Shôhei Imamura is a Japanese director whose career can be separated into several phases. You’ve got his studio-controlled early work in the 50s, his respected 60s output when he produced more ambitious, personal and forward-thinking films, then the numerous documentaries he made in the 70s, before moving into the latter portion of his career, which again can be separated into sections.

In 1979, Imamura went back to fiction filmmaking and made Vengeance Is Mine. This was highly regarded in Japan, winning a couple of high profile awards. Why Not? (a.k.a. Eijanaika) followed and also picked up a couple of gongs in its home country.

However, it was Imamura’s next film, his remake of The Ballad of Narayama, that would prove a bigger turning point in his career. It took home the Palme d’Or in Cannes, a first for Japanese cinema. This gained Imamura international recognition, which he would further cement in 1997 when he won the Palme d’Or yet again, though the two films he made directly after The Ballad of Narayama were an odd couple in comparison.

The follow-ups were Zegen and Black Rain, and I’ll get to the reasons why they’re unusual in comparison to Narayama later. Arrow Academy are grouping together those three films in a beautifully packaged set entitled Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura. I’m a great admirer of Imamura’s work and have only seen one of these, so got hold of a set of screeners to check them out.

The Ballad of Narayama

Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Shôhei Imamura
Based on a Novel by: Shichirô Fukazawa
Starring: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejô, Shôichi Ozawa, Fujio Tokita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 130 min
Year: 1983

I’ve already reviewed this, so will refer back to my post from back in 2011 –


Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Shôhei Imamura, Kôta Okabe
Starring: Ken Ogata, Mitsuko Baishô, Chun-Hsiung Ko, Norihei Miki, Hiroyuki Konishi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 124 min
Year: 1987

Zegen is set during the turn of the 20th Century. It was a time that would later see Japanese expansion and colonialism, and the film opens with Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata) and two friends sneaking off a ship to live and work in Hong Kong. Muraoka opens a barbershop to earn an honest living, with the intention of bringing his girlfriend Shiho (Mitsuko Baishô) over there one day. However, he’s soon whisked away on a secret mission by the government to spy on the people of Manchuria.

Here, the patriotic Muraoka finds himself disgusted at all the Japanese women there who have been forced into working as prostitutes. He tries to help them and agrees to take their savings home to Japan to give to their families. However, when he returns to Hong Kong, he finds his barbershop has been sold and Shiho has arrived but is with another man. Muraoka uses the prostitutes’ money to buy his shop and Shiho back, then, angry at the treatment of Japanese settlers in the region, he rallies up a group of fellow countrymen to ‘free’ the Japanese prostitutes and slaves from Hong Kong and the surrounding areas.

After a while though, Muraoka finds he can’t afford to look after all these people and they’re growing bored and need employment. So, he ends up selling many of the women and opening his own brothel. He believes his business is for the good of the Japanese people though, as he’s helping the women earn money to support their families back in Japan.

As Muraoka’s brothel plans develop ever further, the proud man longs to achieve his ambition of creating a Japanese National Brothel. However, with war, changing politics and Shiho leaving him for a Chinese rival, Muraoka’s grand plans come crashing down.

With international eyes from the arthouse scene on Imamura after The Ballad of Narayama, the decision to make a bawdy comedy entrenched in Japanese history little known to the West, was a baffling one. It did, in fact, play at Cannes and was even the Japanese contender for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, but it didn’t win any awards at the former and didn’t make the final nominations for the latter. It made very few international sales in fact and has never been available in the UK other than screening in a couple of retrospective festivals here and there.

I must admit though, I rather enjoyed Zegen. The film plays out like a satire of colonial attitudes and misguided patriotism in general, so my poor knowledge of Japanese history didn’t hinder my appreciation. Also, though it’s a strange departure from Narayama, Zegen is not dissimilar from much of Imamura’s earlier work. Though I haven’t seen it myself, it supposedly has much in common with Why Not? and the themes and settings of Zegen crop up in a number of his films. It is more outwardly comedic than most though.

Surprisingly, the film is based on a real-life character, whose autobiography formed the basis of the script. This wasn’t credited though, as Imamura took a few liberties and the accuracy of the book was under great dispute anyway, as many of Muraoka’s claims didn’t match up to records at the time. So, the film, like the book, can be seen as an over-embellished, quasi-mythical telling of the sex-merchant’s story.

Like many of Imamura’s films and a lot of Japanese cinema in general, it’s a touch overlong perhaps, but the fairly dense, decades-spanning plot is well-handled enough to engage without getting confusing.

Zegen can be quite sexist though. Most of the female characters are just dumb prostitutes, with little depth. However, Shiho is probably the strongest and most intelligent character in the film, so you do get some decent representation. She is the real brain behind Muraoka’s enterprise and is much more grounded in reality than he is, so, when she leaves, his troubles truly escalate.

Zegen is quite a colourful and well-shot film too, with Imamura retaining an Earthy realism through the production design and frank, un-glamorised sexual content.

Overall, it’s an unusual film that likely requires better knowledge of Japanese history to fully appreciate the satire and context. However, it’s not difficult to get the gist and there’s plenty of broad humour to keep you entertained. In this sense, it’s actually one of Imamura’s more approachable films, despite putting off ‘respectable’ arthouse viewers at the time.

