[4 June 2009]
All cultures to some degree celebrate the cyclical nature of human existence. Cherry Blossom festivals, anniversaries, birthdays, New Year’s parades: all commemorate the circular patterns that inscribe our beliefs concerning youth and aging, success and failure, birth and death. Although some of us may think, at times, that our progress through life is a straight trajectory toward some goal (financial viability, knowledge, spiritual enlightenment), in the end we see that progress is always registered through recourse to the cycles we inhabit.
Such cycles can be stultifying or liberating. They can convince us that life is an eternal prison wherein every seeming moment of freedom proves to be illusory, or they can reveal to us a higher order that underwrites our efforts to make sense of the world. Few filmmakers seem to have been more conscious of both the benefits and the costs of our cyclical existence than the Japanese director Shohei Imamura, and I can imagine no better introduction to his work than the new release by Criterion Collection of Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes.
Working for years as an assistant to other directors (including Ozu) and then forced to direct flimsy commercial fare, Imamura longed to make films that revealed his interest in the seedier side of post-war Japanese life. This collection includes three of Imamura’s most celebrated films from the early years of his work as head director: Pigs and Battleships (1961); The Insect Woman (1963); and Intentions of Murder (1964).
Criterion has garnished each DVD with a lavish set of extras including interviews with the director, interviews with film critic Tony Rayns, and informative booklet essays each authored by a different film critic. No matter what your background with Japanese film in general or Imamura in particular, you will come away from this set with a renewed appreciation for the possibilities inherent in film and a deeper desire to consider the peculiar nature not simply of the lives depicted here, but also of the lives we each live.
Pigs and Battleships - photo courtesy Criterion Collection
Pigs and Battleships is the earliest and certainly the most attention-grabbing feature film of the set. The film opens with the brash sounds of snare drums and brass playing a deformed version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” over a still frame of the American flag on a flagpole. Imamura immediately allows the image to move and the camera quickly pans away from the American Naval Base to the seedy port area of the village Yokosuka.
Aloft, the camera careens above the street and the scene suddenly changes from day to night. The music shifts to a swinging jazz number as the atmosphere becomes suffused with the character of the carnival. Indeed the carnivalesque, with its sanctioning of transgression and its loosening of moral integrity, becomes the overarching theme of the film. The veneer of order is so thin in this film that every character can see through it while maintaining the pretense of its existence.
The Americans are the police force in the village in this post-war era of intermingling and confrontation and yet they are the main cause of the rise in criminality. They directly impact the increased presence of prostitution by serving as the main clientele and indirectly effect the increased presence of the chimpira (a group of gangsters that are on a lower level than the infamous yakusa) by providing them with both the means and the purpose of the pig scam that serves as the main focus of the film. Thus the Americans find themselves in the preposterous position of arresting the locals for perpetrating crimes on the behalf (perhaps even at the behest) of the naval officers themselves.
The majority of the local Japanese do not so much resent the presence of the Americans as they see it as an opportunity to advance their economic status through less than reputable means. In other words, many of the characters see the American occupation as both the means of engaging in illicit pursuits and the excuse for doing so.
These characters implicitly blame the Americans for forcing them into disrepute and yet celebrate the increased financial gain to be made from their presence. Hence, a constant refrain throughout the film is the expressed wish on the part of various Japanese characters to become American. This is said verbatim by some of the children and made visually clear by the outfit worn throughout the film by the petty gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato): a fancy silk jacket and aviator glasses combined with a baseball-styled cap.
Meanwhile the other main character, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), is in love with Kinta and wishes to establish a respectable life including marriage, children, and a factory job. Her mother encourages her to become the mistress of a Naval officer (following a path established by Haruko’s older sister), she is gang raped by a group of Navy men, and she suffers Kinta’s neglect. In the end, she breaks the circle she inhabits (the only Imamura heroine in this set to do so) but one cannot help but wonder if she will ultimately succeed.
However, it is the scam that Kinta’s gang develops that best represents the cyclical bind that Imamura outlines for his characters. They make a shady deal with a man who has connections to the naval base in order to get “high-quality” scraps from their meals. They buy pigs, planning to feed them with these deluxe discount scraps and then sell them to the Americans, who presumably will eat them and create yet more scraps.
Thus, without ever openly addressing the issue, Imamura has created a beautifully ludicrous, fully closed circle. Indeed the entire Yokosuka village finds itself entrapped in such vicious circles—their model of freedom is the source of their captivity. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the climactic scene in which the gangsters are literally crushed to death by their own ill-advised designs.
