Shohei Imamura. Photo courtesy of WSWS.org

b. 15 September, 1926, Tokyo, Japan
d. 30 May, 2006, Tokyo, Japan

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I am interested in the relationship of 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.

The Japanese did not change as a result of the Pacific War—they haven’t changed in thousands of years!

— Shohei Imamura (1)

Yokohama, 1977. American film critic and translator Audie Bock is interviewing Shohei Imamura at the offices of Imamura’s film school (which has since moved to Shin-Yurigaoka, just outside Tokyo). Imamura is speaking of the shrines dedicated to the fox god Inari that modern Japanese corporate bosses install on the rooftops of their modern corporate office towers: “You may think all that is real,” [he said], gesturing toward the dreary cityscape outside, “but to me it’s all illusion. The reality is those little shrines, the superstition and the irrationality that pervade the Japanese consciousness under the veneer of the business suits and advanced technology.” (2)

In nineteen feature films over 45 years Imamura has probed the lower depths of Japanese society and “the Japanese consciousness”. Not for him the tourist-friendly vision of Japan as the post-war economic powerhouse of Asia, the land of kimono-clad elegance, Zen serenity, and harmonious Confucian social hierarchies. Instead he has put onscreen a world populated by prostitutes, pimps, and petty thieves, peasant farmers and middle-class pornographers, serial killers and shamen. This is the irrepressibly “real” Japan of his bawdy, ragged, sensual films.

Born in 1926, the third son of a physician, Imamura attended elite high schools where, he says, encounters with Japan’s ruling-class children soured him on the sheltered minds of the privileged:

I despised them, and remember thinking that they were the kind of people who would never get close to the fundamental truths of life. Knowing them made me want to identify myself with working-class people who were true to their own human natures. At that age, though, I probably still thought of myself as being innately superior to working-class people. (3)

Typical stuff for a middle-class youth of any time or place, perhaps, but post-war Japan was a more unsettled time and place than most. Imamura enrolled at Waseda University to study Western History, but by his account he neglected his schoolwork in favor of student theater and radical politics; during the immediate post-war years he hustled on the black market. He has described this period as a personally liberating one:

When the emperor came on the radio to announce our defeat, I was 18 years old. It was fantastic. Suddenly everything became free. We could talk about our real thoughts and feelings without hiding anything. Even sex became free, and the black market was brilliant. (4)

I was strongly against the continuation of the imperial system, and had many discussions with my friends about Hirohito’s responsibility for the war. But my greatest obsession was individual freedom—the condition that the state had denied us absolutely during the war years—and I became fascinated by existentialism. At the time I was making a living from the black market: I bought illicit liquor and cigarettes from soldiers of the American occupation forces and sold them to my professors. That was the only time in my whole life when I was well off, although I spent all I made on drink. (5)

He associated with racketeers and thugs, and became friendly with prostitutes and bar hostesses. These latter marked his view of women for life:

They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings. I grew to admire them enormously. (6)

Such women became the “vulgar and lusty” heroines of many of his films.

Soon after graduating from university in 1951, Imamura entered Shochiku’s assistant director’s program at its Ofuna studios (as did his contemporaries Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda). He assisted Yasujiro Ozu (“I was basically just a clapper boy”) (7) on three films, including the classic Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953). Imamura was underwhelmed. Ozu’s methods, especially his precise, regimented direction of actors, were not to his taste, which is unsurprising, since temperamentally no filmmaker could be farther from Ozu’s quiet, measured acceptance of life. He preferred to work under Yuzo Kawashima, a director little known outside of Japan, whose interest in lower-class life appealed to the younger man. In later years Imamura would write a memoir paying tribute to his former mentor; he also cited Kawashima’s rebellious attitude toward his studio bosses as an important precursor to the Japanese New Wave. (8)

In 1954 Imamura transferred into the training program at Nikkatsu studios, because the newly reactivated company was aggressively recruiting young talent, and because he had begun dating the company administrator at Shochiku (they later married). Kawashima soon joined him at Nikkatsu, and the apprenticeship continued, with Imamura writing scripts and assistant-directing.

