Embracing the Insects: Feminine Criticism in the Films of Shohei Imamura
Largely obscured throughout international cinematic study, the Japanese New Wave offers a multitude of texts to be studied in relation to age-old critical theories. As such, an under-appreciated master filmmaker, Japan’s Shohei Imamura, offered a magnificent career that was undoubtedly stamped with an authorial mark. The director was able to cover a wide breadth of thematic topics throughout his succinct filmography, which includes such films as Pigs & Battleships (1961) and The Insect Woman (1963), which will be examined here in depth. One key facet to the filmmaker’s work is his role as female-centric director. Seeking a way to reject false traditional Japanese aesthetics, Imamura applied his new wave framework onto female characters specifically as a vehicle in which to deconstruct the fabricated tranquility of post-war Japan on film and the filmmakers that created such an idea.
Key to understanding Imamura’s work in the feminine sphere is to situate the filmmaker in the entirety of the Japanese new wave; those cinematic tendencies of Imamura and his peers. Just as filmmakers like Truffaut or Goddard sought to reject stuffy notions of national French cinema, so too did Japanese auteurs seek to advance a “real” cinematic Japan. Following the era of the great masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, younger filmmakers would begin to reinterpret the stylistic propensities that the international community most often recognized as being inherently ‘Japanese’. The lush serene environs of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) or the placated rigidity of characters in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) were seen as conduits for a fake Japan (Figure 1). To Imamura and his contemporaries, these films were at best false depictions of life and at worst a means for creating a stereotypical product for Western festival export rather than art for the Japanese viewer. A key facet of the exported style was the portrayal of the traditional Japanese woman: lethargic, subservient, and incapable of using her sexuality at her own insistence. Imamura specifically chose the female form to be a conduit for his new wave sensibilities, presenting them as characters individualistic: maternal, sexual, and determined all at once.
New wave filmmakers sought to rejuvenate Japanese cinema so that the stories being told weren’t the ‘official’ versions. These filmmakers were typically mentored in a tutelage system at the major Japanese studios; Imamura himself was tutored in cinematics by Yasujiro Ozu (A Hundred Years, 186). This rejuvenation included excising many pictorialist images of nature and people, edging more towards some sort of realism. For Imamura, this meant taking his camera into the busy urban areas of Yokosuka and Tokyo to make self-styled ‘messy’ cinema: films about serial killers, incestuous relationships, and post-war criminal malaise. Ozu’s legendary compositional prowess often included deep arrangements that placed inner frames within outer ones, creating a very specific pictoral trademark. In Pigs & Battleships, a bar scene begins with a long shot reminiscent of Ozu, but with a specific alteration. Imamura’s inner frames are often very busy, arranged perhaps in between the elbow bend of a character or a shadowed alleyway beside a brothel. In the bar, two characters are seated at a table and are captured in between the arms of a saxophone player. Rather than situating his object of focus in the center of an opaque doorway, Imamura sets it in a busy downtown bar bustling with pimps, prostitutes, and soldiers.While it is apparent, and acknowledged by Imamura himself, that the young filmmaker would learn things from the old master, there are also clear examples in Imamura’s filmography where he attempts to deconstruct this classical style (Nakata, 112). Ozu’s characters were altogether too false for Imamura, and a great deal of this fakery came on the behalf of his rigid framing structures, placing people in a limited frame, reflective of their limited lives. Throughout the entirety of Tokyo Story, for instance, characters are framed in a square 1.33:1 ratio, disallowed from dynamic movement or spatial openness (Figure 2). Imamura’s films, to contrast, are in exuberant 1.85:1 widescreen aspect, and the camera spares no time with placid framings. His camera tracks, pans, and follows characters throughout. Modern Japan at the time of Imamura’s height was much this way, in constant motion. Although American-occupied Japan was most assuredly restrictive to the population in terms of politics and culture, Japanese citizens, especially women, were not docile as suggested in the films of Ozu.
