Define the Japanese New Wave however you like—there are innumerable possible launching points, and the name players evident in the ’50s and ’60s were old, young, and in between—but Shohei Imamura was an unarguable and ambivalent figure in the landscape, an artiste among pulp mavens, a pop comic amid tragedians, a deep-dish cynic and folksy absurdist both. Dead last week at 79, the two-time Palme d’Or winner was one of the last of his slowly dying breed, survived still by Suzuki, Ichikawa, and Oshima.
He may have also been the least categorizable filmmaker of the lot (always a handicap in an auteurist world), careless with genre and frenzied about social critique. The son of a doctor, Imamura began as a studio apprentice with Ozu and quickly established a distaste for his sensei’s restraint and quiet eloquence. In fact, Imamura has always seemed a sort of Japanese Sam Fuller, fascinated with working-class ruin and primal impulse. And he could be viciously funny, which alone set him apart from most of his industry’s big guns. His first phase, beginning in 1958, was taken up with racy comedies and melodramas and the first, overtly Kabuki, version of The Ballad of Narayama (1958), a savage parable about prescribed death in a hard-luck mountain village that he remade to grimmer and more realistic effect in 1983.
Then came Pigs and Battleships (1961),
The Insect Woman (1963), and The Pornographers (1966), a run of international taboo-busters that sensationalized his career and offered up a vision of postwar Japan we hadn’t seen before: a rat pit of feral opportunism, debasing American occupation, greed, lust, and violence. (1968’s nearly three-hour Profound Desire of the Gods went, in its way, to an extreme, epically limning a secluded island gone bonkers with inbreeding and superstition.) Nobility and its stress rarely occupied Imamura; for him, the instinct and depravity underneath the social cheesecloth provided enough drama.
As he aged, Imamura became more catholic in his interests and tone, snapping for the jugular in Vengeance Is Mine (1979) and the second Narayama, but Eijanaika (1981) is a robust historical epic about the fall of the shogunate that, however energetic, pulls short of provocation, and his superb Black Rain (1989) has to be one of the most tasteful, and gravest, films ever made about the effects of nuclear war.
The senior stage in Imamura’s career, following eight perhaps purgative years of silence, was even better: The Eel (1997), Dr. Akagi (1998), and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) are all buoyant, nearly Buñuelian demi-comedies that take an exhilarated view of the human zoo. It happens less often than it should: As a filmmaker gets old, the movies become happier, richer, and more inventive. Would that he might’ve lived even longer.