Shohei Imamura (born 1926) explored the lives of Japan's most oppressed layers of society, turning his back on traditional stereotypes of socially acceptable characters, and earning recognition with both native and western audiences.
Imamura rejected Japan's conventional, idealistic filmmaking of the 1950s to produce and direct his own vision of oppressed people on the fringes of Japanese society. Exploring the antithesis of the middle class society of his youth, Imamura was fascinated with outcasts, criminals, and prostitutes who colored his world when he was a young black marketer after World War II. A student of Japanese sociology, he made dark comedies and poignant tales of cultural taboos and the survival of the poverty–stricken in both fictional and documentary–based films.
Rejected His Middle – Class Values
Imamura was born September 15, 1926, in Tokyo, the third son of a doctor. He attended elite elementary and high schools and held company with the children of the privileged. Rather than embrace the attitudes of his peers, he rejected their narrow minded views and disdain of the lower classes. Imamura's middle–class upbringing belied the oppressed societies he would later make the focus of his films.
Imamura had first been interested in a career in agriculture but had failed the entrance exams for Hokkaido's national university. To avoid the draft during World War II, he attended a technical school for a short time. Eventually he enrolled at Waseda University in Tokyo majoring in Western History. At the war's end in 1945, he joined the literature program at Waseda. Introduced to the theater by his brother, Imamura spent much of his higher education years writing plays, appearing in avant–garde theater productions, and involving himself in radical politics.
Leaning more and more away from a typical career in business or government, Imamura loathed the presumptions of the privileged and was drawn toward the unconventional aspects of society. In an interview for The Guardian, he described how the end of the war shaped the eighteen–year–old's beliefs at the time: "It was fantastic. Suddenly everything became free. We could talk about our real thoughts and feelings without hiding anything."
After the war, Imamura became involved in the black market sale of cigarettes and liquor. With the Japanese economy in chaos, many people resorted to dealing with the black market. These experiences introduced Imamura to the underworld and to oppressed people at the bottom of society.
Apprenticed under Yasujiro Ozu
Imamura was impressed with the freedom expressed in post–war films, such as Akira Kurosawa's 1950 movie, Rashomon. After graduating from Waseda University in 1951, Imamura joined Shochiku Films. He entered the assistant directorship program at Shochiku's Ofuna Studios with the aim of working with Keisure Kinoshita. He assisted several directors, such as Masaki Kobayashi, Yuzo Kawashima, and Yoshitaro Nomura, but his most notable stint was as apprentice to master film director Yasujiro Ozu.
Imamura worked on three of Ozu's memorable pictures: Early Summer, 1951; Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, 1952; and Tokyo Story, 1953. But by the third movie, Imamura was frustrated and underwhelmed. He felt that Ozu's camerawork was rigid and unimaginative, that actors were instructed to be too stilted and regimented, and that the company's promotion system stifled creativity.
Mostly, Imamura objected to Ozu's conservative and idealized view of perfect Japanese life with passive and formal actors. Imamura wanted to produce films that depicted gritty conflict among true to life Japanese from the fringes of society. At Shochiku, he had enjoyed working with Yuzo Kawashima, who made films about lower–class life. Kawashima also rebelled against studio policies at Shochiku, so in 1954, the two moved to Nikkatsu Studios.
Produced Films for Nikkatsu Studios
Imamura entered the training program at Nikkatsu Studios, which was recruiting new talent and offering higher salaries. There he worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director for Kawashima on a number of comedies. In 1955, Imamura received his first screen credit as an assistant director. During this time, he was developing his own approach to filmmaking.
In 1958, Imamura made his directorial debut with Stolen Desire, a black comedy about a roving troupe of actors working in the red light district. It was the beginning of Imamura's fascination with the undercurrents of society and a desire to challenge perceived moral values. He received a New Talent award for the film. That year he released two other movies: Nishi Ginza Station and Endless Desire.
Became Part of Japan's New Wave of Filmmakers
As Japan's old studio system began to decline, talented young directors were coming to the fore. The Nuberu Bagu, or New Wave, named after the French Nouvelle Vague, characterized the new generation of filmmakers that sprouted in the late 1950s. Imamura and his contemporaries, such as Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda, whom he had worked with at Shochiko, rejected Ozu's established form of quiet understatement to celebrate the primitive undercurrents of Japanese life. The vision of the new directors was to mirror post–war society, complete with poverty–stricken people, black markets and corruption, and outcasts.
Imamura focused on the lower classes he had connected with during his school years. He embraced taboo subjects, such as incest and prostitution. Many of his movies concentrate on specific Japanese cultural behaviors, such as superstition and attitudes toward sex, and challenge his viewers to transcend traditional values. Despite his themes, he always portrayed his down–to–earth characters with respect and objectivity. Imamura is quoted in Audie Bock's Japanese Film Directors as saying, "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself."
