The Insect Woman, 1963

The 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.

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