In the late 1950s he finally got his chance to move up the company ladder. 1958 saw the release of three movies directed by Shohei Imamura: Stolen Desire, Nishi Ginza Station, and Endless Desire, followed by My Second Brother in 1959. These were studio assignments, and have rarely been screened outside of Japan. In 1961 came Pigs and Battleships, generally acknowledged as the first distinctive Imamura film—a vivid satire, set against the backdrop of the US military occupation, about a young, not-so-innocent couple involved in an illicit scheme to raise and sell pigs. Imamura’s mature voice is heard clearly here, in the imagery that equates humans with animals (the Yankee soldiers are pigs, and so are the Japanese thugs chasing their money), in the heroine’s quest for freedom, and in the release of pent-up energy at the end—the pigs escape during a gunfight, and stampede through the streets.

From Pigs and Battleships on Imamura gave onscreen life to the worldview he had been cultivating during his dues-paying years. He says that while writing scripts at Nikkatsu, he yearned to become a better storyteller, and thought perhaps his understanding of the world was lacking. So he began going to the library to test his own observations of people against the theories of sociologists, ethnographers and anthropologists. Presumably his reading of social science texts influenced the research-experiment quality that characterizes his mature cinematic style: even as the characters rush to and fro, caught up in their mad desires, the director observes them with a scientist’s coolness. (The Insect Woman‘s [1963] original title translates as Entomological Chronicles of Japan, and the subtitle of The Pornographers [1966] is Introduction to Anthropology.) The films often feel as if Imamura concocted the scenario, set his actors loose in the characters’ environment, and then proceeded as a documentarian would, capturing the weird reality taking place before him. Scenes are usually filmed from wide- or medium-shot distance. There are infrequent close-ups and few POV shots. (9) Editing is rarely used to expand or contract time in order to build excitement in the viewer. Even the films’ most frenzied and violent moments play out as parts of an ongoing chronicle or examination of behavior, not as dramatic highlights to be manipulated by the director for maximum audience impact.

The Insect Woman

Throughout the 1960s Imamura continued to elaborate his vision. The Insect Woman begins with the camera tracing the progress of an insect crawling over the dirt as it attempts to climb a hill, falls back, regathers its strength and pushes forward, stumbles back again. That blind animal struggle is the whole movie in miniature, the life story of the heroine, Tome (Sachiko Hidari). Tome is a rural peasant who moves to the city during wartime to work in a factory, where she becomes a union activist, then an unmarried mother, later a prostitute, and eventually a madam, before a series of reversals finds her working as a domestic servant in late middle age. Lovers leave her, employees betray her, her daughter deserts her, but she perseveres, like the insect at the beginning. Though the tale sounds melodramatic in outline, Imamura studiously denies us any prolonged emotional indulgence in Tome’s turns of fortune, keeping us at a distance from her suffering, and pointing up her own pettiness and greed. Intentions of Murder (also known as Unholy Desire, 1964) is the story of Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), a country girl stuck in a bad marriage, who is raped by a burglar. Her initial reaction is to do what society expects: expunge the shame of her violation by committing suicide. But while preparing to kill herself, Sadako grows hungry and proceeds to dig into a hot meal; the food awakens a desire for more life. She develops an attachment to the rapist, a pathetic figure infatuated with her. They become lovers. In the end, the rapist is dead of tuberculosis and Sadako has grown strong, dominating the household which earlier dominated her.

Tome and Sadako are the first fully fleshed-out examples of the Imamura heroine: sometimes crude and inarticulate, often unprincipled and irrational, but possessing a sharp instinct for self-preservation and a great zest for life. Imamura’s women are a different breed from the noble victims found in the usual “woman’s film” of both East and West. He has said, “Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds [1955] and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu [1952] don’t really exist.” (10) From Pigs and Battleships to Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001), he presents women who are earthy and passionate, and every bit as cruel, wanton, and selfish as the men in their lives (weaklings, bounders, adolescents in adult bodies). Some critics have hailed him as a feminist for breaking with the stereotypes of an older generation and depicting women as sexual agents swimming against the current of a patriarchal culture, but neither he nor his female characters are flying the flag for social change or gender solidarity. These women are simply out to survive in the world it was given to them to live in.

