Iconoclasts are meant to kill their idols, and so it’s fitting that Shohei Imamura launched into his career as if on a patricidal rampage. Like Nagisa Oshima, the other towering figure of the Japanese New Wave, Imamura (1926–2006) rejected the orderly, tradition-bound portrait of Japan that a previous generation of filmmakers had imprinted in the national and global consciousness. He started out as an apprentice to Yasujiro Ozu, and would take pains to distance his methods and priorities from those of his former boss. Several critics, including Donald Richie, have since pointed out that the two have more in common than they may seem to, in that both were obsessed with the notion of “Japaneseness.” It could be they had very different ideas of the national essence. Or perhaps they just came at it from opposite sides: while Ozu, considered the most Japanese of Japanese directors, emphasized the taming and concealment of the natural state, Imamura, a master conductor of libidinal energies, affirmed it was to be found everywhere.
There was no aspect of the official culture that Imamura sought more vigorously to revise than the depiction of women as passive victims who achieved transcendence through suffering. “My heroines are true to life—just look around you at Japanese women. They are strong, and they outlive men,” he told Audie Bock, in her seminal volume Japanese Film Directors. “Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu don’t really exist.” The prototype of the Imamura woman—an unmistakably sexual being, self-sufficient by necessity, perfectly capable of outwitting and indeed outliving the men who exploit her—is the headstrong Haruko in his breakthrough film, Pigs and Battleships (1961), who escapes the life everyone else has imagined for her in the sex trade near a U.S. naval base. The sisterhood stretches across every phase of his career, from the stoic rape victim turned would-be killer of Intentions of Murder (1964) to the glorious biological freak whose gushing orgasms are a river-replenishing source of life in his final film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001). But The Insect Woman (1963), which opens with a microscopic close-up of a beetle stubbornly crawling and scrambling its way through a patch of earth, is his baldest statement on the nature of Japanese womanhood.
Imamura observes his heroine, Tomé Matsuki, from the moment of her birth on a winter’s night in 1918. She is the bastard daughter of the village tramp, and her sexual awareness begins at an accordingly early age. In a handful of scenes, Imamura matter-of-factly establishes peasant existence as a hotbed of carnal grotesquerie. The young Tomé stumbles on her mother and a lover rutting in a barn, and is forced into an early intimacy with her mildly retarded stepfather, Chuji (“You sleep with me so we’re married, right?” she asks).
The film proceeds elliptically, as a series of shardlike anecdotes, skipping ahead years at a time and sometimes doubling back. Its lurching rhythms match the tumult of Tomé’s life, as she’s thrown from one grim situation to another, compelled to reinvent herself time and again. In her early twenties, with the country at war, Tomé (played in adulthood by the mesmerizing Sachiko Hidari) finds work at a factory in the city, only to be summoned home by her family, who have elected to offer her services (loosely interpreted) to the clan that owns their farm. Raped and impregnated by the landlord’s son, she decides to keep her illegitimate child, ignoring her mother’s suggestion that, since it is a girl, she could “give it back” instead of letting it live. Returning to the city after the war, she becomes a labor organizer, but when her lover is promoted to management, she loses him and her job. Dusting herself off yet again, she’s employed as a maid and nanny by a slatternly woman who has taken up with an American serviceman, but in a moment of neglect, she causes the death of the child in her care.
Not even halfway through the film, the heroine has endured several lifetimes of despair and privation. As a newly religious Tomé says, confessing her sins before a temple congregation, “My life makes me cry.” (It’s a rare public display of self-pity, something she tends to save for the maudlin diary poetry that we occasionally hear in voice-over.) But just as The Insect Woman seems headed for the familiar tragedy and catharsis of melodrama, Tomé manages—in a fashion—to turn things around. And she accomplishes this by doing, with even greater intensity and purpose, what she has always done: adapt.
Faith does not in itself offer Tomé salvation, but among her fellow believers is a brothel owner who takes her in and mocks her initial qualms (“People sell because there are buyers”). Up until then, her survival has largely been a matter of resilience; as a prostitute, she comes to realize the importance of opportunism. If Mizoguchi’s fallen women are ennobled through self-sacrifice, Imamura’s are unapologetically driven by self-interest. Tomé rats out a co-worker who has been doing outside jobs, thus earning the trust of her boss and becoming her deputy. When the cops come asking questions about the madam, she tells all and takes over the business.
