screened Sunday, March 18 2007 at BAM, Brooklyn NY
I prefer not to take up space synopsizing the story, especially when a great summary is available in the Midnight Eye review by Jasper Sharp
I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.Â
Shohei Imamura, interviewed by Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors, updated paperback edition, Tokyo and New York, Kondansha International Ltd., 1985, pp. 293 – quoted in Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio of Imamura by Nelson Kim
Many years ago, I was friendly with a well-known scriptwriter, who used to work with Yasujiro Ozu, and was staying with him at his holiday house. I was working on one of my scriptsâ€”it was a serious workâ€”and he stood up from the fireplace, which was in the centre of the room, and came over and began reading the script over my shoulder. I thought this was a rather horrible and nasty thing to do, but then he said, â€œOh you are still writing about beggars and all those dropouts from the mainstream of society.â€
I didn’t like this comment and it really started to get on my nerves because I didn’t think this was the correct way to characterise these people, the ones you call oppressed…When I was younger I was angered about the comments of the big-guy filmmakers. I tried to rebel, but they just laughed at me. Unfortunately I couldn’t really argue because they didn’t treat me as an equal and so their statements hurt me very much.
After the comments from this leading scriptwriter I lay in bed that night and wondered how could I possibly argue against these big people. Then I decided, all right, if they don’t like my ideas and treat them this way then I will only write about oppressed people all my life. I didn’t say this openly, but kept it in my mind. I didn’t have the confidence or the position to argue against them but this is what I decided to do.
Imamura interviewed by World Socialist Web Site
Reading this anecdote in light of Imamuraâ€™s films, particularly Intentions of Murder, itâ€™s worth wondering how much Imamura set himself to be a kind of anti-Ozu.Â There are certainly similarities between the two directors, most notably their shared concern for the inner frustrations lurking beneath the mundane lives of everyday people.Â “Everyday people” seems a most apt description of the respective milieus covered by the two directors, and yet placed side by side, Ozu’s middle-class domestics seem a world away from the grubby,Â workaday squalor of Imamura’s subjects.
Watching theÂ opening sequence of Intentions of Murder, with its shots of a train passing a Japanese suburb, one can’t help butÂ assume thatÂ Imamura is invoking Ozu -Â except that thereâ€™s a creeping sinister feeling that one would hardly associate with an Ozu film.Â Imamura captures the passing train with a series of nouvelle vague-style freeze frames, while letting the full roar of the train come through in the soundtrack â€“ itâ€™s a startling juxtaposition of static image and dynamic sound that create a feeling of imbalance and vague dread.Â The montage then shifts focus into the humdrum interiors of a Japanese home, finally settling on a live action shot of a caged mouse running tirelessly in its wheel – one of many instances where Imamura employs animal metaphors to describe the condition of his countrymen.
[Imamura] says that while writing scripts at Nikkatsu, he yearned to become a better storyteller, and thought perhaps his understanding of the world was lacking. So he began going to the library to test his own observations of people against the theories of sociologists, ethnographers and anthropologists. Presumably his reading of social science texts influenced the research-experiment quality that characterizes his mature cinematic style: even as the characters rush to and fro, caught up in their mad desires, the director observes them with a scientist’s coolness. (The Insect Woman‘s  original title translates as Entomological Chronicles of Japan, and the subtitle of The Pornographers  is Introduction to Anthropology.)
from Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio of Imamura by Nelson Kim
This clinical coolness might explain why I find Imamura a brilliant filmmaker and yet aÂ difficult one to embrace.Â Â I especially admire his indisputable intelligence andÂ his impeccable integrity as a socially conscious filmmaker, despite – or rather because of – his fascination and embrace of the lower rungs of the social pecking order.Â Â I once criticized Kurosawa’s High and Low (TSPDT #301) for being “too much high, not enough low.”Â AndÂ I think his frank, unflattering depiction of women in Japanese society to be more constructive than Mizoguchi’s pedestalized myth-making, and certainly equal to the pensive observations of Ozu or Naruse.Â Imamura’s consistent championing of the underclass – in a way that is not patronizing but isÂ knowing in a manner both brutal and precise – would be enough for me to put him in the top rung of Japanese directors. So how come I’m not feeling inclined to do so?
Perhaps there’s a cold matter-of-factness to Imamura’s style that resists enrapturing the viewer, at least this one.Â One thing that can beÂ off-putting is Imamura’s treatment of his characters.Â On the one hand, there are few directors who can make a pudgy, slovenly, dim-witted housewife into the compelling center of a two and a half hour movie.Â But as fascinated as we may be by Imamura’s evolving examination of Sadako (Masumi Harukawa in a fantastic performance)Â we rarely get the chance to connect to her emotionallyÂ as we do with an Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi or even Kurosawa.Â This is no doubt a deliberate measure on Imamura’s part.Â Not only are Sadako’s behaviors often unpredictable (she repeatedly forgives her rapist even as her rage against him builds over the course of the story), Imamura rarely shoots his figures in close-up, and even when he does, the faces feel like they’re being scrutinized under a microscope.Â It’s this clinical, questiongÂ view that, like Bunuel, resists the easy emotional clinch and gives his filmmaking a certain unassailable integrity, even if it can leave one feeling chilly.Â
Imamura compensates by adding many narrative and stylistic twists and turns to the mix.Â Scenes of flat documentary realism give way to lyrical erotic dream sequences.Â The most brilliant, expressive and wordlessly cinematic sequences in the film happen to be the most horrific — and extended scene that starts as a violent robbery, escalates into brutal sexual assault, and then elides into a bizzarely erotic fantasy involving a silkworm inching up a girl’s naked thigh.Â And a sequence in a train that fluctuates from suspenseful pursuit to attempted murder to desperate, primalÂ romanticism.Â Japanese film scholar Donald Richie calls this film the quintessential Japanese train picture.Â Two of the film’s characters dieÂ gruesome deaths withinÂ five minutes of each other — the first, involvingÂ the rapist,Â is depicted with a strange mix of sympathy, horror, helplessness and relief.Â The second (and less successful one in my view), where a woman gets hit by a truck -Â comes almost as comic relief.Â Â The film’s finalÂ 15 minutes feel like a letdown after these back-to-back climaxes –Â the film ends on a note of triumph for Sadako that feels soft after two hours ofÂ watching her unrelentingÂ struggle under so much petty prejudice and exploitation. Â But even when it’s not fully satisfying, Imamura’s mixing of tones is enough to keep an audience onÂ its toes.
Thinking further, my feelings for Imamura are remarkably aligned with those I have for Bunuel.Â BothÂ exhibit a remarkable disdain for bourgeois values, which may very well extend to their rejection of easy audience sympathy and sentimental catharsis. Â Their modus operandi is disturbance and upheaval of the status quo, and a tough love approach toÂ depicting the outcasts and underdogsÂ that routinely fascinate them.Â The older I get, the more their respective worldviews make strike me as mature and realistic rather than cheap and reactionary.Â And yet, whileÂ their filmsÂ challenge and stimulate myÂ responses,Â I don’t get that high from watching their films that I get from an OzuÂ or Mizoguchi.Â In Imamura’s case the one exception is Ballad of Narayama, with its devastating ending on a mountaintop – where life seems to freeze in a transcendent moment.Â Maybe that’s the thing with Imamura — for him, transcendence is as cheap as it is hard to come by — better to show life as a constant scrimmage among beetle-like humanity.Â Maybe a few more years of life may turn me on fully to his worldview. We shall see.