With The Pornographers, his first film made through his own independent production company, Imamura took a satirical look at male lust. The Pornographers is a black comedy about a maker of low-budget porno films and part-time procurer named Subuyan Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa). Subuyan lives with a widow and her two teenage children, a boy who crawls into his mother’s bed for comfort and a girl for whom Subuyan harbors not-so-hidden desires. (Incest is a running theme in many of Imamura’s films.) (11) Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), the widow, believes her dead husband’s soul lives on in a carp she keeps in a fishtank beside her bed, training its unblinking eyes on her “sinful” liaison with Subuyan. At film’s end, Haru is dead, the makeshift family scattered. Crazed, impotent Subuyan resolves to leave behind the treacherous world of women. He spends years building a life-like sex doll in Haru’s image, and the last shot finds him drifting out to sea in his houseboat, oblivious to everything except the perfect union he’ll soon consummate with his ideal woman.

A Man Vanishes

Imamura made his first detour into documentary filmmaking with A Man Vanishes (1967), a highly original blend of documentary and fiction techniques (and a worthy precursor to Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf’s later experiments). Imamura was interested in studying a Japanese social phenomenon: every year, many men disappear from the lives they’ve constructed, leaving behind jobs and families, vanishing into anonymity. A Man Vanishes follows Yoshie Hayakawa, the fiancée of one such man, as she tracks down leads, pokes into rumors, searches for the truth about her missing lover. Eventually she reveals that she has fallen in love with the “investigator” Imamura has paired her with, a professional actor (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, the rapist in Intentions of Murder). In the film’s central scene, Imamura, onscreen, provokes a confrontation in a teahouse between Hayakawa and her sister, who she believes played a part in her fiancé’s disappearance—and then, at a moment of high tension, the director shouts a command to his hidden crew as the walls of the “teahouse” collapse to reveal a film set. “Real people” and actors, unmediated reality and staged scenes, the world and its soundstage imitation: in this sly, provocative, and puzzling film, Imamura muddies the boundaries and relishes the mess that results.

In 1968 came the epic The Profound Desire of the Gods (also known as Kuragejima: Tales from a Southern Island), set among a tribal community whose remote island is visited by an engineer on a scouting mission for a Tokyo construction company. The island’s natives struggle to balance their attachment to tradition against their fascination with the technological and cultural wonders of modernity. For all its barbarism, the islanders’ way of life represents the harmony and homogeneity of the Japanese past, a past that crumbles beneath the heedless industrializing energies of the present. The natives begin to hunt fish with dynamite, to sell their land to the corporation, to regard themselves as the primitives the mainlanders consider them to be. In the conflict between old and new, everybody loses something, and nobody wins. Factories and airports, tourism and Coca-Cola arrive on the island, shattering the centuries-old order of things, and the engineer learns too late to love what he helped destroy. Profound Desire is a grand summation of Imamura’s themes and concerns: civilization versus savagery; science versus superstition; humans as animals; capitalism, paganism, and incest (see endnote 11).

The film cost a great deal to make, and did not turn a profit. Meanwhile, Imamura’s old employer Nikkatsu, which provided backing for his production company, was nearing collapse. Imamura retrenched, and re-emerged as a full-time documentary filmmaker; this was how he spent most of the 1970s. (12) The documentaries, most of them made for television, maintain his earlier interest in Japanese society’s outsiders, the rebels and dropouts of the nation’s recent history: a bar hostess in the US military port town of Yokosuka; Japanese women sent to Southeast Asia in the pre-war years to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military, who decided not to return home once they had won their freedom; soldiers who fought overseas for the Emperor and similarly chose to remain living as expatriates.

During the late 1970s, Imamura began to move back to fictional filmmaking. There were economic reasons: during his years as a documentarian, his family was mainly supported by his wife’s job as head of an animation company. But there was also a growing dissatisfaction with the nature of the work he was doing:

I… found myself wondering whether documentary was really the best way to approach these matters. I came to realize the presence of the camera could materially change people’s lives. Did I have the right to effect such changes? Was I playing God in trying to control the lives of others? I’m no sentimental humanist, but thoughts like these scared me and made me acutely aware of the limitations of documentary filmmaking. (13)

And finally, he simply felt like going back to making up stories with actors: “[T]here were many things I wanted to express that were beyond the reach of a documentary.” (14) Whatever the reason, he returned to fiction fully re-energized in the late ’70s and ’80s, with a series of films that built upon and arguably surpassed his ’60s work.

