Shohei Imamura, who died on May 30, had one of the great careers of postwar Japanese film, winning the Cannes Palme d’Or twice, as well as many other awards and honors. But he spent much of that career on the fringes of the industry, like a bull elephant who separates himself from the herd and goes his own solitary, majestic, utterly distinctive way.
Born in Tokyo in 1926, Imamura was the son of a medical doctor and a graduate of Waseda University. While in college he had ambitions to become a stage director, but after seeing Akira Kurosawa’s “Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel),” he decided to enter the film world.
After graduating in 1951, Imamura joined the Shochiku studio as an assistant director. He worked with Yasujiro Ozu on several films, including his masterpiece “Tokyo Monogatari (The Tokyo Story),” but grew dissatisfied with Ozu’s highly determined style and middle-class subject matter. In 1954, Imamura moved to the famed Nikkatsu studio right after postwar film production restarted there, and in 1958 made his directorial debut with “Nusumareta Yujo (Stolen Desire).”
Like Yuzo Kawashima, his mentor at Shochiku and later Nikkatsu, the young Imamura had a preference for contemporary themes, explored with frankness, humor and propulsive energy. He also had an enduring interest in the inhabitants of cultural backwaters and social lower depths, particularly earthy, strong-willed women who indulged their appetites, sexual and otherwise, in defiance of bourgeois morality.
He first fully expressed what were to become his characteristic style and concerns in the 1961 “Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships).” Focusing on a mercurial punk and a spunky prostitute who become battling lovers while hustling the U.S. military at the naval base in Yokosuka, the film was a raucous, uncensored look at the postwar Japan-U.S. relationship, from the bottom up. The pigs of the title, in which the hero deals, are a symbol for oinkish human behavior, both Japanese and American.
Imamura’s breakthrough film, however, was the 1963 “Nippon Konchuki (Insect Woman),” whose heroine, a factory-worker-turned-prostitute (Sachiko Hidari), relentlessly pursues her dream of wealth and power, using sex and deceit without a qualm. Shot in a quasi-documentary style, the film was proclaimed the best Japanese film of the year by Kinema Junpo magazine’s critics’ poll. The title creature, seen scuttling in an opening shot, stands for the heroine’s central trait — an amoral tenacity.
Another masterpiece from this period was the 1964 “Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder),” about a fat, bored housewife (Sadako Takahashi) who is raped by a thief, and tries to kill herself from shame, but ends up taking the thief as a lover. The thief finally dies, but the housewife survives, as voracious and determined as the mouse she keeps in a cage, ever spinning on its wheel.
After launching his own production company in 1965, Imamura made films that pushed both moral and cinematic boundaries, including “Erogotoshitachi yori Jinruigaku Nyumon (The Pornographers)” (1966), whose depraved hero makes a sex doll in the image of a former lover, and “Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes),” an investigation of a real-life disappearance that concludes with a confrontation in a teahouse between the disappeared man’s fiancee and her sister, who supposedly has information the other woman wants. When the walls collapse at Imamura’s signal to his crew, the “teahouse” is revealed as an artfully built set.
After the box office failure of “Kamigami no Fukai Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods),” a 1968 film about an engineer who finds a tropical paradise — and unleashes a primitive hell — on a remote southern island, Imamura turned to documentary filmmaking. In “Nippon Sengoshi Madam Onboro no Seikatsu (History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess)” (1970) and “Karayuki-san (Karayuki-san — The Making of a Prostitute)” (1975) he examined lower-class women who had been victimized by — but still managed to thrive in — a male-dominated society.
In 1979 Imamura returned to fictional filmmaking with “Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance Is Mine),” a closeup examination of a ruthless serial killer. The film may not satisfactorily answer the question of why the hero became a murderous sociopath, save for his burning hatred of his meek Christian father, but it plunges the audience into the howling moral void. Playing the killer, Ken Ogata is all grinning malice, cold lust and slick cunning — brush strokes in a masterful portrait of absolute evil. “Vengeance Is Mine” swept domestic film awards, while becoming a success at the box office. In other words, Imamura was back, with a vengeance.
In 1981, he released “Eijanaika,” his first essay into period drama. Set in the early days of Japan’s opening to the West, the film is a riotous sprawl filled with movement and color. It culminates in a mass protest against the shogun’s government in which hordes of protesters shout the title phrase (which translate loosely as “why not?”) and a line of women turn their back to approaching soldiers, hike their kimono and take a memorable group piss.
Imamura followed with “Narayama Bushiko (The Ballad of Narayama)” (1983), a drama based on a legend about poor rural villagers who abandon their elderly on a nearby mountain, so as to have fewer mouths to feed. Sumiko Sakamoto stars as a family matriarch who embraces this fate as part of the natural order, even bashing out her teeth to better fit the image of a useless crone. (Sakamoto famously had her own teeth extracted for the role.) The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — Imamura’s first.
It also heralded a shift in Imamura’s style and subject matter. Once considered a member of the Japanese New Wave, together with Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda and Yoshishige (later, Kiju) Yoshida (though Imamura had already moved to Nikkatsu when the others made their first New Wave films at Shochiku in the late 1950s), Imamura had become an elder statesman, more inclined to look back than ahead, while also shifting toward an Ozu-esque humanism.
Both tendencies were present in “Kuroi Ame (Black Rain),” a 1989 black-and-white film based on a novel by Masuji Ibuse about a middle-aged couple and their marriageable niece who survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, only to live in fear of radiation sickness. Imamura portrays the plight of the niece (Yoshiko Tanaka) — young, beautiful and shunned by potential suitors as “tainted” — with somberness and restraint.
After a prolonged battle with health and financial problems, Imamura returned with “Unagi (The Eel),” a 1997 drama about an ex-con who killed his cheating wife — and is trying to start anew with a woman who attempted suicide. Filmed with jolts of raw violence, dashes of low humor and interludes of romantic lyricism, “The Eel” was a mix of moods that inspired a variety of reactions — but the jury at Cannes liked it enough to award Imamura his second Palme d’Or.
He made two more features after this late triumph, both in a mellow, playful vein — “Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi)” (1998) and “Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge)” (2001). The former is a quirky nostalgia piece about an eccentric doctor who, as the World War II draws to its disastrous conclusion, diagnoses all his patients with hepatitis — and sees even the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima as a giant liver.
The latter is an erotic fantasy about a downsized Tokyo salaryman (Koji Yakusho) who moves to the countryside, takes a new lover (Misa Shimizu) and starts a new life. There is one problem, however: When his inamorata climaxes she gushes buckets of a warm fluid that finds its way to a nearby river — and attracts schools of fish. Both the metaphor and comedy may be over obvious, but Imamura’s delight in all aspects of existence, beginning with the carnal, makes the film a fitting career coda.
Imamura also contributed a segment to the omnibus “11’09″01,” released in 2002, but by this time he was becoming incapacitated by diabetes and, later, metastatic liver cancer.
Unlike a younger generation of Japanese directors, Imamura did not actively seek international recognition. He doubted, in fact, whether foreigners could properly understand his films, since he often dealt with places and people exotic to even many fellow Japanese, but that he considered repositories of real Japanese culture. Not the high culture of the elite samurai and wealthy urban tradesmen, but the ancient folkways and beliefs of the peasantry, which Imamura believed hadn’t changed essentially in a millennium, despite more than a century of Westernization. He sought, in other words, the heart of Japan. Now it’s there, in 21 films, for all of us to find.