. There was a break in his output of cinema released films from 1968 until 1979 where he focused on making documentaries for television. This was in part due to the commercial failure of the high budget film The Profound Desire of The Gods.
This selection of eight films is therefore representative of the first phase / second phase split in Imamura’s cinema filmography. I did not watch this selection of films chronologically. Most of the titles have been reviewed on the site previously, so I've also included links to other reviews.
In some of the reviews I have given a fair amount of plot detail, but I do not think this will detract from watching the film.
I began with Vengeance Is Mine (1979). In summary, I would describe this film as a warped love story, drenched in surreal amorality. Based on the true life events of Japanese serial killer Akira Nishiguchi (in the film named Iwoa Enokizu, played by Ken Ogata), the film jumps around in time depicting the various frauds and killings by the main character. There is a parallel story of the failure of his marriage, and his wife’s attraction to his more morally honourable father. On the run from the Police Iowa stays at a hotel / brothel, taking on a false identity, ‘the professor’. Iowa strikes up an intimate relationship with the hotel’s proprietor, Haru Asano (Mayumi Ogawa). Haru is a ‘fallen woman’ of sorts, mistreated by an abusive benefactor and supporting her gambling murderer mother; and yet, she maintains an endearing lust for life. Her’s is a warped romanticism that mirrors the warped romanticism of Iwao. This odd and partly developed theme more widely touches upon the hypocrisy of so called good society, and religious institutions such as Christianity and Buddhism that seek to claim the moral high ground. Iowa’s crimes remain heinous, but in the film he is depicted as cherishing people for both their strengths and their weaknesses, if also able to destroy them at the drop of a hat. The story has echoes of grand Russian literature such a Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and it also mirrors the nihilistic crisis that lead to existentialist philosophising of the twentieth century. The film works well as a whole, a lively mish-mash of narrative leaps, stylish camera work and interesting characterisation. I won’t give away the ending, it’s one of the oddest parts of an already odd film. What meaning the viewer should project on to this film I am not sure. A film that exposes and reveals the possible drives of an amoral character, it doesn’t attempt to offer moral conclusion.
The Ballad of Narayama (1983), the only Japanese film to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is set in the nineteenth century and depicts the harsh realities of a rural community. The central character is Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto), grandmother to one of the families in the community. The community have to survive harsh conditions, and exist upon frugal means. There is a folklore named ‘ubasute’ that rules when elders reach the age of 70 they must sacrifice themselves to the mountains, seemingly to release the burden they place upon the community. Orin becomes fixed on this and spends her final year addressing the needs of the family; the irony being she takes it upon herself to depart, but is perhaps the most valued member of the community. To some extent Orin passes her unspoken authority on to her son Tatsuhei (Ken Ortgan). The film has interspersed scenes of the natural world, animal and bird life, hunting, mating and at play. Through these contrasting kingdoms (humanity/animal) the film evokes a spiritual and shamanistic atmosphere. To this effect I think it would be fair to compare Imamura’s film to the work of film director Werner Herzog. I considered this to be an interesting film that lays bare the inevitable tensions that come to play in a close knit community.
The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) was to some extent a terminal apotheosis to the first phase of Imamura’s cinematic career. An ambitious, wide ranging effort that riffs in many different directions. By all accounts the film went way over budget and deadline, it took 18 months to film as opposed to the intended 6 months. The basic plot concerns an engineer (Kariya played by Kazuo Kitamira) from modern day Tokyo visiting a back water community on the Kurage Island (Okinawa) to supervise the building of a water well to serve a sugar cane mill. The film blends a number of themes, including the retelling of a folk tale involving an ancient brother and sister God, and their coming together to create the splendour of a new world. This folk premise serves as a platform for further exploration of the local Okinawa shamanistic / animistic practices; with a focus on Noro, earth goddess type qualities attributed to certain women in the community. Further themes layered in to the film include the complexities of incestuous relations, perhaps inevitable in such a close nit community. Kariya integrates himself in the community in what seems like a slightly far-fetched plot. He somehow ‘goes native’, eventually enticed to an intimate relationship with the sexually promiscuous Toriko Futiori (‘retarded’ daughter in the family, played by Hideko Okiyama). Rentaro Mikuni plays Nekichi Futori, the son of the family; in a heavy handed cinematic metaphor he is chained to the hidden pool where the islands supply of fresh water is obscurely located. A giant rock looms above the pool, teetering on the brink of collapse, and once the correct weather conditions arrive it is released. Further tension to the plot is found in the power transactions and manipulations deployed by the community leader Ritsugen Ryu (Yoshi Kato). The film’s main achievement is in teasing out the tensions that exist between old worlds and new worlds, and how folklore and myth both emerges and becomes buried in these transitions. It would seem technology, industry and the relationship to capital impose upon these relations and what happens to the relevant society as a consequence. This is a challenging film, and in my view over long. Whilst it explores some interesting themes, it lacks clarity at times which detracts from the overall effect and fails to do justice to what is at heart interesting subject matter.