Vengeance Is Mine

First came Vengeance Is Mine (1979), starring Ken Ogata as Iwao Enokizu, a character based on a real-life figure whose 78-day crime spree in 1963 captivated the nation. The story is related in an elaborate flashback structure, jumping from Enokizu’s capture to the manhunt that preceded it, back to his youth, then forward to his series of bloody killings, and forward again to the years after his execution by the state. As we chart Enokizu’s descent from theft and fraud to murder, we’re introduced to the unlucky souls drawn into his orbit: his despised father, a devout Christian; his deserted wife (she and her father-in-law share a strong mutual attraction but religion and decorum prevent their acting upon it); the fatalistic woman who falls in love with him during his last weeks on the run and becomes his final victim. Near the end Imamura borrows from Citizen Kane and Psycho when he supplies a pocket-sized psychoanalytic explanation for Enokizu’s will to kill (issues with Dad), but this provides little illumination and less comfort. Anchored by Ogata’s mesmerizing performance, Vengeance Is Mine is one of the director’s great works, a true-crime thriller that expands in the mind to become a frightening portrait of unappeasable evil.

The film was a critical and commercial success, allowing Imamura to raise a sizable budget to make Eijanaika (1981)—loosely translated as “Why not?” or “What the hell?”—his first period piece, an historical epic set in 1860s Edo (present-day Tokyo), soon after Japan opened its doors to the West following centuries of isolation. (15)Genji (Shigeru Izuyima), a peasant farmer, was rescued from a shipwreck by an American boat crew; now, after several years in the US, he has returned to Japan. He seeks to reclaim the hand of his wife Ine (Kaori Momoi), who believes him to be dead; she is now a performer in a carnival sideshow and the mistress of the carnival boss Kinzo (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi). Kinzo’s connections to the underworld and to various political players precipitate Genji and Ine’s involvement in the power struggle between the reigning Shogun clans and those seeking to restore the Emperor’s rule. The bulk of this lengthy film details the machinations of the two factions, as Kinzo plays off one side against the other and Genji tries to persuade Ine to return with him to the USA. The film climaxes with an extraordinary explosion of energy, as Edo’s lower classes (“heedless, unmindful, frivolous, and strong” in the words of the introductory caption), feeding off of the turbulence and uncertainty swirling around them, erupt in a spontaneous revolt against the Shogunate’s rule, rioting, singing, dancing, donning makeup and costumes, stripping naked and pissing in the streets. The sequence is like Eisenstein on LSD: the crowd seems to move as one, then splinter into a chaotic sprawl of thousands of crazed individuals, only to form a mass once more and press forward, chanting joyously: “Eijanaika!” Rarely has the widescreen format been used to such potent effect. The spectacular display of color, movement, bodies rushing every which way, is exhilarating. The forces of authority put down the revolt with guns, and the film closes on an elegiac note, but the orgiastic frenzy of the riots will not be forgotten. No scene in Imamura’s work better sums up his vision of the amoral, apolitical, anarchic life-force that pulses beneath the seeming stability of the social order.

