BluRay/DVD Reviews

PIGS, PIMPS & PROSTITUTES: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura

By • Jun 6th, 2009 •

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Japanese director and documentarian Shohei Imamura was Yasujiro Ozu’s assistant for many years (working on Ozu’s three most famous post-war films LATE SPRING, THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE and TOKYO STORY), so it’s only natural that upon becoming a full-fledged filmmaker, Imamura went giddily in the other direction, moving his camera as often and as spectacularly as possible while focusing on what he called “the genital area of Japanese culture,” making films that were a celebration of lower class magnetism, enthusiasm and appetite. Working at Nikkatsu in the early 1960’s (when the studio, one of Japan’s oldest, was involved in producing an orgy of exploitation, yakuza and teen sex movies), Imamura made films that in their mixture of documentary-like objectivity and hallucinatory fantasy were a weird amalgam of Robert Flahetry, Luis Bunuel and Walt Disney. (Actually, the heroines of the three Imamura films under review are closer to Dorothy from THE WIZARD OF OZ, finding happiness through a suspension of logic and the strength of their own personalities.)

I saw INTENTIONS OF MURDER at MOMA around 1970, and whenever I tried to describe the movie to friends, they insisted I must have been hallucinating, that no movie could have such a mixture of tactile realism and crazed abandon, until as the years went by I began to believe I dreamt the whole thing. When the Criterion set arrived in the mail a few days ago, I popped the disc in the player and there were those shots I remembered: of dark figures against snowdrifts and in the distance a hulking locomotive with steam rising forth like from a dragon’s snout, yet the entire scene precise in its observed detail, the passengers of the train pressing their faces to the windows, while I was gripped by intense emotion, of dread mixed with an inebriating felling of hope.

Considered a founding member of the 60’s Japanese “New Wave,” Imamura occupies a middle position between the radical politics of Nagisa Oshima (IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES) and the subversive humor of Seijun Sezuki (BRANDED TO KILL) in whose work cinematic tricks and strange ellipses are applied to undermine studio assigned projects. Although the films in this set contain large doses of black humor and formal experimentation – for instance, American servicemen in PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS singing “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” while they sexually subjugate the heroine as the camera spins precipitously overhead – Imamura also sets his narratives in a realistic social universe of many inter-connected layers. (Shot in places far from Japan’s industrial centers featuring regional dialects and customs heretofore unseen in movies, Imamura often spent weeks interviewing his subjects in preparation for filming.)

Although Imamura won the Palme D’Or at Cannes twice (for THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA in 1983 and THE EEL in 1997), these later films appear fixed in time, possibly due to their clinical and “classical” style, while the early work included on this set still seems contemporary. Like three anarchic jacks in the box, PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS, THE INSECT WOMAN and INTENTIONS OF MURDER burst through cinematic conventions and our own preconceptions with humor and a dazzling manner that appears utterly real, introducing us to a cast of characters, largely ignored up to that time in Japanese cinema, that insist upon our attention and interest, just as they demand participation in the society at large.

Imamura’s early films (while PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS is the director’s fifth feature, he considers it his first personal work) with a use of the scope frame that is simultaneously iconic yet mind-boggling in its composition, seem to be re-inventing the way movies should look and feel. This puts me in mind of Jackson Pollock pouring paint on unprimed canvas while dancing across its length, leaving traces of his acts in the present moment while through his markings forging links to the tradition of El Greco and Caravaggio. Though the amazing camerawork in Imamura’s early films often seems in danger of disintegrating like the foam in a glass of latte, this style is at the service of creating deeply moving portraits of women that find their roots in the films of Mizoguchi, the 18th Century woodcut prints of geisha by Utamaro, and the classic bunraku puppet plays by Chikamatsu.

