Monday, March 04, 2013

An Appreciation: Shohei Imamura

Endless Desire (1958) ***- Imamura’s deeply black comedy is an interesting set-up for what will come in the rest of his career. A rag-tag group of thieves (including one woman) rent a shack in the center of town in order to tunnel beneath the ground and steal a cache of morphine hidden before the war. While the copy I was able to view is saddled with a horrible set of subtitles, Imamura’s dark humor and fondness for the impossibility of the lower class to get ahead is clear. “Endless Desire” also features some stunning camerawork for the late 50’s. When a majority of Japanese cinema was imbued with the static low gaze of Ozu, Imamura is playful and almost Hitchcockian in the way he frames several scenes right at the floorboard level, raising the tension of the men burrowing underneath and staying quiet while visitors and the police rummage around on the wooden floor above them. Not available on DVD.

Stolen Desire (1958)- **1/2- The trials and tribulations of a theater troupe when they're forced to leave the city and ply their trade in the countryside allows Imamura lots of room for broad comedy. Chicken theft, revolving attractions and slapstick comedy are all par for the course. It's harmless and even highly entertaining at times, but Imamura feels like he's going through the motions.

In Front of West Ginza Station (1958) ***- The film’s first five minutes- with a man talking directly to the audience and crooning a song- tells you that Imamura is in full blown comedic (and satiric) mood. From there, the man (Frank Nagai) spins a story about a repressed married man and the flirtatious relationship he starts up with the boutique shop girl next door when his wife goes away on holiday. Fantasy and reality merge in gentle ways, and while Imamura subtly exposes us to the carnality of female flesh that will infuse so much of his later work, “In Front of West Ginza Station” remains a lightweight pleasure. Not available on DVD.

My Second Brother (1960) **- Taking as his subject a group of four siblings whose father dies and leaves them to fend for themselves in a dilapidated mining town, “My Second Brother” is a minor Imamura film that owes some to the Italian neo-realism movement, especially in its point of view from the youngest of the two boys. Striking cinematography- including one shot which rests atop a mining car as it slowly propels up the mountainside and two young boys talk about their future- and reverent acting never fully ascend to the heights of emotion that the story seems capable of producing. Not available on DVD.

Pigs and Battleships (1961) ***½- A huge leap forward for Imamura, and an effort rightly praised as one of the sounding blows to the Japanese New Wave. From its opening tracking shot, which follows a group of people wandering down a neon-lit street and feels like something elaborately borrowed by Kubrick/Scorsese/PT Anderson later, “Pigs and Battleships” is a visual wonder, bolstered by its scathing sentiments about a seaside Japanese port town dominated by prostitution, American naval personnel and a yakuza war over a pig farm. The young couple Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) shoulder most of the film’s consequences and Imamura spends a great deal of time espousing the corruption of American presence along the Japanese coastline, yet “Pigs and Battleships” doesn’t lose any power in its indictment. If nothing else, the film is a tremendous merging of the personal and the creative.

The Insect Woman (1962) ***½- With this film and “Pigs and Battleships”, one can sense the New Wave happening right before our eyes. Imamura’s camera compositions, stark black and white images and extremely taboo-pushing narrative elevate these works. The films also feel very modern, as if one were watching a film made only 10 years ago. “The Insect Woman” stars Sachiko Hidari as Tome, the central figure followed from birth to old age as she morphs and transcends her poverty-ridden, sexually abusive early life and becomes a successful madam in a brothel. Routinely seen as an allegory to Japan’s own transfigured landscape from post-war reconstruction to 50’s boom, Imamura’s devious storytelling is (as usual) a bit scathing as people use and abuse consistently. While negating a majority of the empathy for Tome, “The Insect Woman” remains an intimately epic portrait of both one person and a country.

