“For me, the idea for the film lies in its attitude to human beings. In my case, this attitude is one of obsession…. In my work, people take centre stage. I am much more interested in mankind than I am in other filmmakers.”
– Shohei Imamura (1)
It has often been said that an anthropological approach and sensibility animates and defines the work of Shohei Imamura. The Japanese title of his 1966 film Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku nyûmon (The Pornographers) translates as Introduction to Anthropology, and this ironically magniloquent, boldly declamatory title throws into relief the ostensibly seedy private world of amateur 16mm pornography that occupies the film’s protagonist: seedy from the point-of-view of “civilised” society but significantly not to the character. Nor indeed to Imamura, who finds both this man and, typically for the director, his landlady, to be rarefied creatures whose earthy behaviour and appetites offer a bold picture of contrastive morality, a carnivalesque destabilising of the status quo.
Imamura’s epic 1968 masterpiece Kamigami no fukaki yokubo (Profound Desire of the Gods; also known in English as Tales from a Southern Island) remains, perhaps, the director’s last word on this subject. It is a film that also proceeds from a grandiose title to dig beneath the veneer of polite society in order to unearth the fervently religious beliefs and animalistic, irrational behaviour and impulses that illuminate such a facade, the facade that typically defines our own modern lives. Shot on Ishigaki island (one of the largest islands of the Yaeyamas of Okinawa and located on the southern-most tip of the archipelago), Profound Desire of the Gods is paradigmatic Imamura in that it is concerned with the clash between modernity and antiquation, the ostensibly extreme beliefs of a quasi-incestuous family of islanders and the forces of progress that want to build an airport on the land and open it up to the mainland.
There have been numerous Japanese films set on the island of Okinawa, and that offer variously pointed and personal responses to its controversial, contentious status vis-a-vis Japan. Nagisa Oshima’s Natsu no imoto (Dear Summer Sister, 1971), the war film Gekido no showashi: Okinawa kessen (The Battle of Okinawa, Kihachi Okamoto, 1971), Kazuo Hara’s incendiary documentary Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, 1974), Go Takamine’s magic-realist super-hero fable Untama giru (1989), and Takeshi Kitano’s philosophical yakuza parable Sonatine (1994), all make particular use of Okinawa as a distinct, liminal site and a curious space of otherness within the Japanese psyche: at once a part of the country’s archipelago yet ceded to American control and with a local populace torn not only over its sense of nationality and belonging but divided (at least in the late 1960s and early 1970s) over an impending return to Japanese sovereignty.
Working in colour for the first time, Imamura approaches Okinawa in different terms. He rhapsodises over the diversity of flora and fauna that makes up the island; and unlike Kaneto Shindo in his austere, wordless documentary Hadaka no shima (The Naked Island, 1960), lavishes rapt attention on the routines and rituals that define island life and livelihood. As in the director’s later Narayama-bushi ko (The Ballad of Narayama, 1983) – another narrative built around an isolated rural community living in heightened obeisance with regard to ancient folklore and religious conviction – frequent cutaways to animal and insect life in this film serve to establish a natural order against which the human drama unfolds. Or, rather, a mirror, as animals are precisely how Imamura conceives of and celebrates his characters throughout.
The director also offers a new stylistic motif to this aspect of the film’s mise en scène. There is a preponderance of static long shots/long takes that obscurely frame the ostensibly key action or characters of the scene, either through cluttered compositions or through the use of deep focus cinematography. Such scenes literally distance the viewer, reinforcing a sense both of spectatorship and, by extension, of a narrative playing out. Imamura, never one to shy from digressive, messy stories, also foregrounds the fact that he is toying with tall tales at other moments in Profound Desire of the Gods. The prologue ends with a local, aged elder retelling to a rapt audience of children the legend of the mythical brother and sister deities whose fate begot their home island. And this (subsequently repeated) moment, replete with expressionistic green lighting, becomes representative of the ubiquity of storytelling, underlining the point that his incestuous protagonists offer a modern retelling of this creation myth.
Furthermore, the fact that Imamura is able to simultaneously uphold the excessive Shintoism of the Futori family’s existence and refrain from parodying or damning the point-of-view of the engineer who leads the potential transformation of the island is paramount in the achievements of Profound Desire of the Gods. Unlike Shinsuke Ogawa’s Sanrizuka series of documentaries that covered the controversial construction of Narita airport on sacred farmland, Imamura does not easily or altogether demonise modernity, and indeed uses the engineer to demonstrate the rapid state at which the aforementioned veneer of civilisation can fall away to reveal the animal beneath. There is perhaps a broadly allegorical angle to this aspect of the narrative, one that pertains to Japan’s relatively recent status as an isolated island that was all but invaded and forced into the modern world in the latter half of the 19th century. However, despite its scope, Profound Desire of the Gods is not an overtly demonstrative film, and certainly not political in the way Oshima’s Dear Summer Sister is. Imamura expressly does not attempt to define his characters in these terms; such filmmaking remained entirely anathema to this director, and it makes this film a major part both of his canon and of Okinawan cinema.
Profound Desire of the Gods marked a turning point in Imamura’s career. Following this picture he turned his back on feature filmmaking and thereafter spent almost a decade working in documentary for cinema and television. He had become disillusioned with the ability of fiction to reflect what he termed “people’s true nature” (2), and wished to return to the simplicity of non-fiction in which he could go back to basics and make films quickly and cheaply, films about ordinary individuals who would otherwise remain hidden, invisible. The protracted location shoot of Profound Desire of the Gods also contributed to this cinematic about-face. The scheduled duration of six months ran over into one year, and ultimately almost to 18 months, and the complaints about this prolonged filming served to frustrate Imamura and hasten his switch to documentary. Yet the finished film represents this vital director at his untamed and untameable best.
Kamigami no fukaki yokubo/Profound Desire of the Gods (1968 Japan 173 mins)
Prod Co: Nikkatsu Prod: Masanori Yamanoi Dir: Shohei Imamura Scr: Keiji Hasebe, Shohei Imamura Phot: Masao Tochizawa Ed: Matsuo Tanji Prod Des: Takeshi Omura Mus: Toshiro Mayuzumi
Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Choichiro Kawarazaki, Kazuo Kitamura, Hideko Okiyama, Yoshi Kato, Yasuko Matsui, Kanjuro Arashi