The difference is that in Imamura’s films, the heroines burst out of the frames in their lusty three-dimensionality, often hijacking the mise-en-scene. Those in search of jazzy experimentation, pungent as pop art and rhythmic as a song by the Rolling Stones, will find much to be excited by here, while discovering a milieu one wouldn’t otherwise have much chance of knowing. (In interviews, Imamura always referred to his imagery as “messy,” though I personally would preface that with “gloriously.”)

While Imamura is mostly known in Japan for his television documentaries (A HISTORY OF POSTWAR JAPAN AS TOLD BY A BAR HOSTESS, from 1970, in its almost ethnographic detail of lower-class culture, the focus on food and sex and the central portrait of an indomitable woman with an infectious sense of humor, is wonderfully typical) these early Nikkastu features, made when the director was just beginning to flex his cinematic muscles, still stimulates the mind and excites the eye in ways that are unique, not to mention addictive. I’ve never seen any other movies quite like these, including the director’s later work.

PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS

Though the folks at Criterion seem a bit enamored of the 16th letter of the alphabet, PIGS, PIMPS & PROSTITUTES is nonetheless a concise description of the first film chronologically in the set. Based on Imamura’s own experiences as a black marketeer after the war, PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (1961) is set in the port city of Yokosuka, where the US Navy docks its ships, and also controls the lives of the town’s citizens, both financially and spiritually.

Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), a pert young woman in her late teens with an unselfconscious beauty, works bar in a whore house patronized by US servicemen on shore leave. Haruko’s sister is the mistress of Sakiyama (Akira Yamauchi), a Japanese-American from Hawaii who works with the US military while being the middleman for the local Yakuza gang of which Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), Haruko’s boyfriend, is an aspiring member. Haruko’s mother and sister are trying to convince her to become the mistress of “Mr. Gordon,” an American officer. Haruko, on the othe r hand, after discovering she is pregnant with Kinta’s child, is pushing Kinta to abandon his gang, which has given him the job of tending pigs intended to feed American servicemen (bought with illegal funds obtained by selling expired K rations on the black market) for a secure life in the industrial city of Kawasaki.

The great Eijiro Tono (who brought an undefinable dignity along with a capacity for humor to so many of Kurosawa’s films) plays Kinta’s drunken father, Kan’ichi, who moves the plot along by discovering a dead body by the water’s edge (mistakenly placed there by members of Kinta’s gang.) Tetsuro Tamba (who starred in hundreds of Yakuza films later in the decade) is seen in an early role as Tetsui, a hypochondriac gangster who takes Kinta under his wing, a wonderful parody of the characters Tamba had yet to play.

The cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda is simply stunning, making use of a deliriously moving camera that weaves and dances across vistas of cityscape and countryside, capturing a breathtaking light, as if the source of illumination were another character in the narrative. The film’s climax involves stampeding pigs in the center of the red light district during a car chase instigated by rival gangsters, imbuing the compositions of violent gunfights with a porcine sensibility, as if Pasolini’s PIGPEN were crossed with THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Relying on sensory overload, Imamura packs his widescreen compositions with places and faces, using quick cutting and images that glide through overlit thoroughfares and cramped alleyways to pull us along, not to mention overheard dialogue telling of complicated double crosses and counterplots. Visually, much of the film evokes the chiaroscuro lighting and virtuoso long takes from Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, along with extended scenes that allow us to marinate in the stagnant lives of the main characters, somehow mixing a strange surrealist humor with a strong, unadorned sense of naturalism.

While I’ve always felt the “New Wave” moniker for this and Imamura’s other early films is somewhat misleading, there is an aspect to Haruko’s search for identity outside of her family that puts one in mind of Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS, not in terms of plot but rather an immersion of the imagery in the very essence of Haruko’s burgeoning consciousness and desire for change against the harsh backgrounds of Yokosuka’s teeming streets and seedy waterfront. Whenever Haruko opens her eyes and looks directly at the camera, the somewhat melodramatic plot, the gangster trappings, even the context of a “youth movie” all melt away, until we are face to face with something in ourselves that doesn’t ordinarily surface during the unreeling of a movie: a capacity for being human. The film also enables an audience to make a secondary, though no less important discovery: pigs looks cuter in cinemascope. The affable pigs in this opus are particularly photogenic, with crinkly noses and soft, happy eyes.