The first film to be branded a distinctly Imamura film was 1961's Pigs and Battleships, a satire about traffickers who sold pigs that were fed the waste left by American bases stationed in Japan. The film, which caused a scandal, contained one of Imamura's popular themes of man–as–animal. Not only the Americans were viewed as pigs but also the Japanese black marketeers who reveled in the fortunes they were making.
In 1965, Imamura created his own independent production company, Imamura Productions, so he could continue to produce films that featured his unique analysis of Japan, its people, and its culture. The Pornographers was his 1966 black comedy about a maker of low–budget blue movies that explored male lust and incest.
Turned toward Documentaries
Some of Imamura's disturbing films did not receive the attention he had hoped for at the box office. He turned his sights on television and on documentary–based filmmaking which occupied him through much of the 1970s. In an attempt to become a better storyteller, Imamura did research in libraries to understand the sociological and anthropological traits that defined the Japanese people. He merged these scientific theories with his own observations to color the themes of his movies.
The 1967 A Man Vanishes was his first movie to blend documentary facts with fictional production techniques. The film explores the strange incidents of hundreds of Japanese men disappearing each year, leaving their jobs and families to live in obscurity. In a surreal scene, a director enters among the actors, shouts a command, and the walls reveal themselves to be sets that fall away leaving the characters on a soundstage.
Imamura touched on the encroachment of civilization into primitive villages in Profound Desire of the Gods, 1968, in which engineers from Tokyo set up a construction site among a remote tribal community. He also dealt with controversial subjects of post–war Asia and on the karayuki–san or comfort women forced into prostitution during the war.
Never losing his sense of the reality of Japanese life, Imamura often cast real–life people in his films. For the 1963 Insect Woman he cast an actual middle–aged former prostitute. For the 1970 History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, he cast a real bar maid, who offered a gritty, intuitive, and articulate character.
Populated His Movies with Strong Heroines
Imamura preferred to populate his movies with strong–willed, resilient female characters, the kind he met during his black market days. He remarked to writer Toichi Nakata in an interview for the Toronto International Film Festival that these women ". . . weren't educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings."
Imamura's heroines were the opposite of the stereotypical, submissive, self–sacrificing heroines of classical Japanese tales. Instead, they were survivors, deceitful and sexual, taking the exploitative situations that modern society put them in, and coping as best they could in poverty and oppression. Imamura has been called a feminist for breaking stereotypes of Japan's patriarchal society. But he insists that his heroines do what they must simply to survive.
In the 1970s, in the wake of the downfall of the Japanese studio system, including his former company Nikkatsu, emerging filmmakers had few outlets for full–time training. In response, Imamura opened the Japanese Academy of Visual Arts to provide training and apprenticeship programs for young filmmakers. In 1975, he founded the Broadcast and Film Institute where he spent time teaching and administering.
Back to Fiction and the Cannes Film Festival
In the late 1970s, Imamura returned to the more lucrative world of fictional entertainment and to the chance to produce films with themes that were beyond the scope of documentaries. In 1979, he released Vengeance Is Mine based on a real–life criminal. It was a commercial success and allowed him to raise money for future projects.
Imamura's historical film, Ballad of Narayama released in 1982, was based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa. The story concerned a remote village in northern Japan that abandoned their elderly on a mountaintop to die. Shot on location, the film dealt with issues of death, life, nature, and unwanted children in a small population. It received the Palm d'Or grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
For his 1989 film Black Rain, he depicted the devastation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, its aftermath and politics, and the struggles of survivors. Some critics viewed the sentimentality and slow pace of the film as a throwback to Imamura's days studying under Ozu.
Imamura took a nine year break between films during which time he suffered a stroke and had difficulties raising funds for future movies. He returned to produce Dr. Akagi, about a family doctor during the last year of World War II, and The Eel, about a convict who adopted a pet eel. The Eel won the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, making Imamura one of only three directors to win two Palme d'Or prizes.
Imamura's Success in the West
After the tragedy of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Imamura responded by contributing to a collaborative release called September 11. Eleven directors from 11 countries produced an 11–minute short film. Offering a humanist critique of political and religious fanaticism, Imamura presented a story about a demoralized Japanese soldier after World War II who turns into a snake.
Imamura himself is surprised at his popularity and critical acclaim in the west. He said to writer Nigel Kendall in an interview in The Guardian, "I've always wanted to ask questions about the Japanese, because it's the only people I'm qualified to describe. . . . I am surprised by my reception in the west. I don't really think that people there can possibly understand what I'm talking about."
