Monday, August 22, 2011

Remastering the Film: Shohei Imamura

In the process of choosing which Japanese filmmakers to place on my list of Masters of Film, it was difficult to limit myself to just four. Japan seems to have an abundance of filmmakers who have not only gone on working well into their seventies, eighties, and sometimes nineties, but have made viable, distinguished works long after most directors in the west have either retired or found their quietus.(1) Kon Ichikawa, who died in 2008 aged 92, made his last film in 2006. (Ashamedly, I had to omit Ichikawa only because I haven't seen enough of his films.) Yoji Yamada, now 79, still directs. Kaneto Shindo, who is 99, just released a new film. And Shohei Imamura (1926-2006), made his last film at 74.

Rather than a radical political agenda like other directors of his generation, who became known as the Japanese Nouvelle Vague (nuberu bagu), or a perfect technique, Imamura had a life-view and a highly un-Japanese disregard for formal beauty.

His first great film, The Insect Woman (1963), follows Tome, played by Sachiko Hidari, who survives the poverty and abuse of her childhood to become a factory worker, a housemaid, and, finally (it would seem) a prostitute. Imamura, who worked as assistant to Ozu, couldn't resist the irony of his portrayal of a fragmented Japanese family.

But what is most striking about Imamura is his apparent ambivalence toward his characters and his refusal to pronounce judgement on them, particularly when judgements come ready-made. Given his record, trying to imagine what Oshima would've made of Nosaka Akiyuki's satiric novel The Pornographers (1966) is illustrative of just how truthful Imamura was trying to be. When the hero of the film floats out to sea in a rowboat with his specially-designed sex doll, there is as little room for laughter as for tears.

Perhaps Imamura's masterpiece is Vengeance is Mine (1979), easily the most disturbing portrayal of a mass murderer on film, if only because Imamura shows us what an inexpert killer he is and how impossible it becomes for him to escape the consequences of his terrible crimes. Ken Ogata plays Enokizu, whose crime spree is based on the actual case of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. The film is rivetingly told, while managing to avoid any of the cliches of a thriller.

Imamura's remake of The Ballad of Narayama (1983) is a far cry from Kinoshita's 1958 classic. Typically, Imamura emphasizes his characters' bestial traits, since they alone can guarantee survival in an imperiously severe environment. Japanese audiences took exception with certain moments - for instance when the villagers resolve to kill a family that hoards precious food by throwing them into a pit and burying them alive. Or when, near the end of the film, a young man carries his helpless old father, kicking and screaming, into the mountains to be left there to die. The young man finally has to push the old man, tied to a bamboo chair, off a cliff to his death. But these scenes are contrasted with those of Tatsuhei's mother breaking her own teeth to convince him to carry her into the mountains.

Shot in black-and-white, the story of Black Rain (1989) is all too familiar. That Imamura, following the Inoue novel, makes it once again engaging for its human content, the fates of individuals caught up in a genocidal experiment, is a tribute to his artistry and his engagement with his subject. The imaginative challenge of representing the scale as well as the human impact of the destruction of Hiroshima is remarkable in itself. The ordeal of returning to life, of recovering from the concerted insanity of war, that affected both sides, was never more movingly recounted. Black Rain is a film for the ages that documents one of our most unpardonable acts.

In his early seventies, Imamura made two brilliant films, The Eel (1997), a strangely beautiful story of a man who murders his wife but finds redemption through a young woman he saves from suicide and his unlikely relationship with a pet eel, and Dr. Akagi (1998), about an indomitable doctor in wartime Japan who seems to run everywhere he goes.

His last film was incorporated into the predictably uneven omnibus film 11'09"01 September 11 (2002). Like Black Rain, but far less effectively, it tells of the days immediately following the war in Japan and a soldier's descent into insanity. Imamura intended it as an answer to the folly of a "holy war" like that declared by Al Qaeda on America on September 11, and the undeclared one by George W. Bush on "terror".

(1) I write this mindful of the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira who is now 102 and persists in his usual mediocrity.

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