Rating: (****)

THE INSECT WOMAN

Imamura’s THE INSECT WOMAN originally played in Japan paired with Seijun Suzuki’s Vincente Minnelli-like, deconstructionist Yakuza thriller KANTO WANDERER, which must have been decidedly mind-warping, especially to an audience expecting a run-of-the-mill double bill. THE INSECT WOMAN stars Sachiko Hidari – an actress with a large and adoring fan base, who also won acclaim for her involvement in social protest pictures – as Tomé, a woman from a rural part of Japan. Tomé’s sexual awakening, descent into prostitution and later renewal as a business woman in Tokyo running a company of call-girls during the post-war economic “miracle,” is contrasted with archetypal moments of 20th Century Japanese history, such as the conquest of Asia (“Japan has conquered Singapore and Tomé is conquered tonight,” a client in a whore house tells her) and the Emperor’s address to the nation upon defeat in 1945. This strategy creates a shadow narrative of an entire nation within a portrait of a woman’s opportunism and transformation.

The film’s original Japanese title is NIPPON ENTOMOLOGY, expressing the director’s belief that the essence of Japanese culture is found in a peasant-like naturalness similar to the instinctual behavior of insects. The film is awash in carnality, especially focusing on Tomé’s sexual experiences, which are seen as a specific link between her character and her destiny. Imamura’s angular compositions and cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda’s fluid framing creates a film that is epic in scope while being almost impossibly intimate, as if the film image is adhering to one as a second skin. As Tomé, Sachiko Hidari is simply mesmerizing, bringing to her character an intelligence that expresses itself in pure movement.

As Dennis Lim notes in the accompanying essay, while Mizoguchi’s “women’s films” such as THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952) or SISTERS OF THE GION (1934) are mostly concerned with a woman’s self-sacrifice, THE INSECT WOMAN details a woman’s survival. Such a change from the typical portrayal of a woman in Japanese films may be less ennobling, but it’s certainly eye-opening and probably a lot more realistic. Imamura’s “messy” frames impart a sexual aura to the proceedings that is ultimately mysterious, as one is left to contemplate Sachiko Hidari’s sympathetic yet impenetrable visage, a kind of beauty that not only leads one to question the events one is watching, but also the passive acceptance one takes on as a spectator in the cinema.

As Tony Rayns points out in his video introduction, the sexuality in the film comes across as an intense form of spirituality. This is partially because the peasant huts seen in the early part of the film have walls covered with primitive statues of Gods, so that the sex performed in front of them seems a kind of worship. Also, Imamura insisted that the film be shot entirely on location, in real houses and apartments, which creates a sense of the landscapes seen through windows as also expressing this sexuality, which is seemingly inherent in the world around the characters, and physically present in the light that shines through Tomé’s hair.

At certain points in the movie, generally when nothing much is happening on screen, Imamura freezes the frame, as if to focus on the essentially arbitrary nature of Tomé’s life, emphasizing, at least for this viewer, a spiritual essence finding its basis in that which is most animal-like in human nature: sex and the instinct for survival. (Imamura has often been quoted as saying that because of the responsibility of childbearing, women are more instinctual then men, and therefore live longer.)

Imamura went two million yen over budget on PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS, so Nikkatsu put him on enforced leave for two years as a punishment. During that time, the director went to a coffee house in the center of Tokyo every day where he met the woman whose life story formed the basis of THE INSECT WOMAN. For three days, Imamura wrote into a notebook as she talked, thinking he was capturing the essence of life itself as he transcribed her words. (The police were searching for her, so the interviews were held in the garden of a Buddhist temple.) When it came time to organize her story into a screenplay, however, Imamura found that sense of spontaneity was lost. Therefore, he focused more on incident, using the history of modern Japan as a structure. (Tomé’s migration from country to city mirrors the transformation of Japan in the first half of the 20th Century from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial one.)