Imamura's determination to break with tradition, to show the aspects of life that are not always pretty or socially accepted, shows his life–long desire to make films about the Japanese who interest him. When asked what role cinema can play in changing social life, Imamura told Richard Phillips for the World Socialist Web Site, "It is a lot easier to be obedient and stay with the establishment, but this is not my way of life. I always try to change society completely with my films."
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, 1985.
Shipman, David, The Story of Cinema: A Complete Narrative History from the Beginnings to the Present, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1982.
Cineaste, Winter 2003.
Globe and Mail, November 12, 1997.
Guardian, March 14, 2002.
Toronto International Film Festival Group, Toronto, 1997.
All Movie Guide, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p–id=95413&mod;=bio (December 8, 2004).
International Movie Database, "Biography for Shohei Imamura" http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0408076/bio (December 8, 2004).
Kim, Nelson, "Shohei Imamura," Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/Imamura.html (December 8, 2004).
Phillips, Richard, "Japanese film director Shohei Imamura speaks to the World Socialist Web Site," World Socialist Web Site, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/sep2000/imam-s19–prn.shtml (December 8, 2004).
Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 1926. Education: Educated in technical school, Tokyo, until 1945; studied occidental history at Waseda University, Tokyo, graduated 1951. Career: Assistant director at Shochiku's Ofuna studios, 1951; moved to Nikkatsu studios, 1954; assistant to director Yuzo Kawashima, 1955–58; directed first film, Nusumareta yokuju, 1958; formed Imamura Productions, 1965; worked primarily for TV, from 1970; founder and teacher, Yokohama Broadcast Film Institute. Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes Festival, for The Ballad of Narayama, 1983.
Films as Director:
Nusumareta yokujo (Stolen Desire); Nishi Ginza eki mae (Lights of Night; Nishi Ginza Station) (+ sc); Hateshinakiyokubo (Endless Desire) (+ co-sc)
Nianchan (My Second Brother; The Diary of Sueko) (+ co-sc)
Buta to gunkan (The Flesh Is Hot; Hogs and Warships) (+ co-sc)
Nippon konchuki (The Insect Woman) (+ co-sc)
Akai satsui (Unholy Desire; Intentions of Murder) (+ co-sc)
Jinruigaku nyumon (The Pornographers: Introduction toAnthropology) (+ co-sc, pr)
Ningen johatsu (A Man Vanishes) (+ sc, role, pr)
Kamigami no fukaki yokubo (The Profound Desire of theGods; Kuragejima: Tales from a Southern Island) (+ co-pr, co-sc)
Nippon sengoshi: Madamu Omboro no seikatsu (History ofPostwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess) (+ co-pr, planning, role as interviewee)
Karayuki-san (Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute) (for TV) (+ co-pr, planning)
Fukushu suruwa ware ni ari (Vengeance Is Mine)
Eijanaika (Why Not?) (+ co-sc)
Narayama bushi-ko (The Ballad of Narayama)
Zegen (The Pimp)
Kuroi Ame (Black Rain)
Unagi (The Eel) (+ co-sc)
Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi) (+ co-sc)
Bakushu (Early Summer) (Ozu) (asst d)
Ochazuke no aji (The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice) (Ozu) (asst d)
Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) (Ozu) (asst d)
Kuroi ushio (Black Tide) (Yamamura) (asst d)
Tsukiwa noborinu (Moonrise) (Tanaka) (asst d)
Fusen (The Balloon) (Kawashima) (co-sc)
Bakumatsu Taiyoden (Saheiji Finds a Way; Sun Legend of the Shogunate's Last Days) (Kawashima) (co-sc)
Jigokuno magarikago (Turning to Hell) (Kurahara) (co-sc)
Kyupora no aru machi (Cupola Where the Furnaces Glow) (Uravama) (sc)
Samurai no ko (Son of a Samurai; The Young Samurai) (Wakasugi) (co-sc)
Keirin shonin gyojoki (Nishimira) (co-sc)
Neon taiheiki-keieigaku nyumon (Neon Jungle) (Isomi) (co-sc)
Higashi Shinaki (East China Sea) (Isomi) (story, co-sc)
By IMAMURA: book—
Sayonara dake ga jinsei-da [Life Is Only Goodbye: Biography of Director Yuzo Kawashima], Tokyo, 1969.
By IMAMURA: articles—
"Monomaniaque de l'homme. . . ," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1972.
Interview with S. Hoass, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September/October 1981.
Interview with Max Tessier, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), September 1983.
Interview with C. Tesson, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1987.
Interview in Revue du Cinéma/Image et Son (Paris), November 1989.
"Silence de Mort," an interview with Gérard Pangon, in Télérama (Paris), 26 July 1995.
Interview with Yann Tobin and Hubert Niogret, in Positif (Paris), October 1997.
Interview with Pierre Eisenreich and Hubert Niogret, in Positif (Paris), December 1998.