Further departing from the style of his mentor, Imamura seeks to expand the filmic environment for his women. They roam the streets just as the men do and determine their own course of sexuality. In Pigs & Battleships, Imamura’s heroine is Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), an independent young woman who has a budding relationship with a wannabe Himori dolt named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). Throughout the course of the film, Haruko is resilient to the obstacles opposed on her by her male counterparts. Whether it is Kinta or naval soldiers, Haruko is a voice of reason, a determined insect woman amongst piggish men. Few sequences are more evident of this distinction than Haruko’s rape scene at the hands of those same animalistic seamen. Imamura not only contrasts Ozu and the traditionalist style here, he completely has turns it on its head. The camera is at a high angle, a bird’s eye view looking down on the bed as the three men descend upon her in a long shot. What was supposed to be a solicitation for sex (Haruko’s opportunity to strike back against Kinta’s selfish desired to ignore her) ends as a rape, with Imamura’s camera spinning in a cycle to pass the temporal space, pictured in Figure 3. This type of shot would not have simply been oppositional to Ozu’s style, but altogether foreign. It is what Alan Casebier refers to as Imamura’s “irrational cinema”, although he does not situate this as a negative attribute. Instead, Casebier refers to this irrational cinema as a mirror of Imamura’s view on Japanese society, that “it is ultimately mysterious and incapable of explanation by any mode of rational activity” (2). This allows Imamura to focus on the instinctual characteristic of his subjects, and unlike Ozu, he allows his camera to reflect that irrationality.
While inheriting his technical traits from Ozu, Imamura’s films also tend to directly converse with the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. Throughout this career, Mizoguchi was often referred to as a feminist director; however, in recent study he has been approached as more of a feminine-minded director. This distinction comes as Mizoguchi’s female characters cannot be readily placed under the banner of any Western notion of feminism. In fact, Imamura himself referred to the Mizoguchi female as being essentially submissive, what he calls “accepting” (Richie, 186). Viewed similarly, Imamura cannot aptly be called a stereotypical feminist director. Rather than place women in the roles of men and giving them undue strength or clear anti-male gruff, Imamura provides epic tales of real Japanese women in post-war Japanese society. These women are individualistic, but not necessarily independent. They are not afraid to utilize their sexual role in society, and their directors are not hesitant to subject them to this role film after film. Imamura himself described the types of women he is fascinated in: “They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings” (Nakata, 116). Mizoguchi’s 1952 film Life of Oharu tells the story of a woman who is forced into being a concubine to a feudal daimyo, and traces her life in this subjugation throughout the Edo period. The film features the trademarks of a Mizoguchi epic: vibrant scenery, suffering female characters, and pictorialist compositions. Imamura’s The Insect Woman also tells the story of a female heroine, Tome (Sachiko Hidari), who lives a life that ranges from prostitution to mistress. Rather than set the film in the Edo period, as Mizoguchi was oft to do, Tome occupies a very modern Japanese place and time. The narrative traits of each director’s film are too comparable to be ignored, and it is clear that Imamura constructed his stories to be conversational deconstructions of such pictorialist pieces.
Imamura created films that often defied the compositional nature of his predecessors. Writing of Ozu’s influence on his work, Imamura stated that “[Ozu] wanted to make film more aesthetic. I want to make it more real” (Imamura, 131). As a primary conduit, Imamura earmarked his female characters in order to accomplish this departure. Unlike Mizoguchi’s Oharu, Imamura’s Tome is not aesthetically pleasing. Her featured shots are not soft-lit, but instead starkly black-and-white (Figure 4). Tome’s suffering is not dampened by beautiful framings; instead, she is nearly always covered in some sort of shadow or obstructed by some object or person. She is entirely her own individual, not tied to the paternal influences that exercise themselves on life. This is an important aspect of Imamura’s films. He is not concerned with liberating Tome from her oppressors, but instead on providing her with contentment. The end of each film exemplifies this aspect. In The Insect Woman, Tome returns back to her native village to take up residence with her daughter, who has forsaken outright her mother’s past life. As she ascends the dirt road to her village, she stops dragging her gown in muck, instead reaching to lift up the fabric and commence into a run. Captured in a long shot, with the elder Tome in the center of the frame, this final indictment of the kimono dragging Mizoguchi female is exemplary of this deconstruction (Figure 5). In Mizoguchi’s film, his heroin Oharu has no such opportunity to run to a life of contentment, but instead slumping into a life of beggary. Here Imamura is not concerned with bleakness as a trait of realism, but honesty. The Japanese woman is content, and a singular individual. The final sequence of The Insect Woman is reminiscent of the beginning of the film, which opens with an insect, shot in close-up descending a dirt hill with a determined ferocity (Figure 6). Much the same way, Imamura’s elder Tome descends to her native village.
