Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 16, May 2001



Catherine Cullen

Carnival of the Unconscious: On Shohei Imamura




_Shohei Imamura_

Edited by James Quandt

Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1997

ISBN 0-9682969-0-4

183 pp.


An excellent companion to Shohei Imamura's films, these essays and reviews collected by James Quandt are thoughtful interpretations of a complex, thorny body of filmwork. This is a book for the curious who are new to Imamura's films and looking for an intense, somewhat scattered introduction to this unpredictable observer of human behavior. It will also be of great interest to the scholar looking for hard to obtain articles, some translated here for the first time. In his Introduction to the book, Quandt points to the filmmaker's disregard for separations between documentary and fiction conventions along with 'outsized performances, teeming energy, and grotesque spectacle' (3) as the root means for producing the often puzzling mix Imamura terms 'messy' films (39).


Formally adventurous, Imamura rolls fiction into documentary and documentary evolves into fiction as he collapses distinctions between the two modes of working. _A Man Vanishes_ begins in the style of investigative journalism. The film becomes complex with unexpected twists as the real life girlfriend of the disappeared man forsakes his memory to flirt with the actor hired to interview her, and ends with the walls of the set falling in as Imamura himself appears to reveal the film as a constructed premise. Rough, often vulgar, exuberantly carnal, untidy, rife with folk superstitions, and exploding with energy, Imamura's films 'seem the exact contradiction of Mizoguchi's cosmic regret and Ozu's sublime acceptance', as Dave Kehr writes (70). The families in Imamura's films fumble for love, betray casually, turn to incest for comfort, are defiantly self-serving, or break down altogether -- decidedly not Confucianist! In spite of daunting obstacles his protagonists, particularly his female characters, project a physical energy that often fills the screen like a life force.


His 'juicy' (15) women (as the filmmaker describes them) insist on inhabiting their sexuality and use it when needed to navigate oppressive and treacherous social terrains. At once sexual and maternal, Imamura's women confound the separation old attitudes maintain between mother and the sexual body. Donald Ritchie writes: 'Mother is a sacred object and mother's vagina is not a thought upon which many men dwell on. To mother herself, however, her vagina is an important and connected part of her body.' (15) Max Tessier describes an Imamurian woman as 'freed from the family shackles, who uses her body intuitively as a way of revealing her liberty' (48-9). Living in the teeming chaos of lower class life, they are pragmatists given to sensual pleasure, and possess a tremendous will to survive rape, humiliation, and other horrors. What feels 'irrationally dislocating', as Allan Casebier notes (95), may be what feels right to the female protagonist living true to her own nature.


In reference to _Intentions of Murder_ Dave Kehr writes, 'if her sexuality is what has led Sadako to her entrapment, attracting weak, frightened men who hope to find strength and security in her, it is also the secret of her survival and triumph. It is the sexuality of procreation, perpetuation, the irresistible urge to exist' (76). She 'trusts the physical force she contains' and 'lets her vitality guide her life' (76). Tome's daughter in _The Insect Woman_ willfully uses her sex to extract a large sum of money from a corrupt businessman in order to purchase a farm and begin a new life together with her boyfriend.


Donald Ritchie points out in his survey 'Notes for a Study' that Imamura aims, through the use of flashbacks and parallels,


'to create a 'critical position' so that the spectator would also discover the truth about women, undisturbed by empathy or identification . . . Usually we are invited to commiserate with such women, [women who are selfish, strong, amoral, poor, lower-class, hedonistic, or deceitful] the implication being that since they do not fit the (male-defined) female role they will end up deserted and unfortunate.' (14)


Imamura's films view such women as savvy about their environment and keen to survive. Imamura once said: 'My heroines are true to life -- just look around you at Japanese women.' (15)


In the interview with Japanese filmmaker Toichi Makata, Imamura traces his interest in lower-class women to those he met working in the black market after World War II: '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. My wife is a bold, strong woman, too, and I respect her a great deal.' (117)


Audie Bock describes Imamura's detached, scrutinizing gaze as anthropological and his portrayal of lower class women as politically feminist. He elicits an intellectual sympathy, she says, rather than an emotional one.


Imamura views the human race, in general, as predatory. One must devour or be devoured. Through Imamura's rather pessimistic lens the self-serving, grasping underclass is manipulated by ruthless, equally self-serving merchants, samurai, criminals, family members, spouses, or lovers. Ritchie writes: 'We must infer that the subject is really ruthless power on one hand and feckless hedonism on the other.' (31) In _Eijanaika_, Ine is caught between the easy money of prostitution and her love for her newly returned husband, Genji, a hapless idealist who dreams of returning to America to start a farm. She loves Genji but she loves money, too and cannot decide between the two.