Stolen Desire (1958) was the first film directed by Imamura. It tells the story of a troop of actors touring Osaka performing a variety show of striptease followed by Kabuki (stylised theatre of song and dance where the actors wear elaborate make up). It portrays the various concerns and tensions existing within such a group; reflecting upon the need to compromise artistic values in order to appeal to an audience and make a living. The film has a Shakespearean quality, in that the plight of the ensemble is to some extent a platform for exploring wider universal issues. Thwarted ambition and the earthly exploits of sexual passion define much of the encounters within the group. One actor in the troop is a recent graduate who has joined the ensemble in the search for authentic experience to contrast what he perceives as the corrupt self- interests associated with academia and mainstream society. His hope is acting will provide what real life cannot. What he learns is that even the hallowed world of theatre involves compromise, manipulation, and levels of corruption. For it’s time this must have been a provocative film, with a fairly unambiguous depiction of sexual relations. Like many if Imamura’s films, this film could be read as satire of the film industry, but it can be enjoyed as a film about the life of a travelling theatre troop.
Nishi Ginza Station (1958), Imamura’s second feature, is a musical comedy of sorts. It is based on a song by the then popular Japanese crooner Frank Nagai, who also appears in the film. The story revolves around the comings and goings of the titled train station. It follows the plight of Jutaro Oyama (Shin'ichi Yanagisawa), a husband who feels controlled and overwhelmed by his wife Riko Oyama (Hisamo Yamaoko) who is the successful manager of the family business, a Pharmacy located in the Nishi Ginza Station. Riko takes a short holiday with their children, leaving Jutaro to manage the store. He uses this as an opportunity to hook up with his carousing friend, Yasushi Asada (Kô Nishimura). Jutaro is a fantasist, he dreams of a beautiful woman from the South Islands who he will meet and escape with to a world of sand dunes, shorelines and setting suns. Jutaro meets up with Yasushi for a night out, they visit various beer halls and night clubs, desperate to pick up women. Jutaro ends up meeting and charming Yuri Igarashi (Kyôko Hori) who happens to work in the Stationers opposite the Pharmacy. They embark on a liaison. The liaison never comes to full fruition, ultimately due to Jutaro’s realisation of how fond he is of his wife and his life; things he doesn’t want to lose. The film reminded me of both Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1959), but also Billy Liar (1963) directed by John Schlesinger. As in both these films, Nishi Ginza Station considers the plight of the fantasist male, who presented with the opportunity to realise his fantasy chooses what is familiar to him, and so destroying the fantasy in which he previously took solace.
Pigs and Battle Ships (1961), the fifth film in Imamura’s oeuvre, is a lively affair. It tells the somewhat unusual story of Japanese gangsters situated in the South Pacific port city of Yokosuka. In the aftermath of the Second World War the US established naval bases as part of their occupation of Japan. The occupation ended in 1952 but the influence of US power remained, as did the naval bases. In this film the story concerns the trade of discarded pork (pigs) from US naval ships with Yakuza (Japanese organised crime). The gangsters distribute the pork for profit amongst the lower elements of Japanese society. To this there is a backdrop of Japanese brothels frequented by naval servicemen on shore leave, and a general atmosphere of Japanese men pimping their women to the white westerners. The film’s central theme is of exploitation; economic control and therefore exploitation of the Japanese by the US, and the knock on exploitation of relations within Japanese society required to serve the oppression of the US . The films central characters are Kinta (Hiroyuli Nagato), a fledgling gangster, and Haruko (Jotsulo Yoshimura) a pretty young peasant woman. They are young lovers, but lovers in conflict; Kinta has loyalties to his gang, and Haruko is under pressure from family and friends to become the kept woman of a US naval officer. I think it’s fair to see the film as a metaphor for the impact of US imperialism upon traditional Japanese society at the time. The Japanese adapt to and mimic the US values of consumerism and materialism, whilst offering their own oriental spin. The pig is often associated with appetite and lack of restraint. Whether or not Imamura intended the pigs in this film to be a metaphor for these qualities I am not sure, but there does seem to be an element of satire. The film contains humour, but also some fairly graphic and unpleasant violence. I won’t go into great detail about the plot, but the film has an interesting climax, and a few twists that the viewer won’t be able to predict. This film manages to both entertain and deliver a clear warning about processes of cultural imperialism.