One of Shohei Imamura’s most indelible quotations is that he is concerned with “the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure” (Imamura Revisited, 4). Simply put, this concentration places emphasis on how the Japanese manage their downtrodden lives utilizing their sexual organs, a process that Imamura clearly believes is the accurate Japan. It is clear with this focus that Imamura is placing his thematic focus on females. Populating his films are those bar hostesses, prostitutes, and promiscuous women of power that come to represent the modern Japanese female. The new wave movement in Japan, like many international re-awakenings, is driven by harsh breaths of sex and violence. For Imamura, this is not an exploitative means, but a truthful one. In their respective films, Tome and Haruko are sexually aggressive. Their sexual encounters are not serenely violent, but stark, and often at their own insistence, for better or worse. Haruko approaches the American soldiers with a sexual solicitation to have sexual revenge on Kinta. Tome enacts sexual acts with her stepfather in order to maintain a maternal attachment to him. Sex, to Imamura it seems, is what makes females feminine, and their use of this sexual power, uniquely Japanese.
In Pigs & Battleships Haruko acts as a logical foil to overzealous Kinta, a wannabe Yakuza who is attempting to make it big in the pig trading market. Kinta’s world is a mess, a chaotic cavalcade of modern Japanese life played for comedic tension. Haruko is a woman content with her placement in life, seeking for Kinta to quit his foolish acts and begin a life with her. Scholar David Kehr notes that Haruko is filmed “with airy, floating telephoto close-ups … which lift her out of the world, isolating her within her own thoughts and feelings” (74). After her rape, Haruko stands to rob the soldiers as they shower off their experience. Whenever the soldiers catch her in her act, Haruko turns, and captured in a medium-close up, gives an expression of intensity often expressed by a great samurai or male hero of a Kurosawa film. Her gaze is tightened, shoulder length hair cascading down to cover her face, and her look reveals a sense of control she feels she possesses, even as she soon realizes she has none (Figure 7). This scene typifies many Imamura trademarks, few more important than his abstraction of feminism. Haruko feels she has control, and she is shot as though she does, but over the course of the film, she is granted very little. While her lower-half is never explicitly filmed, Imamura invokes his concept whenever she is on screen. Her legs are uncovered and, apart from the actress being beautiful on her own right, she is captured often disjointedly, in a work uniform or messy attire, hair constricted in a loose bun. Contrasting this specifically to the male Kinta and his comically exuberant fashion, Haruko seems purposeful and hard-at-work. To find a character like this in a Mizoguchi film would seem preposterous. Imamura seeks to expose this forgotten aspect of the Japanese woman. He would remark that Japanese females seem to have changed in the post-war period, but instead they have stayed constant, and only in the films of his and those of his peers are they revealed as they always have been (Tessier, 59). Women are a prime vehicle for Imamura to use in his deconstruction of classical Japanese cinema for this very reason.
Imamura is viewed similarly to Kenji Mizoguchi in that, while his films are certainly female-centric, they do not typify the Western ideals of feminism. Instead, the female protagonists are situated as representing life accurately by not eschewing, as Imamura famously stated, the lower halves of their bodies or their place on the lower half of the socio-economic strata. He perfectly captures the female character as a way to openly criticize, and in some cases mock, the way classical Japanese cinema created a serene cinematic form.
Happy Birthday Superman!
Today, you’ve reached a breathtaking milestone: 75! That amount of time would put wrinkles on anyone else. But you’re not just anyone, are you? As the Man of Steel, bullets bounce off your chest, mountains can crumble simply from your glare, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound is only a skip away.