Shohei Imamura began his film career in 1951, working as an assistant to director Yasujiro Ozu over a period when Ozu created films like Early Summer and Tokyo Story. In reaction to what he saw as an incomplete portrayal of Japanese society offered by Ozu and others, Imamura established himself as a filmmaker with a vision that challenged the status quo in the 1960s alongside other directors who were dubbed part of the artistic movement known as the Japanese New Wave.
In an interview he said, “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure.” He can be witnessed exploring both as The Criterion Collection presents three films from the early ‘60s in a collection known as Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films By Shohei Imamura.
Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan) is set during postwar Japan in the city of Yokosuka. It’s the biggest U.S. base in the country, and Imamura and cinematographer Sinsaku Himeda make the overbearing American presence felt throughout the film in almost every frame, from the many sailors to subtle background images. Titles inform the viewer that the story is entirely fiction, although the circumstances come across as being very authentic.
The film tells the story of a young couple trapped in this world: the dimwitted, low-level hoodlum Kinta and his girlfriend Haruko. Kinta’s gang wants him to take a murder rap for the boss. This will make him an important figure when he gets out in a few years, and he thinks it sounds like a good plan. Haruko’s mother rents her out as a mistress to the American servicemen against her wishes. With survival being such a struggle, morality is a luxury many in this town can’t afford, so they do what they must to make a quick buck. However, when the cheating and double-crossing begins and deals evaporate, Haruko’s talk of leaving the city for a new life in Kawasaki sounds like solid advice, but Kinta has to get what’s been promised to him.
The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki) opens with a close-up of a beetle, making its way across a dirt field and working to get up a mound, a visual metaphor for the harsh life story of a woman named Tome. We witness her birth in 1918 in the rural countryside to her unwed mother. Early on sexuality makes an imprint on her and shapes many events of her life. She witnesses her mother having a quick dalliance in a barn and develops an unspecified incestuous relationship with her retarded stepfather, Chuji. When they take baths together, and even when he asks, in the translated subtitles, if they are married because they sleep together, it’s possible there’s a misunderstanding by the viewer in the ways of rural Chinese people from decades past, but there’s no mistaking the sensual way Chuji sucks the pus from her injured leg.
During WWII, she heads to the city for a factory job, but her family summons her home to work for the landowner, but it’s not clear in what capacity. The landowner’s son rapes her and when the female baby, Nobuko, is born, she ignores her mother’s suggestion and lets the baby live. When Nobuko refuses to feed, Chuji nurses her breasts to alleviate the pain.
Tome returns to the city and perseveres, although poor choices and grave accidents result in her becoming a prostitute. Her survival instinct is strong and whenever an opportunity to better herself appears, she takes it. After she provides information to the police to help get the madam jailed, Tome takes over the role for the girls and offers them a better cut. However, the cycle plays out. The girls, happy at first grow tired and resentful of Tome, and her benefactor replaces her with a younger, beautiful model. The film ends with Tome returning to the countryside, climbing up a hill. The image mirroring the opening shot of the beetle.
The Insect Woman uses a lot of archival news footage to place the events in time and also a stylistic choice of a number of freeze frames to establish important points like a photograph. It’s a compelling portrait of a Japanese woman during the first half of the 20th Century.
Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui) is another story of a woman struggling for empowerment in the man’s world of Japan; however, the story and characters are very unappealing, making it tough to sit through. As a young woman, Sadako is orphaned so her uncle sends her to work for a family her grandmother used to work for before she committed suicide. Jumping ahead, Sadako and Riichi, who works as a librarian, have a son named Masaru, but they never married, as if it was just another task added to her household chores.
One night when she is alone, Sadako is the victim of a home invasion and raped by the assailant, Hiraoka. She considers killing herself afterwards due to the shame, but decides to live. Hiraoka returns another evening and then begins to stalk her, in a department store and at home, professing his love and wanting the two of them to run off to Tokyo together. A difficult as it is to believe, a relationship develops between them and she considers it, but this is more of a reflection of home life.
Riichi is having his own affair with Yoshiko that has been going on since before his involvement with Sadako. Yoshiko wants Riichi to herself, so she spies on Sadako and passes the information onto him, which he questions because she offers no proof. The plotlines for the four main characters all come to head the day Sadako acts on her decision on how to handle Hiraoka.
While finding nothing likable about any of the characters and not wanting to spend any time with them, Intentions of Murder suffers the most from the strained credulity of the premise. Nothing presented by the male screenwriters leads the viewer to believe Sadako could develop a relationship of any kind with Hiraoka after raping her. If she wanted a way out from Riichi, there were plenty of other options, even for that time, even for place.
All three films in Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes are shot in black and white in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Himeda’s work is glorious to watch as he and his crew makes great use of shadow and light, particularly when trying to draw the audience’s eyes to certain parts of the frame for Imamura. The audio for all is a mono track presented in Japanese with English subtitles.
Each DVD has a feature with critic/historian Tony Rayans discussing the film it is matched with, and they all feature an interview with the director. Battleships offers the 60-minute “Imamura: The Freethinker” from the French television series Cinema de notre temps as he reflects on his entire career. The other two films have a 20-minute-plus conversation between Imamura and film critic Tadao Sato as an epilogue to screenings during a film series.
Shohei Imamura is a very intriguing director as he presents a view of Japan many may not be aware of, allowing for a more complete and complex cinematic picture of his people. However, I can only recommend two out of the three films.