The Ballad of Narayama

Another historical film followed in 1983: The Ballad of Narayama, based on the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa and previously filmed by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1958. The film is set in a small, isolated mountain village in northern Japan in the late 1800s. The story begins in the winter of Orin’s 69th year. Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is a family matriarch facing the law of the land—tribal custom demands that when villagers turn 70, they must be taken up Mount Narayama by their offspring, to die. Death equals life: in this harsh mountain world, the old must die to ensure there will be enough food for the young to survive. Death equals life, and sex equals death: each act of sex is a potential childbirth, and each childbirth brings a family closer to starvation. But death, again, equals life: an unwanted newborn is left outside to perish, but its corpse, rotting in the dirt, will fertilize the tough soil and provide more food for the living. There is no room for the sentimental idea of the world as a staging-ground for the human drama. The wolf is always at the door. Nature is present in nearly every shot; plants, animals, earth crowd the frame, indifferent to the human struggle. The rhythm of the film is the rhythm of nature, the turn of the seasons. A young couple fucks on the grass, while nearby, a pair of snakes mirror their actions, frogs rest on a lily pad, birds nest in a tree. (Birds do it, bees do it, Imamura’s Japanese do it.) As Orin’s 70th winter approaches, her eldest son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) prepares to fulfill his duty. At the film’s climax, a nearly wordless half-hour-long sequence, Tatsuhei carries his mother up the mountain. As they ascend, we witness a heart-stopping image: hundreds of skeletons, the bones of dead ancestors from generations past. At the moment of goodbye, Tatsuhei refuses to leave. Orin slaps him across the face, and sends him on his way. The first snow of winter falls. The cycle turns: Tatsuhei knows that not too many winters from now, he’ll join his mother on Narayama. The movie is wholly characteristic of Imamura in its ribaldry, its celebration of sex and survival, and its unsentimental view of nature (human and non-human), but this final sequence brings a new kind of shock. The Ballad of Narayama is Imamura’s masterpiece.

Black Rain

Zegen (also known as The Pimp or A Pander [1987]), was based on the autobiography of Iheji Muraoka (played by Ogata), a Japanese expat who ran a string of brothels in Southeast Asia during the imperial-expansion years of the early twentieth century. The film was never distributed in the USA. Then Imamura adapted Black Rain (1989) from the novel by Masuji Ibuse. Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) is a young woman living with her aunt Shigeko and uncle Shigematsu in Hiroshima when the Americans drop the atom bomb. These early scenes are stark, direct, hard to watch and difficult to forget. Imamura makes us see the flesh as it melts and drips off a man’s bones, the tiny charred corpse clutched by a mother. The family lives through the post-war years, waiting to see if the dreaded radiation sickness affecting so many survivors will claim them too. In the meantime, they try to get on with their lives—Shigematsu wants to see Yasuko married off; she wants to remain with them. Eventually, they all grow ill. That’s it. Somber, stately, and slowly paced, Black Rain was viewed by some critics as Imamura’s submission to classical rigor in his old age, even as his “reconciliation” with Ozu. (The domestic-melodrama aspects of the story, which also recall Ozu, are well handled; this is one of the few Imamura films that’s effective as a tearjerker.) The brisk, kinetic editing of the earlier works has given way to a style of long unbroken takes captured from a chaste distance. But though the tone is subdued, the film carries a current of political anger at the suffering caused by the bomb, and a powerful sense of the devastation engendered by the war. (Interestingly, the film was faulted by critics in other Asian countries for depicting only the Japanese as the war’s victims.)

Another hiatus followed, during which Imamura suffered a stroke, and had trouble raising money for his next project, Dr. Akagi. But in 1997 he inaugurated a new period of creativity with The Eel, a mellow comedy about a businessman (Koji Yakusho, the popular star of Shall We Dance?[Masayuki Suo, 1996] and Cure [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997]) who is sent to jail for killing his adulterous wife. Released from prison after eight years, he attempts to build a quiet life amidst a clamorous community of misfits and do-gooders, a pursuit further complicated by the romantic attentions of a woman he rescues from a botched suicide. Some found the film a tentative and even tepid work, but many greeted it as a return to form: it shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (Imamura had won the prize earlier, for The Ballad of Narayama), and its international success allowed Imamura to make two more films in succession: Dr. Akagi (1998) and Warm Water under a Red Bridge.

Dr. Akagi

Dr. Akagi is an energetically rendered portrait of Japan in the last year of World War Two. Japan’s defeat is imminent. Akagi (Akira Emoto), a family doctor, tries to help his patients and pursue his medical research as the world falls apart around him. (Imamura may be working partly from memory here: his father was a doctor, and he was a young man during this period.) Akagi is a weird and original creation, part heroic crusader, part buffoon. Selfless in his devotion to medicine and healing, he may also be losing his mind. He diagnoses every one of his patients with hepatitis, and is convinced, against all evidence that Japan will triumph over its enemies. The war, in fact, may have driven him mad but, this being an Imamura film, it’s difficult to say. Hard times have pressed everyone to their limits. Families sell their daughters into prostitution, sons die at the front, doctors become drug addicts. Yet despite the bleakness of its setting, the film is an ebullient entertainment, the director amused as ever with the freaks and dreamers he puts on parade.

