ASIAN FILM - Review
16:00 - 8th December 2015, by David West

The Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection

The eight films in this Masterpiece Collection spans the years 1958 through to 1979 in the remarkable career of Shohei Imamura, one of Japanese cinema’s great social commentators. If there is a common thread between these titles, it is Imamura’s interest in people outside mainstream society.

His first feature, Stolen Desire, establishes that theme with a story about a travelling theatre troupe trying to make a living with Kabuki performances when their audience of horny men just wants to see the striptease that precedes the play. The protagonist is a frustrated writer Kunida (Hiroyuki Nagato), who labours under the delusion there is a nobility to the theatre, refusing the chance to work in television. But with the actors chasing after girls and no one interested in perfecting their craft, nobility is in short supply.

The second oldest film in this bunch is Nishi Ginza Station, a light-hearted comedy about Oyama, a hen-pecked husband who escapes the dreariness of his life, working in the drugstore owned by his nagging wide, by imagining an idyllic existence on a tropical island with a beautiful Pacific Islander girl. When his wife goes away for the weekend, Oyama heads out drinking with his best friend and tries to seduce a pretty shop assistant called Yuri. It’s the slightest entry in the collection, but the comedy is effective.

Far sharper and a huge leap forward in Imamura’s development of his own voice is Pigs And Battleships from 1961. The story is set in the port town of Yokohama, populated by US servicemen, prostitutes and small time crooks. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato again) is a lowly member of the Himori Gang who have a scheme to get rich by raising pigs to meet the demand for meat from the Americans in town. Kinta’s long suffering girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) wants him to go straight but he’s convinced the gang is about to hit the big money any day now. Firmly located in the town’s seedy underbelly, Pigs And Battleships is often very funny, but there is a sharp edge to the story. Imamura condemns the greed that leads the criminals to constantly turn on each other, making a mockery of their claims of loyalty to the gang. Everyone is so caught up in trying to get rich, only the level-headed Haruko can see they’re on a road to nowhere.

Imamura came from a middle-class family – his father was a doctor – but many of his films deal with people at the bottom of the social ladder, seen here in The Insect Woman, Profound Desires Of The Gods and The Ballad Of Narayama. The characters in all three films inhabit worlds where modern norms and values have no place. The protagonist of The Insect Woman, Tome (Sachiko Hidari), goes from life in backwards rural village to working as a prostitute in the city. Growing up in the mountains, Tome has to deal with the incestuous attentions of her father Chuji, and incest recurs again in Profound Desires Of The Gods in which a dirt poor family on the fictional island of Kurage are regarded as outcasts by the other islanders, in no small part because of their inbreeding. The family of peasants in The Ballad Of Narayama eke out a meagre existence during the feudal period. Unwanted baby girls are sold, as boys are considered more useful, while whenever an adult reaches the age of 70, they are taken out of the village and left on a mountain to die. Imamura’s view of all of these characters is completely unsentimental. On the one hand, he seems to regard such primitive lifestyles as being closer to nature than modern society, but there is no romance in his presentation.

In The Ballad Of Narayama, the camera frequently compares the humans to the animals around them – a shot of two peasants having sex is interspersed with shots of snakes and birds mating. Yet Imamura does not seem to be suggesting these people are less than human, that they are animalistic, just that copulation and reproduction are part of a natural cycle. It’s the Circle Of Life from The Lion King, just much dirtier, messier, and without Elton John singing over the whole thing.

In 1967 Imamura made one of his most unusual and daring films, A Man Vanishes. It’s a fascinating mix of fact and fiction as Imamura and his crew investigate the disappearance of a travelling salesman called Tadashi Oshima. Imamura uses actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi to interview Oshima’s abandoned fiancée Yoshie Hayakawa, referred to onscreen as The Rat, which is somewhat less than flattering. Is Imamura sincerely trying to find Oshima, or is he more interested in digging into Hayakawa’s complicated life and her rivalry with her sister? He often films her without her knowledge, using hidden cameras and having Tsuyuguchi try to get The Rat to talk about herself. The resulting film is unique and strangely compelling.

The final film in the set is 1979’s Vengeance Is Mine, which was inspired by a real life serial killer. Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), goes on a killing spree but Imamura is not interested in a police procedural that follows the cops chasing down the murderer. Instead he begins with Enokizu in custody and reveals his crimes in flashback. It’s a chilling portrait of a psychopath, as Enokizu never displays so much as a flicker of regret for his actions and the un-sanitised, violent portrayal of the murders makes them all the more unsettling.

There’s a remarkable range on display in Imamura’s output here, from his earliest comedies through to the unflinching brutality of Vengeance Is Mine. The later films are the most challenging in their subject matter, replete with sex and death, but Imamura had the boldness to point his camera at the corners of Japan no one else wanted to explore.
SCORE: 5/5
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