It’s easy to criticize such a strategy (which Mr. Rayns does in his video introduction) as pretentious, but watching these scenes unfold on the screen with the off-kilter and eccentrically mobile camera increasing one’s sense of the film’s “you-are-thereness,” it all works brilliantly. Possibly due to the cramped space of most lower-class homes, Imamura frames his sexual scenes in doorways in long takes, quickly moving to windows that suffuse the screen with light, altering the shot’s rhythm, and creating a forward movement that is simultaneously in the moment yet contains a sense of evolution, as these camera set-ups are repeated throughout the film as the heroine ages.

Certainly, THE INSECT WOMAN expresses a profound change in attitude in Japanese films, from a sentimental, though sympathetic weepiness, to a simple acceptance of strong and complex characters on an equal footing with men. At the same time, Imamura’s emphasis on social conditions and community links his work to that of his first mentor, Ozu.

It’s possible that, when considered over a period of time, one might come to Mr. Rayns’ conclusion that the philosophical and historical underpinnings of THE INSECT WOMAN are deeply flawed, stopping the character of Tomé from truly being affecting. Still, when watching the film, one is utterly enthralled, not only for the story and milieu, which are fascinating, or for Sachiko Hidari’s performance, which is probably the highpoint of her career, but for a kind of filmmaking where that which is not seen, such as the feelings between people or even the spirit from time immemorial that is somehow part of our consciousness, becomes palpable. Imamura’s balancing act between the carnal and the ethnographic is almost schizophrenic, as if David Lean and Russ Meyer decided to collaborate. Call it MUDHONEY meets LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The specificity of the locations and the abandon of the camera work stops the director’s somewhat half baked cultural notions from getting out of hand. Instead, it all seems to work beautifully, in a flow of sublime imagery and feelings that ultimately becomes centered upon the incredibly intuitive performance of Sachiko Hidari. Every time I watch this movie is an act of discovery.

Rating: (*****)

INTENTIONS OF MURDER

I’m very hesitant to write in detail about INTENTIONS OF MURDER, as the film continually undermines one’s preconceptions about the story and characters, and I don’t want to give anything away which might spoil your pleasure when watching this for the first time. One might define the movie as a domestic horror story that turns into a fairy tale instigated by the main character’s personality. One could also cite Polanski’s REPULSION and the dreamscapes of Bunuel, but basically INTENTIONS OF MURDER discovers its subject and makes up its own style as it goes along in ways that are impossible to anticipate. Dave Kehr of the NY Times thinks INTENTIONS OF MURDER is Imamura’s one bona fide masterpiece. As for me, my money is on THE INSECT WOMAN.

Still, INTENTIONS OF MURDER is one hell of a strange ride, with wild mood swings, a plucky heroine (beautifully played by newcomer Masumi Harukawa), and some of the most memorable images, simultaneously creepy and comforting, that you’ll ever see. I could mention a slithery silkworm against a naked thigh, or an empty room with snow falling inside, as well as the trains, photographed in such a way as to make them seem incorporeal, that rumble past the house that is the film’s main setting. While the film manages to get under one’s skin in remarkably disturbing ways, it’s also infectiously entertaining. In fact, the movie’s plotline could be the title of a self-help book: How To Achieve Self-Realization By Dating A Psycho Killer.

Frankly, I find the film’s theme, of violent sexual control of one person over another, difficult to watch, even though Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), the main character, ultimately manages to use this assault as a means to free herself, both from her assailant and a dead-end life in the provinces. With all the locomotives chugging past Sadako’s windows spewing forth clouds of acrid smoke, one might call this movie the dark side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER.

