The filmmaker Shohei Imamura began life burdened by a comfortable, middle-class family, but history soon solved that problem for him. In 1945, when he was an 18-year-old doctor's son, ready to start university, Japanese society was in chaos and millions of once-prosperous citizens were hustling to survive. Imamura began earning money in the black market, a vast enterprise in Japan during the early post-war years. He played a minor role, selling cigarettes and liquor stolen by American troops, but that was enough to connect him to the underworld and permanently colour his view of society.
At the age of 70, Imamura is now receiving the international attention his powerful and memorable films have deserved for many years. His latest film, The Eel, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival last May, and on Friday, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Ontario Cinematheque's Imamura retrospective opens a long North American tour.
It's remarkable that the retrospective carries the official imprimatur of the Japan Foundation; Imamura, after all, sees himself as an outsider who depicts the "real" Japan that official culture might prefer to hide or disguise. He has no time for flower arranging or tea ceremonies. He makes films about the Japanese who interest him--"strong, greedy, humorous, deceitful people who are very human in their qualities and their failings," as he says. He inserts them in florid, often violent stories, and his approach sometimes seems cruel. People can be appalled by the brutality of their first Imamura film; but later they may realize that it left them with the memory of something truthful and valuable.
Imamura demonstrates just how unsentimental he can be when he portrays life in isolated rural Japan. In The Profound Desire of the Gods, a masterpiece made in 1968, an engineer goes to a remote island in the Okinawa archipelago to install a water system. By all the rules of popular fiction, the engineer should be an insensitive technocrat and the natives should be large-souled and virtuous, full of in-touch-with-the-land wisdom. But Imamura, who sees himself as an anthropologist of modern Japan, depicts the islanders as grasping and competitive; their religion encourages vile behaviour, including ritual murder. In The Ballad of Narayama (1983), about a village in northern Japan, he places the audience painfully close to a crude, brutish world. And yet the characters in both films obviously claim Imamura's affection, even if he loves them more for their faults than for their virtues.
Having earlier seen four or five of his films, I recently saw six more in a Tokyo screening room. There's something particularly affecting (as I discovered 10 years ago at the first Tokyo Film Festival) in watching Japanese films and then going into the streets among the Japanese--particularly if you believe, as you often do with Imamura, that you've just been told family secrets. It helps that Imamura creates an uncommon realism by showing the characters in urban context. Sometimes he moves the camera outside the building where several people are talking, and we eavesdrop through a window. Sometimes two actors in conversation move onto the street and we almost lose them in a dense Tokyo crowd. In Imamura's hands, the effect can be dazzling.
Even after establishing himself as a director of feature films, Imamura continued to make documentaries, brilliantly. A Man Vanishes (1967) starts with the fact that thousands of Japanese disappear every year, then turns into an intense 130-minute drama about the fiancee who was left behind when a certain salesman walked off the face of the earth. This imaginative fact-versus-fiction film also demonstrates Imamura's cruel side: he makes his dislike of the fiancee clear, and lets us assume the man vanished to avoid marrying her. A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) is entirely different, an account of 15 years in Japan's life as it was lived by a ribald, uninhibited, richly articulate woman. Similar characters fill his fictional films, like The Pornographers (1966), about a family that comes to depend on a man who makes cheap, dirty films, and The Insect Woman (1963), whose heroine tries unsuccessfully to escape an upbringing dominated by rural poverty and taken-for-granted incest. Vengeance is Mine (1979), the most shocking and in some ways the most impressive of Imamura films on modern Japan, concerns a serial killer and the people whose lives he touches.
Imamura's heroines routinely violate the stereotype of submissive Japanese womanhood. He specializes in strong-willed women who decline to accept the bleak destiny that life (and particularly Japanese life) offers them. This, too, goes back to his days in the black market. Prostitutes and bar hostesses seem to have adopted the young Imamura, and he came to rely on them. "The women who have marked me most in life are the lower-class women I met during my black market days," he's recalled. "They weren't educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings." He believes women are not only more interesting than men but also stronger. Certainly that's true in his films, and it's one of the many qualities that place him among the great living filmmakers.