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Japanese director Shohei Imamura (1926-2006) once said "I want to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films." The Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki, 1963) which depicts the life of a woman against the chaotic background of poverty, war and recovery in 20th century Japan, is such a film. Tome (Sachiko Hidari) endures incest, rape, prostitution, betrayal and poverty, but prevails through her ability to adapt and survive in difficult circumstances. The translation of the film's Japanese title is "Entomological Chronicles of Japan," and like the close-up of the insect that opens the film, doggedly making its way across challenging terrain, Tome is shown at the end of the film, also trudging awkwardly but resolutely toward her goal. Tome's life struggles parallel the struggles of Japan making its way from a feudal society to a nation torn apart, to a latter-day economic power.
The son of a doctor, Imamura began his career in the early 1950s working at Shochiku Studios as an assistant to director Yasujiro Ozu. But Ozu's elegant and emotionally restrained films that focused on middle-class life were the anthithesis of the lower strata of society that Imamura wanted to document - a class he had come to know in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when he sold cigarettes and liquor on the black market. After a few years, Imamura moved to the Nikkatsu studio, which was actively recruiting younger talent. There, he began working as an assistant to director Yuzo Kawashima, who shared his interest in lower class life. Imamura directed his first film in 1958, but his 1961 film Pigs and Battleships, a dark satire set during the American occupation, got him in trouble with the studio both for its subject matter and because it went over budget. "The studio thought it was outrageous, and they hung me out to dry," he recalled.
Punished with a two-year forced hiatus, Imamura wrote scripts for other directors, as well as two original screenplays of his own. One of them, which became The Insect Woman, was based on a woman Imamura had met who worked as the head waitress at a house of prostitution. He filled three notebooks with the stories she told him about her life. "The studio was making lightweight, superficial films," Imamura said in an interview years later. "This one was character-driven." He also deliberately chose to tell the story in a fragmented way. "There's something fascinating about the murkiness of things - the audiences find connection to that. When everything is organized, you can lose that connection. That sort of response happens when things are unsettled."
One of his methods for unsettling the actors was Imamura's penchant for shooting the entire film on location, with live sound, in homes and apartments instead of sets. Rooms in Japan are small and cramped, and "it was a struggle for the crew. I deliberately looked for difficulties....Once the camera is set up, we let the acting take over. The actors had to up their game." He further challenged the actors with long, unbroken takes.
That kind of experimentation placed Imamura among the young Japanese filmmakers influenced by the French New Wave, who were becoming a New Wave of their own - filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki and Masahiro Shinoda. It also earned Sachiko Hidari, who played Tome in The Insect Woman, the best actress award at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival. But for American audiences and critics used to the quiet dignity of Ozu's films and the epic pageantry of Kurosawa's work, The Insect Woman provided jarring evidence that "all is not chrysanthemums and serenity in Japan," according to New York Times critic A.H. Weiler, who added, "The director, Shohei Imamura, who is new to American moviegoers, has given his story a forceful, if occasionally disjointed treatment."
Over the years, Imamura earned acclaim for his work, twice winning the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Festival in 1983 and 1997, the only Japanese director to do so. As early as 1979, in an introduction to a retrospective of his films, Alan Poul wrote, "Imamura's quest for a pure, primitive vision of what it means to be Japanese...has been paralleled by his search for a new, more honest expression on film." He continued that quest for more than two decades, creating a body of work that is filled with robust, profane portraits of a Japanese underclass, as well as striking experimental works and documentaries. Asked by a critic to define himself and his work, Imamura famously replied, "I am interested in the relationship between the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of everyday life in Japan is built."
Director: Shohei Imamura
Producer: Kano Otsuka, Jiro Tomoda
Screenplay: Shohei Imamura, Keiji Hasebe
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Editor: Mutsuo Tanji
Art Direction: Kimihiko Nakamura
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi
Principal Cast: Sachiko Hidari (Tome Matsuki), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Nobuko), Seizaburo Kawazu (Karasawa), Kazuo Kitamura (Chuji), Hiroyuki Nagato (Matsunami), Sumie Sasaki (En, Tome's mother), Shoichi Kuwayama (Owagawa), Daizaburo Hirata (Kamibayashi), Shoichi Ozawa (Ken)
by Margarita Landazuri