Best known here for Black Rain, his devastating shocker about the catastrophe visited on Hiroshima, Shohei Imamura is one of the greatest directors alive. Too bad his name - or the unforgettable cast of bosomy hookers, country gargoyles and other assorted lowlifes who people his 17 films - barely registers with this country's casual cinephiles, its movie distributors or even those academics otherwise besotted with all things Japanese. Last year at the Cannes Film Festival, Imamura's The Eel split the Palme d'Or with Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry; it was the first feature the 71-year-old Imamura had made in eight years and the second time he'd won the festival's highest honor.
The Eel, a sympathetic tale about a wife-killer, doesn't yet have American distribution, which is a reflection of either the state of foreign film in this country or the greed of its Japanese distributor; probably both. As a consequence, it's not part of the otherwise fairly comprehensive retrospective that starts Saturday at UCLA - an essential survey originating from the Cinematheque Ontario that encompasses a number of titles not available here on video, among them documentaries and features, such as A Man Vanishes (1967), in which the director blurs fact and fiction and ends up as a character in his own movie.
The son of a doctor, Imamura entered the film industry in 1951, working at Ofuna Studios as an assistant director to the great Yasujiro Ozu, with whom he made three movies, including Tokyo Story. Stints with other directors followed, and in 1958 he shot his first feature, Stolen Desire, about an acting troupe devoted to the arts of Kabuki and striptease both. His breakout feature came six years later: The Insect Woman (1963), Imamura's perverse take on the women's picture, and a film about as far from Ozu's form and quietude as imaginable.
Although to say so goes against the grain of Western academic orthodoxy, Japanese cinema has always been as much the province of whores and killers as it has of warriors, doting daughters and gentle old men pruning their toenails. Kenji Mizoguchi's films are filled with prostitutes, but however lusty or even violent they are, these women invariably remain self-sacrificing victims, with little or no relation to the vulgar, rigorously unsentimental, unself-aware creations in nearly all of Imamura's work, women whose greatest triumph is their refusal to be beaten down.
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In The Insect Woman - which begins with a closeup of a scuttling beetle - the eponymous heroine, Tome, escapes her destiny as a peasant by becoming a madam. It's hard to say what's more shocking, Imamura's cynicism ("I used to be a union organizer," Tome explains to a roomful of prostitutes), his narrative strategies (a few scenes unfold in freeze-frame), the director's mise en scene or the pure horror of this life he's set under glass: In one scene, Tome's father guzzles her breast milk; in another, he sucks pus out of a boil on her leg.
The Rabelaisian aspect of Imamura's work is borne out by his claim that what interests him are "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." Characters in his films continually fight, fuck and scratch through lives steeped in poverty and ignorance, and made brutal by violence. The miracle is that the movies are often as grotesquely funny as they are grotesque - the pus-sucking scene is humorous and terrible, as are the deaths in Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine (1979), in which a murderer puts the lie to Japanese efficiency by killing a man with a hammer - then pisses the blood off his hand before nibbling a persimmon.
In the West, Imamura hasn't enjoyed the critical acclaim of his higher-profile contemporary Nagisa Oshima, possibly because his politics aren't as obviously left, and his characters are often as irredeemable as they are crude. The truth is, there's no need to dig for political meaning: In Pigs and Battleships (1961), gangsters traffic in hogs that they feed with garbage from an American military base; in Vengeance Is Mine, the murderer is indistinguishable from the millions of other salarymen. "I want," Imamura once said, "to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films." In this he has succeeded, apparently for some distributors all too well.
"Porno Man and Insect Woman: The Films of Shohei Imamura" screens at the UCLA Film and Television Archives' James Bridges Theater from Saturday, February 21, through Tuesday, March 17. For program information, call (310) 206-FILM.