"Dr. Akagi: Kanzo Sensei," an interview with Freddy Sartor, in Filmen Televisie + Video (Brussels), January 1999.
On IMAMURA: books—
Imamura Shohei no eiga [The Films of Shohei Imamura], Tokyo, 1971.
Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.
Sugiyama, Heiichi, Sekai no eiga sakka 8: Imamura Shohei [Film Directors of the World 8: Shohei Imamura], Tokyo, 1975.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Tessier, Max, editor, Le Cinéma japonais au present: 1959–1979, Paris, 1980.
Richie, Donald, with Audie Bock, Notes for a Study on ShoheiImamura, Bergamo, 1987.
Piccardi, Adriano, and Angelo Signorelli, ShoheiImamura, Bergamo, 1987.
Quandt, James, editor, Shohei Imamura , Bloomington, 1999.
On IMAMURA: articles—
Yamada, Koichi, "Les Cochons et les dieux: Imamura Shohei," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May/June 1965.
"Dossier on Imamura," in Positif (Paris), April 1982.
Gillett, John, "Shohei Imamura," in Film Dope (London), January 1983.
Casebier, A., "Images of Irrationality in Modern Japan: The Films of Shohei Imamura," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.
Kehr, Dave, "The Last Rising Sun," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1983.
"Imamura Section" of Positif (Paris), May 1985.
Baecque, Antoine de, "Histoire de douleur," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1989.
Baecque, Antoine de, "Le meurtre du cochon rose," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), April 1990.
Boquet, Stéphane, "Imamura, le porc et son homme," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), April 1997.
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Outrageous, insightful, sensuous, and great fun to watch, the films of Shohei Imamura are among the greatest glories of postwar Japanese cinema, yet Imamura remains largely unknown outside of Japan. Part of the reason, to be sure, lies in the fact that Imamura has until recently worked for small studios such as Nikkatsu or on his own independently financed productions. But it may also be because Imamura's films fly so furiously in the face of what most Westerners have come to expect of Japanese films.
After some amateur experience as a theater actor and director, Imamura joined Shochiku Studios in 1951 as an assistant director, where he worked under, among others, Yasujiro Ozu. His first important work, My Second Brother, an uncharacteristically gentle tale set among Korean orphans living in postwar Japan, earned him third place in the annual Kinema Jumpo "Best Japanese Film of the Year" poll, and from then on Imamura's place within the Japanese industry was established. Between 1970 and 1978, Imamura "retired" from feature filmmaking, concentrating his efforts instead on a series of remarkable television documentaries that explored little-known sides of postwar Japan. In 1978, Imamura returned to features with his greatest commercial and critical success, Vengeance Is Mine, a complex, absorbing study of a cold-blooded killer. In 1983, his film The Ballad of Narayama was awarded the Gold Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, symbolizing Imamura's belated discovery by the international film community.
Imamura has stated that he likes to make "messy films," and it is the explosive, at times anarchic quality of his work that makes him appear "uncharacteristically Japanese" when seen in the context of Ozu, Mizoguchi, or Kurosawa. Perhaps no other filmmaker anywhere has taken up Jean-Luc Godard's challenge to end the distinction between "documentary" and "fiction" films. In preparation for filming, Imamura will conduct exhaustive research on the people whose story he will tell, holding long interviews to extract information and to become familiar with different regional vocabularies and accents (many of his films are set in remote regions of Japan). Insisting always on location shooting and direct sound, Imamura has been referred to as the "cultural anthropologist" of the Japanese cinema. Even the titles of some of his films—The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology and The Insect Woman (whose Japanese title literally translates to "Chronicle of a Japanese Insect")—seem to reinforce the "scientific" spirit of these works. Yet, if anything, Imamura's films argue against an overly clinical approach to understanding Japan, as they often celebrate the irrational and instinctual aspects of Japanese culture.
Strong female protagonists are usually at the center of Imamura's films, yet it would be difficult to read these films as "women's films" in the way that critics describe works by Mizoguchi or Naruse. Rather, women in Imamura's films are always the ones more directly linked to "ur-Japan,"—a kind of primordial fantasy of Japan not only preceeding "westernization" but before any contact with the outside world. In The Profound Desire of the Gods, a brother and sister on a small southern island fall in love and unconsciously attempt to recreate the myth of Izanagi and Izanami, sibling gods whose union founded the Japanese race. Incest, a subject which might usually be seen as shocking, is treated as a perfectly natural expression, becoming a crime only due to the influence of "westernized" Japanese who have come to civilize the island. Imamura's characters indulge freely and frequently in sexual activity, and sexual relations tend to act as a kind of barometer for larger, unseen social forces. The lurid, erotic spectacles in Eijanaika, for example, are the clearest indication of growing frustrations that finally explode in massive riots in the film's conclusion.