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Related Reading: Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock, Shohei Imamura (Cinematheque Ontario Monographs No. 1), edited by James Quandt, and Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser.


Buta to gunkan, 1961
[Pigs and Battleships/The Flesh is Hot]

YoshimuraA rousing Star Spangled Banner-themed overture accompanies the impressive sight of modern buildings lining the industrial landscape of a postwar Japanese port town in a seeming celebration of the scale of reconstruction achieved under American occupation. The idyllic image of progress through cooperative international unity would, however, be immediately subverted with a perspective shift to a crane shot, bird’s-eye view of the neighboring area to reveal the rundown, bustling alleys of the red light district in the periphery, an area conspicuously teeming with carousing, animated American sailors on shore leave. Using an arsenal of underhanded tactics ranging from aggressive solicitation to distractive, leading chases through labyrinthine alleys, low-level gangsters lure the all-too willing sailors into packed, mob-operated brothels operating from the back rooms of legitimate businesses under the knowing watch of corrupt, shore patrol officers. Among these hired patron corralers is a cocky young man named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) who, as the film begins, proudly boasts to his devoted girlfriend, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) that he has been handpicked by the yakuza boss for an integral position as (appropriately) piggery chief in the syndicate’s new venture of selling livestock on the black market in a convoluted financial arrangement that involves funneling capital from periodic coercion of small shop owners to contribute to euphemistic “charity” collection drives in order to buy food scraps from US battleships to breed fatter pigs. The ecologically perverted food supply chain serves as an implicitly metaphoric view of everyday life under occupied Japan as poor, but hardworking people like Haruko find themselves increasingly marginalized under the crushing weight of lawless, violent thugs seeking to get rich from the economic chaos of a fledgling democracy, or prostituted by their own families to curry favor from the Americans. Chronicled from the perspective of the young couple as they struggle to build a life together, the film reveals the innate, hollow myth of the Japanese postwar modernization model under occupied reconstruction - a deceptive and figuratively aborted bright future illuminated by the gaudy signs of a dystopian, false paradise.

Based on the novel by Kazu Otsuka, Pigs and Battleships is a wry, acerbically blunt, provocative, and irreverent satire on exploitation, greed, instinctuality, lawlessness, and imposition of cultural identity. From the establishing crane shot of the port town that reduces its inhabitants into near-imperceptible, animated dots (in a miniaturized, behaviorally entomological perspective of humanity that the filmmaker subsequently revisits in The Insect Woman), Shohei Imamura creates a caricatured and hyperbolic, yet intrinsically incisive allegory for the turbulent cultural conditions of occupied Japan as the nation’s fragile and uncertain path towards democratization becomes increasingly supplanted by exploitive opportunism and economic anarchy, and the inevitable tide of modernization and globalism (through Westernization) are reduced into ideologically detached pop culture imitation and crass consumerism (note Kinta’s stereotypical American wardrobe that consists of a varsity jacket, baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, an implicit reflection of his behavioral pattern of imitative conformity). Visually, Imamura reflects the country’s pervasive sentiment of rootlessness and absence of direction through episodic cross-cutting between parallel storylines, fragmented narrative, and off-axis camera angles, often positioned near waist level (a reflection of Imamura’s familiar theme of instinctual human sexuality) or at ceiling height to reflect the characters’ basality. Note Imamura’s implementation of a dizzied, rotating crane shot to depict Haruko’s violation at the hands of a trio of drunken sailors that reinforces the upended - and increasingly estranged - role of the Allied forces as both military conquerors and humanitarian reconstructionists of a ravaged nation. It is this increasingly nebulous and irreconcilable duplicity that inevitably underlies the tragic social dichotomy that the lovers’ represent: a displaced idealism borne of cultural alienation, empty surrogate values, and elusive (and indefinable) human desire.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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Nippon konchuki, 1963
[Entomological Chronicles of Japan/The Insect Woman]

HidariThe Insect Woman opens to the spare and indelible magnified shot of an ant crawling awkwardly, but persistently, through the rough terrain of its microcosmic environment. The image of the tenacious insect is then repeated through the shot of a harried, simple-minded man named Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura) as he trudges through the treacherous winter fields of a rural farming village in 1918. His superstitious common-law wife, En (Sumie Sasaki), is already in the later stages of childbirth, but Chuji stops to seek reassurance of his paternity before assisting with the delivery. The film then follows the life of the daughter named Tomé (Sachiko Hidari), as she leads a life of poverty, servitude, and exploitation in times of profound national change and under the repressive influence of a traditional, patriarchal society, from Chuji's obsessive and incestual attachment during the years of Japanese isolation, to Tomé's violation during her indentured service at the landowner's farm during wartime, to her casual affair with the factory manager during postwar reconstruction, and finally, to her accepted role as a mistress to an opportunistic businessman named Karasawa (Seizaburô Kawazu).