The Insect Woman (1963) follows a grand narrative detailing the life of the central character Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari). The story mirrors the plight of Japanese society from 1918 to the time of the films release. The film begins with a visually experimental scene depicting a thorny beetle trying to climb a mound of dirt, but continually falling down and trying to climb again. Tome is the child of poor farmers, her learning disabled father dotes on her, but the wider family are generally unpleasant and self-interested. As a young woman Tome embarks on a liaison with a local landowner, she becomes pregnant after being raped by him. The resultant child, Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) is left with the grandfather, and Tome leaves the family home to pursue her fortune. Initially Tome obtains a senior role in a newly established agricultural collective (now being the period of the 2nd World War). She has a relationship with a fellow worker. The collective disintegrates, Tome leaves her lover who his hesitant around commitment. Desperate and without income or opportunity she moves to Tokyo. When attending the meeting of a socially interested religious organisation, Pure Land Buddhism, Tome meets a woman who offers her help in escaping her desolate predicament. It transpires the woman is a madam in a brothel. Tome is soon convinced to become a prostitute. But Tome is resourceful, she siezes upon opportunities to improve her lot in this world. She manages to usurp the power of the mistress, becoming the madam of her own brothel. Tome also becomes the kept woman of a powerful man. Tome sends money to Nobuko, to pay for her education in the hope she will become an independent woman of better social standing than herself. Un-announced the daughter comes to visit Tome in Tokyo, the upshot is the powerful man swaps his liaison with Tome to be with her daughter, to some extent the cycle is repeated. Tome falls back down the mound of dirt, once again trying to struggle back up, just like to insect in the opening scene. The film has themes of opportunism and resilience. Tome is self-interested and a survivor, her life is messy, but her spirit stays intact. She has insect like qualities. To this regard the actress Sachiko Hidari delivers a powerful performance. The Insect Woman is a harrowing film, but it tells an interesting story, and like other films discussed in this review, on some levels it acts as a metaphor for the plight of Japanese society as a whole, particularly in relation to how it recovered from the military annihilation following the 2nd World War.
A Man Vanishes (1967) the final film to be discussed in this review, is in some regards a unique film within the set. It was funded via a grant from the Art Theatre Guild, which enabled Imamura to carry out a cinematic experiment. The film is based on a true event, Takashi Oshima, a 32 year old salesman of plastic disappeared without trace. The film is presented in the format of investigative documentary, the film crew meeting and interviewing various people from Oshima’s life. These include his fiancee Yoshie, his employer and his employer’s wife with whom he lodged for a while, former work colleagues, and other family members. From these interviews Oshima is characterised as a fairly lacklustre individual, he has some charm and looks, but he’s fond of a drink or two, and hasn’t much back bone. It would seem Oshima stole money from his employer in the past, and he had a failed relationship with another employee who was looking for a man with greater ambition. His relationship with Yoshie was seen as a compromise, and there is some suggestion he was having a liaison with her sister also. Yoshie is in close collaboration with the documentary film crew, and she emerges as a rather sad character, self-obsessed and un-attractive. The film crew refer to her as ‘The Rat’ behind her back, and she confesses to feelings of inferiority. As the film progresses the content becomes more wide ranging and at times tangential. More and more people are interviewed, greater and greater speculation about what might have happened to Oshima, but no hard evidence. The film transforms into a parable about how people construct narratives in their own lives; the metaphor of the man vanishing is replaced by that of the truth vanishing. These ideas are reflected in the mise-en-scene of the film; disjointed editing and camerawork, a mixture of sound textures, and uncertainty as to what scenes are actual documentary and what scenes are artifice or construction. The conclusion to the film, the camera pans back, the set is dismantled. Is this something that could happen were you to put anyone’s life under the microscope? This film is very much of it’s time, questioning the established medium, perhaps it is no surprise Imamura turned his attention away from directing feature films for cinema to directing documentaries for television in the upcoming years.
In conclusion, this is a fascinating selection of films, by a director I had no awareness of before embarking on the review. In one of the box set extras, in an interview talking about the film The Insect Woman Imamura describes a quality in his films, that ‘there is something fascinating in the murkiness of things’. To some this might seem tolerable, to others this might seem like nonsense, but the quality of murkiness in these films is something I enjoyed and would recommend others to explore.
Review by Alex Porter