It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there—and, more often than not a bird-eat-bird and a snake-eat-mouse one too, according to the late Shohei Imamura, whose films are the subject of the long overdue BAM retrospective “Pimps, Prostitutes, and Pigs: Shohei Imamura’s Japan.” The work of a social anthropologist with an unapologetic Darwinian streak, these are movies in which modern Japan is but a simulacrum of its feudal past, and where the epochs separating civilized man from his animal forefathers are routinely collapsed in a heartbeat. They are guttural epics bubbling over with rape and revenge, incest and adultery. And to see them again today is to be reminded of how timid most other Japanese cinema—to say nothing of cinema in general—looks by comparison.
To some extent, it was that very timidity, that intractable sense of Japanese decorum and decency, that encouraged Imamura toward his ultimate career. The son of a physician, he studied Western history at Waseda University and, for a while, made a living as a black marketer—experiences that doubtless cultivated his gourmet appetite for enterprising underlings suckling at the teat of moneyed society. Despite aspirations to work in the theater, he took a job as an assistant director at the Shochiku film studio and was immediately assigned to work for the legendary Yasujiro
Ozu, whose sedate portraits of Japanese family life would, on the surface, seem the antithesis of the lurid spectacles to which Imamura came to sign his name. In truth both directors were striving for a similar effect: to show the real Japan seething beneath the emotionless, tea-and-tatami-mat facade.
After directing four features on assignment for the Nikkatsu studio (all of which, rarely screened, will be featured as part of the BAM series), it was
Pigs and Battleships (1961) that fully revealed Imamura the rhapsodic vulgarian. A delirious satire set in a port town during the U.S. occupation, it is the story of a dim but well-meaning low-level yakuza named Kinta (the wonderfully loose-limbed Hiroyuki Nagato) who finds himself the unwitting fall guy in a hackneyed hog-farming scheme involving officers of the U.S. military. All the while Kinta’s girlfriend Haruko rejects the suggestion of her own mother and sister that she should become the kept woman of a visiting American seaman.
That Haruko is the only one of the characters to meet with something close to a happy ending sets up a favorite Imamura theme: the indomitable Japanese woman outwitting and/or outlasting the sniveling, weak-willed representatives of a patriarchal society. This holds as true for the eponymous protagonist of Imamura’s subsequent Insect Woman (1963) as it does for Sadako (the extraordinary Masumi Harukawa), the put-upon wife and mother uprooted by her growing affection for the man who rapes her in Intentions of Murder (1964). There is, in that film, one unforgettable sequence set on a train, in which the time it takes to pass from one end of a tunnel to the other is all Imamura needs to illustrate the narrow distance between the desire to love and the urge to kill.
Once he began producing independently, with The Pornographers (1965), Imamura’s provocations only became greater. Yet, in light of the “extreme” Japanese cinema of the 1990s and 2000s, it’s important to note that never does Imamura shock for shock’s own sake. Rather, though he is careful neither to condone nor condemn his characters’ actions, it’s clear that Imamura feels a profound kinship with the street life he films—a sense that these people are more vital and alive than the staid ruling class of which he himself nearly became a part.
Imamura (who died last year at the age of 80) never slackened: The brilliant Vengeance is Mine (1979), which kicks off the BAM series in a new 35mm print, reconstructs the biography of a real-life Japanese serial killer; The Ballad of Narayama (1983), the first of Imamura’s two Palme d’Or winners at Cannes, draws on a Japanese folk legend to illustrate the cruel yet inevitable cycle of life; and Black Rain (1989) brings a stark lyricism to the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. There is also a rich period from the 1970s when Imamura devoted himself mostly to non-fiction works, including the deeply humane Karayuki-San: The Making of a Prostitute (1975), a feature-length interview with a Japanese woman who was abducted as a teenager and sold into Malaysian prostitution.
But I feel the strongest affection for Imamura’s films of the ’60s, almost none of which are available on DVD in this country and which only the largest possible screens can even begin to do justice. Shot for shot, they are masterworks of organized chaos. They are movies in which the entire balance of society seems ready to tip at any given moment, as it does in the inspired anarchic climax of Pigs and Battleships, in which the titular swine dupe their underworld captors and take control of the streets—a reminder that, at the end of the day, we are all but hogs at the trough.