Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Shohei Imamura: Exploring the dark and the forbidding


Born September 15 1926
Died May 30 2006


Shohei Imamura was arguably one of the most important Japanese directors, along with Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, to have engaged the world. While Kurosawa, for instance, made films often about Japan’s haves or happier/spiritual segments of society, Imamura was obsessed with the downtrodden, the social outcasts and the seedier characteristics of his community.

Imamura’s work in the late 1950s completely changed the perspective of Japanese cinema, known for its self-sacrificing women and honourable, heroic men. Imamura broke this image by tackling subjects that were an absolute no, no in Japanese cinema: incest and superstition were two of the many that directors were reluctant to talk about.

The Times once called Imamura "an artist who's made a brilliant career of rolling in the muck of human condition." This description could not have been more apt.

Imamura’s 1963 “The Insect Woman” is one classic example that tells the story of a villager who trades a woman for a factory job. A middle aged former prostitute was cast as a star in the movie!

The 1966 “The Pornographer” focuses on a man who purveys sex aids in the belief that they spread joy, and Imamura was neither judgmental nor prurient here. He was not either when he made in 1968 “Tales from the Southern Islands”: here a brother and sister fall in love and try to recreate the myth of sibling gods whose union produced the Japanese race.

Incest is treated as natural in the film till the advent of Western civilization. Imamura was invariably questioning in his work such themes. He movies deal with the concepts of primitivism versus civilization, superstition versus science and man versus animals or insects.

The Japanese, who had by then come under the grip of American culture, rejected “Tales from the Southern Islands”. It failed at the box-office.

That Imamura, who was 79 when he died of liver cancer, never got an Oscar seems hardly surprising. The Americans could never understand his cinema or the subjects he chose.

But he found an appreciative audience in Europe, and Cannes honoured him twice with the Palm d’Or in 1983 and 1997. His 1983 “The Ballad of Narayama” picturises the painful custom in a mythical Japanese village of abandoning its old people on a mountain top to die. “The Eel” (1997) is a brilliant study of a former convict – who murders his wife when he sees her in bed with his best friend – who struggles to link up with his community, and finds that friendship with an eel is the most satisfying relationship he can have.

Imamura painstakingly researched his subjects, and familiarized himself with regional vocabularies and accents since his movies were set in Japan’s remote regions. Sometimes called the “cultural anthropologist of Japanese cinema” because of his passion for the country’s far-lung areas, Imamura, however, grew up in Tokyo. His roots had little in common with what he painted on the screen.

Imamura, the third son of a doctor, was born on September 15 1926. He went to elite schools, joined a technical institution to avoid getting into the army during World War II, and finally studied Western history and literature in Japan’s prestigious Waseda University.

But his first forays into life outside academics were marked by shameful misadventures. He distilled illicit liquor, sold cigarettes and gasoline he got from the post-war occupation forces on the black market.

Perhaps, he was impressed by what he read: Ango Sakaguchi’s most famous essay, “Darakuron” (On Decadence), first published in 1946, profoundly influenced Japan’s youth of the period. One passage reads: "Young men have perished in their bloom of youth (referring to World War II), but those of the same generation who have survived have become black marketers."

Imamura later wrote in his book, "Eiga wa Kyoki no Tabi de aru" (The cinema Takes one on an Insane journey): "For me, the black market was microcosm of freedom where people of all backgrounds exposed their naked desire and lived just as their hearts dictated."

Imamura lived thus, and although he got out of the rut, he continued to make movies about the dark and the forbidding aspects of society.

In the 1970s, he made a series of brilliant documentaries about sex slaves, war veterans and bar hostesses before returning to fiction features in 1979 with “Vengeance is Mine”, one of the first films on a serial killer.

But it was “Black Rain” in 1989 that proved to be an excellent attempt. He studies a village near Hiroshima whose inhabitants had been devastated by atomic radiation. Imamura’s right dose of black humour and meticulous examination of Japan’s 1950s rural life made this work an all-time great.

Till his very end, Imamura explored such human traits and societal conditions, an enduring fascination he sums up at the end of his book: "We don't need geniuses. Don't let 'common sense' crimp your style. Be persistent in exploring human nature, and dare to run around in no-man's land."

Imamura dared to do just that.

(Posted on this website on June 9 2006)