Shohei Imamura presents an unsentimental, provocative, and compassionate examination of resilience, pragmatism, and the essence of human behavior in The Insect Woman. Using informal, cinéma vérité-styled camerawork, freeze-framed scene changes (accompanied by melancholic folksong verses), and historical context (Japanese isolationism, World War II, postwar occupation, Korean War) Imamura achieves a clinically objective, yet sympathetic portrait of his archetypally sensual, primal, and strong-willed heroine as she perseveres through the turbulence and uncertainty of her economic and societal confines: Tomé's job at the mill during wartime Japan, her attempts at an honest living by working as a cleaning woman during postwar occupation, her resort to prostitution during the economic depression, her rise to the role of madame during the 1950s social reforms (similarly explored in Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame). By correlating episodic fragments of Tomé's life with the dynamic events and profound changes of everyday existence in early twentieth century Japan (and Asia in general), Imamura illustrates the instinctuality, mysticism, and idiosyncrasies embedded in the native culture that is often suppressed and aestheticized (especially evident in the films of Yasujiro Ozu) in the country's postwar, westernized, "official view" of Japan, and in the process, celebrates the resilient soul of a marginalized national identity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Jinruigaku nyumon, 1966
[The Pornographers/The Amorists]

Ozawa/SakamotoA film crew hikes to the outskirts of town in order to surreptitiously shoot a pornographic film. Flouting the law, a pornographer named Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) rationalizes his disreputable livelihood as a necessary commodity and public service for the continued well-being of society. The enterprising men screen their latest project, and the film opens with a comical shot of an amorous Ogata attempting to elicit a response from his wife, the widowed Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), on her preference of intimate partners. Haru evades the question, and the playful exchange is abruptly truncated when Haru's coddled and insolent university-aged son, Koichi (Masaomi Kondo) barges into the room and hides underneath the blankets for warmth. Koichi is resentful of Ogata's presence in the household, arguing that Ogata is nothing more than a former unemployed lodger with a criminal past, and that their relationship violates her vows to her late husband. Nevertheless, despite his animosity, Koichi is quick to exploit his mother's influence on Ogata in order to obtain enough money to move out of the family home and rent his own apartment. In contrast, Haru's daughter, Keiko (Keiko Sagawa) is more considerate of her stepfather and defends Ogata by rationalizing that his criminal history stemmed from nothing more than "election irregularities". Having walked Keiko to school when she was a little girl, Ogata has demonstrated a fatherly concern for her well being - a close bond that is increasingly developing into an uncomfortable attraction towards the young woman. Years earlier, Ogata's hopes for his own children with Haru were dissipated when she became convinced that the soul of her late husband has been reincarnated into an overgrown pet carp at her hairdressing salon, and that her late husband has expressed disapproval at their union. And so the bizarre puzzle that constitutes Ogata's unusual life emerges, as the beleaguered Ogata strives to make a living through his illegal commerce, hide his activities from the police, elude gangsters demanding extortion, nurse an ailing Haru back to health, and resist his compulsion to pursue Keiko.

The Pornographers is an incisive, acerbic, and droll exploration of voyeurism, exploitation, and repression. By constructing a film within a film to depict the process of the inherently voyeuristic enterprise of filmmaking, Shohei Imamura exposes the underlying hypocrisy of government-imposed sanitized rules of conduct that suppress innate human instinct. Note the implicit dichotomy of social distinction in screening Ogata's pornographic films for "quality" and anthropologically viewing the resulting Ogata biography. The pornographers' clinical examination of Ogata's life, the repetitive use of obstructions such as windows and doors to visually frame the characters, the interstitial scenes showing the refracted image of the omnipresent carp, the pornographers' eavesdropping of their neighbors in order to compile prospective plots, and Ogata's literally skewed view of Keiko through a door crack, further reflect the role of voyeurism in contemporary society. Through astonishing, surreal imagery and temporally fragmented narrative, Imamura hypnotically interweaves fact and fiction, illusion and reality, dreams and consciousness, and creates an irreverent, idiosyncratic, and fascinating spectacle that portrays the underlying core of human behavior.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Fukusho suruwa ware ni ari, 1979
[Vengeance is Mine]

