Shohei Imamura (Cinematheque Ontario Monographs, No. 1), edited by James Quandt

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure.

Shohei Imamura is a compilation of reflexive, analytical, and appreciative essays on Imamura’s idiosyncratic and critical, yet compassionate films that examine the dichotomy of human behavior in the structured, conformist, and highly ordered society of Japan. According to Donald Richie’s essay, Notes for a Study on Shohei Imamura, Imamura was primarily interested in the theater, but turned to film for employment opportunity. Although he served as an assistant director to Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura does not subscribe to Ozu’s aestheticized view of Japanese life but rather, celebrates the everyday chaos as the reflection of truth:

Imamura resented what he thought was Ozu’s lack of concern for reality. Actually, Ozu was equally concerned with the real, but this was something which the resentful assistant director could not then know. We may now see Imamura and Ozu as very alike in several important ways. Though their style and technique could not more differ, their concern for the natural, for the real, for the truth, is identical. So is their moral concern, with the difference that while Ozu saw the truth and beauty of the real slowly being eroded, Imamura sees it as healthy, alive and vital as ever.

In an interview with young Japanese filmmaker, Toichi Nakata, Imamura describes his assistantship for Ozu with respectful reflection:

My mother died of a cerebral haemorrage while I was working on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. When I got back from her funeral, I found Ozu in the sound studio dubbing the scene in which the grandmother [played by Chieko Higashiyama] is dying, also from a cerebral haemorrage. I could not stand watching the scene over and over again – it reminded me so vividly of my mother’s death – and so I ran out of the dubbing theatre… But Ozu followed me… ‘Mr. Imamura,’ he asked, ‘is that what a cerebral haemorrage looks like? Have I got it right?’ At the time I thought him incredibly cruel, but I later realized that a great filmmaker sometimes has to behave like that.

In contrast to the creative differences that distanced Imamura from Ozu’s technical approach to cinema, Imamura’s style was greatly influenced by Yuzo Kawashima, an underrated director (outside of Japan) of eccentric comedies. In a series of essays, My Approach to Filmmaking, Traditions and Influences, The Sun Legend of a Country Boy, and My Teacher, Imamura fondly recounts his professional association and ideological connection with the hard drinking and undisciplined, yet intensely focused Kawashima who eventually succumbed to degenerative muscle atrophy.

By capturing an objective and compassionate portrait of instinctual human behavior, Shohei Imamura is often described as a social entomologist of modern Japan. “Insects, animals and humans are similar in the sense that they are born, excrete, reproduce and die. Nevertheless, I myself am a man. I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. What is a human being? I look for the answer by continuing to make films. I don’t think I have found the answer.” For The Insect Woman, Imamura selected the title after observing that the actions of the film’s heroine mirror the behavior of an insect endlessly circling his ashtray.

Imamura further reinforces his image as a social scientist through his fascination for the study of homo ludens – the insular Southern provinces of Japan that share a common, primal ancestry more closely associated with South East Asia than with the rest of Japan (Edo). This is the basis for the mythical, dysfunctional civilization reflected in the film, The Profound Desire of the Gods. In The Ballad of Narayama, his first film to be awarded the Palme d’or at Cannes, Imamura combines the setting of a primitive, mythical civilization, with the juxtaposition of the instinctual behavior of humans reflected in the behavior of the animals to create an austere, unsettling, yet compassionate and ultimately triumphant portrait of aging and death.

Despite his privileged class, Imamura strongly identifies with the lower classes whom, he believes, reflect the true soul of Japanese culture: instinctual, primitive, and resourceful. Similar to Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, the women in Imamura’s cinema are resilient, confident, and vital despite their social and economic marginalization. However, unlike Mizoguchi and Naruse who idealized their heroines as eternally suffering and self-sacrificing, the Imamura woman is obdurate and independent, and inevitably responsible for her course of action and ultimate fate.

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