The convulsions of twentieth-century Japanese history provide a constant backbeat in The Insect Woman. “Japan has conquered Singapore, and Tomé is conquered tonight!” someone yells as her family prepares to send her into indentured servitude. National milestones serve as temporal markers: Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast in August 1945; the land reform, introduced by General MacArthur during the Allied occupation, that sought to abolish the feudal system; the royal wedding of 1959 that was broadcast on live television. Military planes flying overhead are a reminder of the postwar American presence, as are the crowds that take to the street to protest the signing of Japan’s Security Treaty with the U.S. Tomé’s evolution from naive peasant girl to steely businesswoman coincides with Japan’s period of postwar reconstruction and its transformation from an essentially rural, agrarian country to an industrialized force. Her passage into adulthood is, in essence, an economic coming-of-age, and her dawning awareness of market realities mirrors the hardening materialism of modern-day Japan. (Imamura would even more bluntly entwine the story of a nation and a woman—or, perhaps more to the point, a nation and a prostitute—in his 1970 documentary The History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess.)
The film’s original Japanese title, which translates as Entomological Chronicle of Japan, signals Imamura’s detachment from his subject. (He also appended the clinical subtitle Introduction to Anthropology to another of his great sixties films, The Pornographers .) With The Insect Woman, he wanted to avoid the traps of the tragic woman’s film, and in place of what he called “the pattern of suffering and pathos,” there is black humor and something of a nature documentary quality; the periodic use of freeze-frames conveys the sense of Tomé as a specimen under glass. The film is neither critique nor celebration, and Imamura’s stance, while far from warm, is wholly nonjudgmental—more than anything else, he regards Tomé with an awed fascination.
The point of this rapt scrutiny, as in almost all of Imamura’s films, is to see through to a repressed or unacknowledged essence of Japanese society, to assert that the distance between feudal and modern Japan is shorter than anyone, least of all the modern Japanese, would like to admit. As he told Bock, “The Japanese haven’t changed in thousands of years.” That this essence is akin to a vulgar life force—a font of wayward desires and ingrained superstitions—explains why his movies thrum with an ecstatic energy, not least when they are at their most perverse and irrational.
Imamura’s famous assertion that he made “messy films” was never truer than in his 1960s landmarks—the remarkable run from Pigs and Battleships to The Pornographers—thanks partly to the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography of Shinsaku Himeda, whose widescreen frames can scarcely contain the seething anarchy of these movies. In The Insect Woman, city streets are always crowded, and the cluttered interior tableaux often look like rude distensions of Ozu’s tatami-mat compositions: too many people jammed into the frame, limbs splayed, sprawled in all directions.
Despite the impression of perpetual chaos, there is nothing messy about this film’s structure, its achievement of a cosmic perspective through precise rhymes and parallels. The relationship between Tomé and her madam—down to the power trips over money and the eventual treachery—plays out again, with roles reversed, in the relationship between Tomé and her employees. A breeding ground for incest in most Imamura films, the disfigured family sphere is its own echo chamber, fates and desires carrying over from one generation to the next like genetic code. Tomé’s daughter, Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura, who played Haruko in Pigs and Battleships), inherits her mother’s daddy issues, developing a similar attachment to the bumbling hillbilly Chuji, who is clearly the love of Tomé’s life (on his deathbed, he asks for milk, and in a scene that is at once funny, appalling, and touching, she proceeds to breast-feed him). When Tomé lands in jail for a spell, her patron replaces her with Nobuko (both women call him Daddy), and the mother, once she gets over the shock of the betrayal, takes a quiet pride in the daughter’s animal adaptability.
At the end, the film comes full circle, with Tomé back in the countryside, reprising the actions of the insect in the first scene as she struggles uphill. Her wooden sandal breaks, and she stubs her foot on a rock, but she persists, grunting and cursing, still indomitable. All her life, the insect woman has simply done what it takes to survive, and for a time she even thrived, ascending to the throne of queen bee. In the natural order of things, she was displaced by other insect women, who were themselves doing what they needed to get by. Imamura never denied the patriarchal structure of Japanese society, but he was far more interested in its shadow matriarchy.
Dennis Lim is editorial director of New York’s Museum of the Moving Image and its online magazine, movingimagesource.us. He is also a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.