Sadako is the common law wife of Riichi (Ko Nishamura), the head librarian of a small city in the north of Japan. They live with their five-year-old son Masaru (Toshihiko Hino) in a poor part of town. (Riichi’s mother has threatened to cut off his inheritance if he marries Sadako, as she was once the family’s maid.) Yoshiko (Yuko Kusonoki) a woman who works with Riichi at the library and has been having an affair with him for many years, is trying to convince Sadako to give up her son, and let Yoshiko marry Riichi. Into this menage-a trois comes Hiraoka (Shigeru Tsuyuguch), an unemployed trumpet player who follows Sadako home one night.

Imamura films the events in such a way as to mingle dreams with the numbing routine of daily life, keying the flow of images to Sadako’s own unconscious, so that even ordinary elements in the frame, such as the scribbles of a child on a wall or a particularly sinister-looking refrigerator take on a life of their own. I would also like to mention how Imamura, in the opening sequences, uses the techniques of television, such as hand-held shots and telephoto lenses, to instill a matter-of-factness in the same manner as Hemingway, in his early fiction, pared down the vernacular to create a kind of rough-hewn poetry.

Once again, as in THE INSECT WOMAN, we are given a potentially tragic situation, that, through the heroine’s own resourcefulness (which she at first isn’t entirely aware of) becomes a force for change. It’s as if Anna Magnani, Rossellini’s earth mother, took a wrong turn and ended up in Hitchock’s PSYCHO, changing the plot through her practical mindedness and sense of survival. As Sadako, Masumi Harukawa is the calm center of a hurricane both visually and narratively realized in Imamura’s thriller plot.

Perfection is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, but INTENTIONS OF MURDER is certainly one of the most beautifully made films I’ve ever seen, segueing from thriller to domestic melodrama to a kind of ironic comedy effortlessly. INTENTIONS OF MURDER is in many ways the high point of the set, a movie that manages to feel like TOKYO STORY in its intimate focus on the family, while distorting this portrait in a spook house mirror, revealing the responsibilities of dreams and the horror of everyday life.

Though the visual beauty and clarity of all three films in the set is remarkable, the transfer on display here is really a marvel, both in its photographic detail and tonal quality. For instance, the drops of water slowly scrolling down Sadako’s naked back seem ready to plop off the screen into one’s living room. One is astounded by the careful change in focus during long takes that evolve from extreme wide shots into microscopic close-ups, all beautifully choreographed with the camera. I also want to mention the music of avant-garde composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (arranged for string quartet and percussion) which is as unsettling and hauntingly beautiful as the film itself. A post-modern equivalent to the best work of Ozu and Mizoguchi, INTENTIONS OF MURDER is the unique expression of a filmmaker at a specific moment in time, yet in its tale of adversity transformed by the simple act of an ordinary woman, the film weaves a spell that stays with one long after the last image has faded to black.

Rating: (****½)

I think it should be clear by now that I not only love these movies, but feel they are an essential part of the history of cinema, on a par with TOKYO STORY and THE LIFE OF OHARU (or, for that matter, BREATHLESS and L’AVVENTURA) and that everyone who cares about film should see them. The fact these films really haven’t been available in the United States (or, for that matter, even known) makes the release of this Imamura set all the more cause for celebration. Unfortunately, very little thought or care seems to have gone into the extras in this set, which is quite unusual for Criterion. Although they are all of interest, the extras are mostly short in length, and generally feel perfunctory. The most interesting is “The Freethinker,” an hour long episode of the French television series Cinema de Notre temps, which follows Imamura around in his local haunts drinking at a bar and getting his hair cut during which time he tells stories, the funniest being one about his encounter with “the Kurosawa of 8mm porn.”

If you’re passionately interested in Japanese cinema, you should definitely own this set. If you collect Bunuel, Polanski, and Godard, this set is also for you, though you may want to rent a film first before taking the plunge as the paucity of supplements don’t really justify the extra cost.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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