Intentions of Murder (1964) **½ - It’s probably unfair, but when compared to the two films released before this one, “Intentions of Murder” pales in comparison. Taking as his subject another abject, lower class woman, Imamura really begins to pile on the misery. Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) is not respected by her husband’s family due to a generations-old-curse and dutifully cares for her womanizing husband. So it’s probably only natural that a troubled drifter breaks into her home one night and rapes her. Sadako unflinchingly gravitates towards the troubled drifter due to her crummy existence and what’s set in motion in the final half of the film is a beautifully twisted third world noir. Imamura’s dazzling cinematography reaches new heights with one scene in a snow-covered tunnel as the woman and drifter struggle over a fatal poisoning, but, strangely, “Intentions of Murder” left me unmoved compared to the intimately sweeping indictments of his previous two films.

The Pornographers (1966) ****- Also known as the dissolution of a family through windows and doors… and, in my opinion, Imamura’s first great film. Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) makes a living filming porn movies on the side. He cares for his wife (Sumiko Sakamoto) and is perversely attracted to his 16 year old daughter. His son, in between stealing money from him and passively avoiding any conflict in the house, barely exists. Not only does Ogata have to worry about a possible curse from his wife’s dead husband (in the form of an omniscient fish), but the local yakuza when they find out about his profitable smut business. While this premise sounds promisingly tawdry, Imamura wisely avoids slipping into a ‘pinku’ film. Whether observing an office business party or the filming of a very uncomfortable sex scene between a mentally challenged girl and an older man, Imamura’s camera is perched carefully outside the action, creating an even more meta-movie experience than the film’s opening where three men are watching the same movie we are. We are truly observers in this bracing idea of a film. For 1966, “The Pornographers” is a richly textured, envelope-pushing masterwork.

A Man Vanishes (1967) **- I don’t discredit this film’s invaluable presence in the art film world- especially its debt to the now infamous ‘mockumentary’ genre- but Imamura’s dizzying, cerebral pseudo documentary is one I appreciate more than like. The barriers of truth and fiction, real and unreal are the basic underpinnings of Imamura’s seemingly straight-forward film that begins as a documentary in search of a missing man in 1964. His fiancé is involved with the interviewing along with an actor (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) as they attempt to trace his final journeys in and around Tokyo as a traveling salesman. There are intimations of affairs, embezzlement from his company and then a damaging eyewitness account that places him in the company of the fiancé’s sister. After a carefully modulated conversation between the two sisters that plays out like a suspenseful police interrogation, Imamura chooses to abolish the reality and turn the film into something more. I do agree, the minute this break in documentary happened, I gasped. This is something never seen before. But that unsettling moment is one in a few. Much of “A Man Vanishes” drones on a bit too long, and the investigation itself of the missing man is mired in confusing speculation and false leads. Perhaps Imamura’s point is the break in reality and the insular nature of how we expect a documentary to proceed can be so easily warped, and in this, “A Man Vanishes” is a triumph. If only that stunning 20 minute sequence towards the end of the film had sustained itself longer.

The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) *½- Upon adjusting to the orgasmic color world of Imamura after all these black and white efforts, there’s little to recommend about “The Profound Desire of the Gods”. Ambitious yes, as the tale of a divided island community deals with encroaching technology and world-weary family curses, but beyond that, the film feels very inconsequential. Perhaps I’m missing some deep rooted, obscure Japanese parables and symbols here, but “The Profound Desire of the Gods” is a three hour mess of sorts. Not available on DVD.

