It is difficult to write about post-War Japanese cinema without mentioning the name Yasujiro Ozu.
It is difficult to write about post-War Japanese cinema without
mentioning the name Yasujiro Ozu. Best known for such immortal classics as Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu chronicled the
changing face of post-War society with an air of melancholy stillness that seems
quintessentially Japanese. However, to see this kind of elegant stoicism as
particularly Japanese is to make quite a bold claim about the Japanese
character. In fact, Ozu’s assistant director disagreed so vehemently with Ozu’s
vision of Japan that he began his directorial career with a satirical remake of
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).
That film was Stolen Desire (1958)
and that director was Shohei Imamura.
Much like Imamura’s Pigs and Battle Ships (1961) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Insect Woman depicts post-War Japan as a squalid frenzy of
ruthless people desperately trying to get ahead. The film begins with the
character of Tome being born into abject rural poverty. From there, the film
takes us on a journey spanning five decades in which Tome (Sachiko Hidari) steers an unsteady path between abusive men,
incestuous fathers, domineering brothel owners, fickle financial backers and over-achieving
daughters. Given how many films explore post-War Japanese mores and how many
films flirt with the squalor of the Japanese underworld, it would have been
easy for The Insect Woman to feel
like yet another stroll down the Japanese neo-realist cul-de-sac. Indeed, going
by the output of the Japanese film industry you would expect that pretty much
every Japanese woman earned her living as a prostitute. However, The Insect Woman is elevated out of
this over-frequented cinematic rut by its tone and its cinematography.
One accusation that can never be
levelled at Imamura is that of sentimentality. Many of the directors who
ventured into the gutters of post-War Japan did so in search of dramatic
pathos. However, while Tome’s life is certainly depressing, there is no sense
in which it is tragic. The result, though less dramatically satisfying, is
actually a good deal more powerful as the lack of dramatic conceit only
increases the sense that what we are seeing is not only real but actually
commonplace in post-War Japan. In other words, Tome is neither a tragic figure
nor a vehicle for moral lessons, she is a working-class Japanese woman among
millions of others and the horrors she faces are those faced by millions of
women just like her. This tone established, Imamura cements the aura of realism
with a distinctly unorthodox approach to narrative.
Most stories have a beginning, a
middle and an end composed of different plotlines that progress in such a way
as to convey information about the characters, their world and the events
dominating their lives. In order to make The
Insect Woman feel more ‘realistic’, Imamura does away with the traditional
three-act structure in favour of a more episodic structure chronicling different
events in Tome’s life. Even more striking is the fact that, rather than
depicting big dramatic turning-point moments from Tome’s life, Imamura generally
drags us in and out of her life seemingly at random and expects us to piece
together what happened in the months and years that separate the different
episodes. The result is a cinematic experience that eerily reflects the
disjunctive patina of everyday life.
The Insect Woman continues its hard-hitting approach in the visual
arena. The film’s title (as well as its alternate English-language title ‘An Account of Japanese Insects’)
invokes images of a hive filled with scurrying human insects and Imamura
returns to this motif throughout the film with images of human-clogged
corridors, factories, prayer meetings and organised marches. Imamura
further underlines the squalor in his characters lives by continuously shooting
them through the doorways of cramped apartments and filthy barns.
What makes The Insect Woman a memorable and striking film is Imamura’s
capacity to walk a fine line between stylisation and naturalism. Indeed, once
you stop to think about it, you realise that The Insect Woman is no less artificial and stylised than your
average Hollywood action movie but the film’s performances, dialogue, structure
and cinematography all work together to produce a film that feels far more
naturalistic than even a documentary. Combine this cinematic expertise with
Imamura’s depiction of Japanese society as a squalid and frantic mess and you
have a film of singular power and vision.
Like most Masters of Cinema
releases, The Insect Woman’s Blu-ray
release comes with high technical standards and a battery of extras including a
fantastic Japanese interview with Imamura, a booklet of critical essays and a
copy of a second (and evidently quite rare) Imamura film entitled Nishi-Ginza Station (1958). Though
perhaps not likely to engage fans of more accessible cinematic fare, The Insect Woman remains a masterful
film although the Masters of Cinema release of Pigs and Battleships as a better starting place for people looking
to explore the works of Shohei Imamura.