Warm Water stars Koji Yakusho as Sasano, a downsized “salaryman” facing a divorce. He travels to the seaside Toyama prefecture in search of rumored buried treasure, and becomes involved with Saeko (Misa Shimizu), a local woman with a unique biological quirk: when she orgasms, she unleashes a tide of warm fluid that soaks the floors, runs out of the house, and spills into the nearby river, drawing the fish toward it and delighting the local fishermen. Sasano searches for the treasure as his strange romance takes flight. Saeko’s gushing at first excites but soon disturbs the conventional-minded Sasano, and he begins to withdraw. At the end, he discovers that the “treasure” he had sought was a metaphor—for a woman’s love and lust. Here Imamura the aged libertine is in Lawrencian seize-the-day mode, satirizing the timidity of the corporate-technocrat generation. Taro, the recently deceased used-book seller whose spirit presides over the film (he’s the one who sends Sasano on the treasure quest), tells the younger man in a flashback, “Enjoy life while you can still get a hard-on,” and Imamura admits Taro speaks for him: “His message is my own… I think we’ve lost our way. We’ve got this wonderful freedom and nobody is doing anything with it.” (16)

All three of the recent features handle audacious shifts in tone with terrific fluency. (The Eel begins as a bloody thriller, turns into a drama of redemption, and finally becomes a knockabout comedy with surrealist touches.) They also share an interest in utilizing acting ensembles to create an onscreen community of misfits and outcasts: Imamura’s people, then and now. (17) In time, the late works may grow in stature, though they lack the tension of an artist discovering new things to say (or, as in late Buñuel, the excitement of an artist finding new ways to say old things). But they constitute an impressive last act in a major career, and certainly live up to Imamura’s old declaration: “I want to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films.” (18)

I’ve always wanted to ask questions about the Japanese, because it’s the only people I’m qualified to describe… I am surprised by my reception in the west. I don’t really think that people there can possibly understand what I’m talking about. (19)

Shohei Imamura


As director:

Also screenwriter or co-screenwriter, except for (*):

Stolen Desire (Nusumareta Yokujo) (1958) *

Nishi Ginza Station (Nishi Ginza Eki-Mae) (1958)

Endless Desire (Hateshi Naki Yokubo) (1958)

My Second Brother (Nianchan) (1959)

Pigs and Battleships (Buta To Gunkan) (1961)

The Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki) (1963)

Intentions of Murder (Unholy Desire, Akai Satsui) (1964)

The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology (Jinruigaku Nyumon) (1966)

A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu) (1967) *

The Profound Desire of the Gods (Kuragejima: Tales from a Southern Island, Kamigami No Fukaki Yokubo) (1968)

A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (Nippon Sengo Shi: Madamu Omboro No Seikatsu) (1970) *

Karayuki-San, The Making of a Prostitute (Karayuki-San) (1975) *

Vengeance Is Mine (Fukushu Suru Wa Ware Ni Ari) (1979) *

Eijankaika (1981)

The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-Bushi Ko) (1983)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Zegen (The Pimp, A Pander) (1987)

Black Rain (Kuroi Ame) (1989)

The Eel (Unagi) (1997)

Dr. Akagi (Kanzo Sensei) (1998)

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi No Shita No Nurui Mizu) (2001)

Japan segment in 11’09”01 omnibus film (2002)

Television documentaries:

In Search of Unreturned Soldiers (Mikikanhei O Otte) Parts I and II (1971)

The Pirates of Bubuan (Bubuan No Kaizoku) (1972)

Muhomatsu Returns Home (Muhomatsu Kokyo Ni Kaeru) (1973)

In Search of Unreturned Soldiers (Mikikanhei O Otte) Part III (1975)

Two Men Named Yoshinobu (Tsuiseki/Futari No Yoshinobu) (1975)


Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, expanded edition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1982

Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, updated paperback edition, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1985

Ian Buruma, Behind The Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, and other Japanese Cultural Heroes, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984

David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988

J. Hoberman, “The Pornographers” and Dave Kehr, “Eijanaika” in Kathy Schulz Huffhines (ed.), Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, San Francisco, Mercury House Incorporated, 1991

Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema, New York, Pantheon Books, 1976

James Quandt (ed.), Shohei Imamura, Toronto, Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1997

Terrence Rafferty, “Black Rain” in The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing about the Movies, New York, Grove Press, 1993

Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, trans. Gregory Barrett, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982

Web Resources

All You Need is Sex
Article and interview by Nigel Kendall, from The Guardian, March 14, 2002.