Following the Unreturned Soldiers parts 1 and 2 (1970) ***- This film, broken into two parts, attempts to track down Japanese soldiers who stayed in Malaysia and Thailand as natives after the war and their reasons for it. Alongside “A Man Vanishes” which I found a bit underwhelming, it’s evident that Imamura’s now burgeoning documentary style is a bit radical. Instead of probing a certain incident or theology as most documentaries of the time did, Imamura seems much more interested in the mysteries of human nature and the subsequent lapses in rational action. In “A Man Vanishes”, it’s the unexplained disappearance of a well adjusted man and in “Following the Unreturned Soldiers”, his focus lies in the rational betrayal of someone’s national pride. Part 1 focuses on the search for soldiers in Malaysia and while it’s a bit rambling and unfocused, the film’s power is derived from the unrelenting search as Imamura himself tracks down these men, sometimes hitting a blind alley and at other times coming in contact with a soldier whose reasons for staying are far more universal and moving. Part 2, which deals with Thailand, is far less intriguing in the fact that Imamura finds three men in the first minute and then spends the next 45 minutes recording their day-long conversation. The sake and accusations fly and the message (or reasons) is a bit confusing, but what eventually merges out of “Following the Unreturned Soldiers” is the devotion Imamura provides these lost souls as part priest and part documentarian. Available on specialized DVD.

History of Postwar Japan As Told By a Bar Hostess (1970) **- Attempting yet another form of radical documentary filmmaking, Imamura juxtaposes a candid conversation with a bar hostess against the atrocities of post World War 2 Japan, although this time with mixed results. The initial problem with the film is the hostess, Cheiko Akaza, is just not that interesting of a subject, recounting her various abortive (literally) love affairs and discontent with provincial Japanese life in the 40’s and 50’s. It’s a brave attempt to draw parallels between the interior and the political, but “History of Postwar Japan As Told By a Bar Hostess” fails to effectively grapple the intellect or emotion. Not available on DVD.

Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975) ***½ - While crafting his 1970 documentary "Following the Unreturned Soldiers", Imamura stumbled upon the narrative of thousands of women being kidnapped from Japan in the early 1900's and shipped to Malaysia to work as prostitutes. "Karayuki-san" is that modest story told from one woman's point of view. Immensely sad, what sets this apart from Imamura's other middling nonfiction efforts is the empathy and warmth exuded from his subject, Keiko. Not only does she efficiently tell her own story, but gives Imamura access to other women she knew. What emerges is a fascinating and sordid tale that not only documents the personal, but highlights the various sociopolitical aspects of a completely maddening time in Japan and China. Available on specialized DVD.

Vengeance Is Mine (1979) ***- After a few years in the documentary wilderness, Imamura returned to fiction filmmaking with this fascinating but dispassionate portrait of a serial killer. Feeling like something David Fincher would have made in the 70’s, “Vengeance Is Mine” gives little screen time to the brutal murders, instead choosing to show the boring moments of the killer as he spends his time on the run. And I don’t mean to say this is a bad thing. As the killer, Ken Ogata is terrific, alternating between tenderness with an inn owner and seething hatred of his father. Actually, “Vengeance Is Mine” is a film about the relationship of other people with a serial killer and not the other way around. It’s ultimately a film that defies the genre and goes somewhere much deeper into the psyche.

Eijanaika (1981)- **½- Another seemingly impenetrable affair by Imamura, this time charting the relationship of a man and woman against the shifting cultural and political backdrop of Edo (Tokyo before it was called Tokyo). When the film focuses on the hectic, robust marriage of Genji (Shigeru Izumiya) and Ine (Kaori Momoi) inside a traveling circus, the film really breathes life and becomes a wondrous black comedy. But when the various machinations of the Shogun come into view, Imamura loses his touch a bit and the film flounders in a vortex of hard-to-follow back stabbings and political alliances. Perhaps a more solid foundation of the time’s politics would yield a better understanding of “Eijanaika”. Not available on DVD.

The Ballad of Narayama (1983)- ***½- Like “The Profound Desire of the Gods”, Imamura’s early 80’s film “The Ballad of Narayama” deals with a cloistered society on the edge of the world… this time a mountain village where the elderly have to make a fateful trek up the mountain when they reach 70. But before that, grandmother Orin (Sumiko Satamato) wants to provide for the well being of her family by arranging marriages and leaving her children in good shape. Like so many of Imamura’s films, the emphasis is on community and ancient customs. “The Ballad of Narayama” runs through so many emotions. At once it feels exceedingly violent- when the community turns on one family for theft and buries them alive- and the next it reaches heights of zen-like serenity. But the blunt force trauma of its story hits the viewer in the final 30 minutes as son (Ken Ogata) carries his elderly mother up the mountain. For sheer visual storytelling, I don’t believe there’s another sequence like it in Imamura’s canon.