If Pigs and Battleships is the set’s flashiest film, The Insect Woman is the most daring and, in my opinion, the most successful. Tony Rayns, in his commentary, detects some pretentiousness in Imamura’s attempt to integrate the life cycle of the main character Tomé (an absolutely brilliant Sachiko Hidari) with the changes wrought upon 20th-century Japan, but this plot device only serves to reinforce the cyclical and natural unfolding of human lives—both individually and en masse.
Beginning with a shot of an insect struggling to surmount a hill of dirt and ending with a rhyming sequence featuring Tomé’s struggle up a mountainside, Imamura’s “entomological” film investigates the resilient, pragmatic nature of our insect-like adaptability. Born to an adulterous mother and a simpleton father, Tomé quickly learns that by serving as a surrogate wife for her father Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura) she can get what she wants. She’s impregnated by a rich neighbor but soon moves to Tokyo where she goes from being a worker at the mill to the head of a labor union, then from being a maid to a prostitute, then from being a madam sent off to prison and back to a maid. Meanwhile she witnesses her daughter navigating the same cycles.
The most striking aspect of the film is its reliance upon seemingly random freeze frames. Generally these freeze frames serve not to summarize the foregoing action nor to isolate a particularly significant moment but rather to interrupt the action, to disrupt the cycle momentarily, if only to leave space for a bit of contemplation. This is one of Imamura’s most successful distancing techniques inasmuch as it does not exactly break the narrative flow (the next scene always follows without ambiguity) but it does manage to give the viewer a momentary sense of control.
Like a butterfly stuck with a pin, the characters at these moments are frozen within their development for our consideration. They are artificially seized within the moment for examination. In a sense, this technique (one that could easily be abused and become mere kitsch) lays bare the mechanism of film itself. Film is that which reveals the artificiality of our cyclical natures, the inescapable assurance that we are what are becoming and that we continue to be what we are. For Imamura, film is the microscope that clarifies our insect nature.
And so Imamura shows human beings feeding on each other. This is sometimes literal (as when Tomé feeds her father with her own breast milk) and sometimes figurative (as when Tomé’s daughter Nobuko steals her mother’s lover to finance her dreams of a farm). It is not the case that Imamura presents a loveless world of abject cannibalism but rather that he faces up to the fact that in most situations, survival trumps affection. And yet never was a film so lovingly constructed.
Intentions of Murder - photo courtesy Criterion Collection
The final film of the set, Intentions of Murder, encapsulates Imamura’s penchant for tempering the horrible with the sublimely comical. Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) is raped by an intruder. When she prepares to commit suicide in accordance with Japanese ritual tradition, she decides to postpone the deed in order to satisfy her hunger by devouring leftovers. Sadako is unable to satisfy her fastidious husband or her overbearing mother-in-law. Indeed, her husband has not even made their union official, making her role in the family seem exceedingly tenuous. And yet, like so many of Imamura’s female characters, she perseveres through sheer determination or perhaps from an innate inability to concede.
The rapist returns, convinced that he is in love with her and that she is his only chance for salvation. He insists that she run away with him and she does not so much agree as acquiesce. Sadako might seem like a character that simply does what she is told and one might imagine that it is this ability to abnegate her own will that accounts for the insect nature Imamura wants to find in us. But this is not the case.
When it would seem that Sadako is without options and that she simply must confess her sexual experiences (both forced and consensual) with another man, when it would seem that Sadako simply must accede to her own weakened position within the household, she refuses. There is no slight of hand here. She was not dissembling weakness all along. She is in no position of power except for the fact that she assumes such a position. She simply refuses to be in the wrong. She denies culpability in the face of undeniable proof. And she succeeds.
This is what strikes me as the true brilliance of Imamura’s achievements. It’s not merely the fact that he was intrigued by the downtrodden, the lowly, the compromised. It’s not that he was willing to push the limits of what was deemed good taste. Those things undoubtedly seemed important at the time (as one can see by hearing Imamura’s own conceptions of his importance in the various interviews) but they are hardly the reason that these films play so well today.
No, Imamura’s brilliance lies in his stark insistence that the dignity of the human being resides not in moral values, religious rectitude, familial obligations, or an enlightened vision of the state of things but rather that human dignity consists of our irremediable right of refusal. At any moment, we might decide (as do Imamura’s female characters) to cry “Stop”! Of course, there is no guarantee that anyone would listen to us but then again, as Imamura demonstrates, there is nothing stopping us from deciding to desist.