Free to Roam
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Dr. Akagi, for the Chicago Reader.

Japanese Film Director Shohei Imamura Speaks to the World Socialist Web Site
A 2000 interview by Richard Phillips for World Socialist Web Site.

Monomyth Website, UC Berkeley ORIAS (Office of Resources for International and Area Studies)
Background information on the Shinto creation myth referred to in endnote 11.

Film Directors – Articles On the Internet
Link to online articles can be found her

Water Under the Bridge for Japanese Cinematographer
A profile of Shigeru Komatsubara, Imamura’s cinematographer since The Eel, at Kodak.com.

Wriggling Free of Perfection
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of The Eel, for the Chicago Reader.

Click here to search for Shohei Imamura DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, updated paperback edition, Tokyo and New York, Kodansha International Ltd., 1985, pp. 293, 287
  2. Ibid., p. 287.
  3. Toichi Nakata, “Shohei Imamura Interview” in James Quandt (ed.), Shohei Imamura, Toronto, Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1997, p. 117
  4. Nigel Kendall, “All You Need Is Sex”, The Guardian, March 14, 2002, http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,667028,00.html
  5. Nakata, ibid., p. 111
  6. Ibid., p. 117
  7. Ibid., p. 112
  8. The Nuberu Bagu (after the French Nouvelle Vague) was the name given to the remarkably talented generation of filmmakers that arose in the late 1950s and 1960s as the old studio system was weakening. The grouping included Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Seijun Suzuki and Yoshishige Yoshida, among others.
  9. One of Imamura’s key collaborators during this period was cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda, who shot all of the director’s films from Endless Desire through The Pornographers.
  10. David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 123
  11. Typically, Imamura depicts incest as a natural urge indulged in by the “backward” provincials and repressed by the “respectable” classes. Incest has a special resonance in Japanese culture. According to the Shinto creation myth, the islands of Japan were the “children” of the copulating brother-and-sister deities Izanagi and Izanami, who also gave birth to the sun goddess Amateratsu, mythical progenitor of the Yamato line of emperors. (See http://ias.berkeley.edu/orias/hero/yamato/ and Ian Buruma, Behind The Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, and other Japanese Cultural Heroes, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984.) This tale provides part of the background to Imamura’s later The Profound Desire of the Gods, which takes place on a rural island. The film’s protagonists include a pair of sibling lovers; the sister is regarded as a shamaness by her tribe. In local legend, a similar union spawned the island’s early population. Here, however, the encroachment of modern values makes the lovers’ fellow tribal folk ashamed of their customs, and they persecute the siblings for their breaking of the taboo. Also see, besides The Pornographers, The Insect Woman and Vengeance Is Mine.
  12. During this period he also established his film school, called the first of its kind in Japan, as a way to provide aspiring filmmakers with the training that earlier generations had received through the now defunct studio-apprentice programs.
  13. Nakata, p. 120
  14. Ibid.
  15. Perhaps it was the experience of making documentaries about the recent past, perhaps it was simply the result of aging, but Imamura’s return to fictional filmmaking in the late 1970s showed a new interest in history. All of his 1950s and ’60s films are set in the present; of the seven features he has made since Vengeance Is Mine, five are set in the past.
  16. Kendall, ibid.
  17. Incidentally, all three features, as well as Imamura’s contribution to the international omnibus film 11’09”01, were co-written by his son Daisuke Tengan, also a director.
  18. Bock, p. 288
  19. Kendall, ibid.

About The Author

Nelson Kim is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He teaches film at Columbia University and Fordham University and contributes regularly to the website Hammer to Nail.

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