Zegen (1987) *** - Intimately sweeping and biting satire about nationalism and the warped pride it can instill in its citizens. As the lead character, Ken Ogata zealously pounces on his role as an exiled man (through coincidence and timing with others) who becomes a franchising pimp of sorts, hoping to nationalize brothels around the world in the name of his beloved Japan. Taking place in the thirty years or so before the outbreak of WW2, "Zegen" plays like a comedic overlay of the broiling atmosphere of entitlement and imperialism that led up to the war outbreak. Like so many of his other films, "Zegen" finds Imamura firmly gripping the pulse of the whirlwinds of change while imprinting a sly smile on the horrors. If ultimately the film falls slightly short of reaching the heights of his other films, its because middle portions feel a bit redundant in the shameless promotion of skin for sale.

Black Rain (1987) **** - In one scene, a character comments on the possible rumors that young Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) is infected by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima with the phrase “society likes to believe the bad news over the good news”. If only that weren’t even more true today. Imamura’s sobering examination of Japanese life post-Hiroshima is intensely moving. The sequences of the bombing and the aftermath as Yasuko and her family slowly migrate out of the city are some of the most terrifying sequences in Imamura’s career. But, “Black Rain” is about healing and moving on as the family search for a suitable husband for young Yasuko. Again working with the lower middle class and expounding on the fringes of their small village as in earlier efforts, “Black Rain” doesn’t exactly condemn anyone specifically for the bombing, instead choosing to condemn all of mankind for “strangling itself”. Alongside “The Pornographers”, this is Imamura’s masterpiece.

The Eel (1997) ***½ - A low key character study not without Imamura’s usual flair for opening up the view to a small knit community of unique individuals. Essentially a story about a man’s slow re-acceptance into the world after serving 8 years for murdering his wife, “The Eel” takes an ordinary narrative and creates such an intimate portrait of damaged people trying to reconcile their pasts. As the released murderer Yamashita, (longtime Kiyoshi Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) is a quiet force of slow burning guilt and self emasculation when pretty Keiko (Misa Shimizu) begins to fall in love with him in the small seaside town they’ve both ended up in. With this film and the ensuing “Dr Akagi”, it’s a film that marks a gentle slide for Imamura, no less prone to honest human interaction and still attuned to the slight vagaries of time, place and person.

Dr Akagi (1998) ****- As the title character, Akira Emoto’s portrait of a provincial doctor during World War 2 may be my favorite Imamura incarnation. Often seen literally running to tend to his patients on house calls, “Dr Akagi” is a film of many fronts- an indictment of the war’s presence across Japan when Akagi and his female servant Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) harbor a wounded Dutch soldier…. The advancement of intelligent medical diagnosis and the spread of hepatitis across Japan during the 40’s…. and Imamura’s enduring penchant for creating a universe of neighbors and villagers whose interaction with each other and the larger society is always an important process. A stunning film on all accounts, “Dr Akagi” reaches an emotional high when the quiet doctor kneels in front of his deceased son’s picture and lets out a grueling cry. I can’t think of a moment in Imamura’s career that cements pain and loss more succinctly than this subtle moment.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2000) *½ - Reuniting a majority of the cast from “The Eel”, “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” is a unique tale to say the least. Spurred on by the knowledge that a golden Buddha statue is hidden in a house, unemployed Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) travels to the town looking for it. Instead of wealth, he finds lonely Saeko (Misa Shimizu) living in the house…. A woman who literally fills up with water and whose only release point is either shoplifting or impetuous sex. As his final film, “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” offers all the usual for Imamura as marginal characters of the town inhabit their own stories and weave into the main narrative. Still, it’s a film that feels flat and lifeless and whimsical to no avail.

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