OgataOn January 4, 1964, a convoy of patrol cars traverse a provincial countryside to escort captured criminal Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) to the local police precinct for interrogation. Callous and unremorseful, Enokizu laments his inevitable fate as unfair, citing that his arresting officers will outlive him and continue the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure now denied him. The indignant and self-absorbed Enokizu refuses to answer questions that will aid the police trace his fugitive steps from the first inexplicable murders a few months earlier, on October 18, when Enokizu decided to murder his coworkers, an affable deliveryman named Tanejiro Shibata, and the quiet, unassuming driver, Daihachi Baba. Despite his unwillingness to cooperate, the police investigation has uncovered an accurate, albeit unsettling, account of Enokizu's destructive path. His mistress provides a glimpse into his insatiable sexual appetite and emotional cruelty. His father, Shizuo Enokizu (Rentaro Mikuni), recounts a difficult episode in the summer of 1938 when a Japanese officer humiliated Shizuo, and his seeming cowardice causes a lifelong animosity and estrangement with the young and impressionable Iwao. Enokizu's neglected wife Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) has left him, but agrees to return at his father's request, only to be accused of having an affair with Shizuo. Driven away by his family and determined to evade the authorities, Enokizu moves into the Asano Inn, a secluded retreat near a cemetery that is managed by a trusting, repressed innkeeper named Haru (Mayumi Ogawa) and her interfering, eccentric mother, Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa) who reputedly spies on all the guests. Posing as a benevolent university professor, Enokizu continues his destructive double life of theft, swindles, and senseless murders.

Based on the true story of convicted murderer, Iwao Enokizu, Shohei Imamura creates a harrowing, bizarre, and fascinating chronicle of aberrant, self-destructive behavior in Vengeance is Mine. Combining the naturalistic, frenetic elements of documentary filmmaking with the stylization of elliptical narrative, Imamura creates a chaotic and fragmented portrait of a serial killer: the disorganized and awkward execution of the murders; the achronologic temporal leaps in the narrative structure; the rapid, cinéma vérité styled camerawork as Enokizu checks into the Asano Inn. In essence, the disjointed appearance of the film reflects the underlying dark soul of the inscrutable and amoral Enoziku. In a puzzling, surreal final scene, Shizuo and Kazuko travel to the top of a mountain in an attempt to bring closure to Enoziku's misguided life only to find their actions thwarted by an irrepressible, divine force - a cruel final reminder of the inescapability of justice and retribution.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Narayama Bushiko, 1982
[The Ballad of Narayama]

Sakamoto/AkiThe Ballad of Narayama opens to an aerial shot of a vast, frozen wilderness on a remote mountainous region in Northern Japan at an inexact date of a hundred years ago. Along the base of the mountain is an isolated, snow covered feudal village, where a family matriarch Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) lives with her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), his children, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki) and Tomekichi (Kaoru Shimamori), and his younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari). The climate is cruel and devastating, and the settlers have adopted austere laws to ensure the survival of the village. Orin is 69 years old, and tribal customs dictate that Tatsuhei take her to the sacred mountain of Narayama when she turns 70, where her soul can be laid to rest. Tatsuhei refuses to accept Orin's inevitable destiny, rationalizing that her vitality and resourcefulness make her an indispensable member of the household. Despite Tatsuhei's protests, Orin continues to remind him of his obligations to his ancestors and to the community. "A law is a law. Kindness has nothing to do with it", she explains. Orin arranges a second marriage for Tatsuhei with a widow named Tamayan (Takejo Aki) from an adjacent village, and teaches her to assume her domestic responsibilities. The family also gains an unexpected member when the insolent and promiscuous Kesakichi brings home his immature, dishonored lover, Matsu (Junko Takada). But Matsu's allegiance to her impoverished family supersedes her responsibilities to her new family, and she begins to steal food from Orin and Tamayan's kitchen to bring home to her father, Amaya (Akio Yokoyama). One evening, the villagers raid Amaya's house and discover the family's rampant theft of other farms. Determined to exact severe punishment for their crimes, the village denounces Amaya's family, and Orin delivers Matsu into the hands of the vengeful community. With the order of the house restored, Orin resumes her preparations for her final journey to Narayama.