Black Rain

Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Shôhei Imamura, Toshirô Ishidô
Based on a Novel by: Masuji Ibuse
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shôichi Ozawa, Norihei Miki, Keisuke Ishida
Country: Japan
Running Time: 130 min
Year: 1989

After the failure of Zegen, Imamura took a safer, more awards-friendly turn with Black Rain, a film distinctly uncharacteristic of his usual work.

Black Rain opens in Hiroshima during the dropping of the atomic bomb. We follow an ageing couple, Shizuma Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura) and Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara), along with their niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), as they flee the city after the immediate aftermath.

Shortly after, we flash forward several years to find them living together in the country. The Shizumas are keen to arrange a marriage for Yasuko, but potential suitors keep changing their minds once they realise the ‘black rain’ caused by the bomb had fallen on her, meaning she’s likely to be affected by radiation poisoning. The Shizumas’ health begins to fail too, as the lingering damage of the bomb slowly takes its toll on them.

They persist in their quest to find a husband for Yasuko though, desperate to do so before they finally succumb. She, in the meantime, befriends Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida), a man deeply traumatised by the war that finds solace in sculpting stone statues.

This pairing seems like it might finally be the answer to everybody’s problems, but Yasuko’s illness eventually begins to surface.

Black Rain is an unusual film for Imamura for a number of reasons. For one, its story and themes are relatively straight forward, examining the effects the bomb had on the people of Japan. Imamura also tends to focus on those on the lower rungs of society elsewhere in his work, rather than the middle-class protagonists here (Shigematsu owns a lot of land). You could argue that the stigma of being Hiroshima survivors gives them a lowly status, but there’s still a very different feel to the setting and characters here.

In fact, Black Rain has more than a hint of Ozu to the fairly subtle family drama that unfolds throughout the bulk of the film. Imamura actually worked as an assistant on a few of Ozu’s films, so this similarity may seem less surprising than it does on the surface.

Imamura said of his relationship with the great director, “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t influenced by Ozu, I would say I didn’t want to be influenced by Ozu”. So, perhaps through a desire to win back the arthouse crowd after Zegen, Imamura consciously looked to his teacher for inspiration. It would make sense, as the West was finally discovering Ozu’s work in the 80s and Tokyo Story, in particular, was being described as one of the greatest films of all time.

Imamura puts his own stamp on things though. Ozu certainly didn’t show anything like the graphic, shocking imagery of the bombing in any of his films. Though the opening sequence in Hiroshima isn’t too long, Imamura’s imagery is powerful enough to haunt the rest of the film and there are another couple of flashbacks later on. Like Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima from 1953, which I reviewed earlier in the year, Black Rain doesn’t shy away from the horrifying immediate effects of the atomic bomb and some of the sequences will stay with you for a long time.

It’s a beautifully made film too, attractively shot in stark black and white by Takashi Kawamata. The score, by famed composer Tôru Takemitsu, is also particularly good.

Black Rain then, is a haunting, grimly believable portrayal of the horrifying effects of the bombing of Hiroshima. Surprisingly underplayed by Imamura, it’s quietly devastating without feeling manipulative or sentimental. It may not be typical of its director’s work and lacks the thematic complexity of much of it too, but Black Rain remains a powerful film.

Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura is out now in a Limited Edition 3-disc Blu-ray set, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality on all titles are excellent. The opening sequences of Zegen and Black Rain look slightly rough but this doesn’t last and the rest of each film looks fantastic.

There are some valuable special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:

– Restored High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all three films
– Original lossless Japanese PCM 1.0 mono soundtracks
– Optional English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentaries on all three films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
– Brand new, in-depth appreciations of all three films by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns
– Alternate colour ending to Black Rain, shot by Imamura but removed from the film shortly before its release
– Archival interviews on Black Rain with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director Takashi Miike
– Multiple trailers and image galleries
– Original Japanese press kits for The Ballad of Narayama and Black Rain (BD-ROM content)
– Limited edition 60-page booklet containing new writing by Tom Mes
– Limited edition packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella

Jasper Sharp’s commentaries are as thoroughly researched and fascinating as usual. They’re largely historical rather than analytical, exploring the lives and careers of the people involved, as well as discussing similarly themed films. Sharp also compares Imamura to some of his contemporaries, particularly Nagisa Ôshima.

Tony Rayns’ appreciations are also valuable additions to the set. They’re all between 45 mins and 1 hour long, so provide fairly in-depth examinations of the films in question.

The archive interviews are shorter but still recommended viewing. Takashi Miike, who worked on Zegen and Black Rain opens his interview with the answer; “An Assistant Director? I was more like a dog” He describes how tough Imamura could be to work with but also how much he learned from this experience and how it moulded him into the director he is now. He discusses the reshot ending of Black Rain too.

Speaking of which, the alternate ending is a great addition. Black Rain was originally going to have a 19-minute colour coda, that sees Yasuko still living a decade or so later, making a pilgrimage to Hiroshima before poetically becoming one of Yuichi’s statues. I think I’m happier with the more abrupt, slightly ambiguous ending used, to be honest, but this alternative still has some touching and beautiful moments.

I didn’t get the booklet to look at, unfortunately, but I can still easily recommend the set. It’s a wonderful showcase of an unusual period of Imamura’s career.

Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shôhei Imamura - Arrow
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