The Ballad of Narayama is a brutal and haunting, yet ultimately poignant meditation on the nature of existence and death. Through the resilience and devotion of the proud Orin, Shohei Imamura illustrates the human capacity for innate dignity and perseverance despite the cruelty of life and the certainty of death. By juxtaposing the primal and savage actions of animals in the wilderness to the actions of the villagers, Imamura reflects the reduction of human behavior to the basest instincts of self preservation: a bird of prey carries away Tatsuhei's hunted game; two snakes perform their mating ritual against Kesakichi and Matsu's sexual encounter in the woods; an owl devours a field mouse on a tree as the villagers capture Amaya's family. In a primitive society where love and humanity become secondary to the struggle for survival, Orin embodies both a tenacity of will, and a reconciled soul seeking closure from the pain of existence. Inevitably, Orin's patient and courageous journey is rewarded with compassionate grace by the silent, unforgiving heavens.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Kuroi ame, 1989
[Black Rain]

Kitamura/Tanaka/IchiharaOn the morning of August 6, 1945, a young woman named Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) catches a ride with a neighbor who is evacuating from Hiroshima in order to transport her family's formal clothes and sentimental possessions to a friend's home for safekeeping on a nearby island in Furué. At 8:15, during a tea ceremony, Yasuko and her hosts witness a sudden, blinding flash of light and hurry outside to observe the surreal sight of an ominous mushroom cloud rising from the island. Concerned over the plight of her supportive and compassionate guardians, uncle Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara) and aunt Shigamatsu (Kazuo Kitamura), Yasuko boards a boat returning to Hiroshima and, along the way, encounters the radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb in the curious form of black rain that discolors her clothing and face. Arriving home, she unsuccessfully attempts to wash the indelible stains from her clothing (which Shigeko innocently surmises must have been caused by the explosion of an oil vessel), but is soon scuttled away by her guardians in order to escape the rampant chaos and continued danger of falling debris and uncontrolled fires raging through the center of town. Yasuko and her family eventually find refuge in Shigeko's place of employment - a factory on the outskirts of the island. A few years later, as the family struggles to rebuild their life amidst the ruins of Hiroshima in the rural village of Takafuta, Shigeko and Shigamatsu attempt to find a suitable husband for Yasuko in the grim realization that they have begun to exhibit initial symptoms of radiation poisoning. However, despite reaching marrying age and receiving a clean bill of health from the neighborhood doctor, Yasuko's marital prospects prove bleak, marred by the experience of the atomic bomb that invariably drives suitors away in fear of the unknown long-term effects of the island's exposure.

Based on the serialized novel by Masuji Ibuse,
Black Rain is a somber, visually distilled, and deeply affecting portrait of the human toll and uncalculated tragedy of nuclear holocaust. In contrast to Shohei Imamura's characteristically unrefined, primitivistic, and subversively bawdy cinema, the film is shot in high contrast black and white, creating a spare and tonally muted chronicle of dignity, survival, community, and human resilience. Through recurring literal and figurative images of regression, Imamura conveys a dual meaning, not only in the community's noble attempt to rebuild Hiroshima and return to a semblance of normal life after the annihilating bombing but also in their collective gradual and systematic erasure from Japanese society through long-term effects of radiation sickness, infertility, cultural (and geographic) isolation, and social stigmatization: Yasuko's inability to wash the stains from the black rain that tainted her clothing; her evening chore of resetting the clock; her multiple, unrealized marriage proposals; her grandmother's senility. The theme of futile cyclicality and repetition is further illustrated in the threatened use of nuclear weapons during the Korean War, an irresponsible comment that causes a dispirited and embittered Shigeko to remark, "Unjust peace is better than a war of justice". In a memorably sublime and surreal episode, Yasuko and Shigeko observe an oversized carp swimming upstream in the village pond. It is a haunting and transcendent reflection of the community's own metaphoric struggle as well - a poetic image of tenacity and determination against an inalterable current of recklessness, ignorance, and myopic vision.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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