As Antoine deBaecque points out, the shark's consumption of a pig that falls into the water in _The Profound Desire of the Gods_ explicitly illustrates that 'the predator is at the heart of the story and nothing ever saves its victims' (156), whether they be pigs, the innocent victims of the serial killer in _Vengeance is Mine_, the daughter who is sold and ends up as a prostitute in _The Insect Woman_, or the townspeople in _Eijanaika_ mercilessly killed as they parade through town singing in protest of life conditions. According to Kehr, _Eijanaika_, which means 'what the hell', is the 'cry of a dangerous, rock-bottom freedom, of the abrupt realization that traditions are dead, laws arbitrary, society an empty convention . . . For the poor, there is nothing left -- a condition that makes everything possible. Why not wear wild costumes, dance in the streets, loot stores, tear down buildings? What the hell?' (83) A sense of desperation runs through many of Imamura's films as characters are oppressed by extreme poverty (_Ballad of Narayama_), betrayed by family or lover (_The Eel_, _The Insect Woman_, _The Pornographers_), or, like the killer in _Vengeance is Mine_, driven by an unslakable hatred.


Imamura describes the serial killer as someone with 'no kokoro' (no heart, no self): 'Inside this man, could there be nothing but hollowness? Then, I think I can see the lonely inner stare of today's man.' (19) He kills without motivation a truck driver who kindly gives him a lift. The shot lasts a long time as if to demonstrate how hard it is to kill another person. The violence is not cathartic, glorious, or redemptive. It is gristly, slow, senseless, shattering.


Dave Kehr describes the 'carnival of the unconscious' as Imamura's 'ruling metaphor and main staging area' (83). Kinzo's carnival in _Eijanaika_:


'isn't the whimsical playground of illusions of the Frederico Fellini films; it's a malignant illusion, an institutionalized fraud, recognized as such by both the people who run it and the people who pay for admission. Yet the need to believe in something is so strong that the carnival has a positive social function. These dreams may be shoddy and commercial, but they are dreams after all, and everyone (the show people included) needs something to hold on to. When paper charms begin to rain down mysteriously over the carnival grounds -- a sign from the sun goddess that she approves of the _Eijanaika_ movement -- the carnival people start making and selling counterfeit charms, telling themselves that they're helping out the gods. The fraud, which was probably started by some showman in the next district anyway, has a divine origin and a divine blessing; the gods are all for making a buck themselves.' (83)


Gilles Laprevotte writes that Imamura's films are 'a type of counter-history' (104) at odds with the official view of Japanese life. His characters burst with energy, too big and too bold to fit in prescribed social molds. Their robust actions confront the false conception of a polite society of individuals who efface themselves for the good of the whole. Linda Ehrlich calls _Pigs and Battleships_ an 'encounter with the power of memory' (176). She examines the film in the historical framework of the American Occupation and lauds it as a raw re-writing of a history that resists occupation of the soul.


By turns pitch black satire (_The Pornographers_), oddly romantic (_The Eel_), or earthy, pantheistic and folk-derived (_Ballad of Narayama_ (1983), Imamura's films do not lend themselves easily to puzzle-piece analysis. In fact, under a simple critical dissection, they become oddly fitted irrational parts. In this manner, his films establish their own particular authority and point to a relationship between conscious and unconscious that is pantheistic and not easily understood through the lens of Western psychology without knowledge of Shinto animism and Buddhist views of nature which do not include Biblical expulsion from paradise, and subsequent break with nature or the Cartesian mind/body split. Especially privy to the unconscious as a vast river of knowledge and experience, Imamura has a fantastic ability to incorporate animals as metaphors of human ambition and basic drives. Imamura dives into the dark and shining river and holds up fish, redoubtable and not, that glimmer with the knowledge we must know about ourselves. Pigs flood the ship in _Pigs and Battleships _ as materialist greed loosed, and as Charles Tesson notes, animals copulate everywhere in _Ballad of Narayama_. A sea creature who lives in the mud and darkness is taken as a soulmate in _The Eel_. A woman imagines her dead husband lives on in the goldfish she keeps in the aquarium by her bed in _The Pornographers_. Her lover can't stand it and smashes the aquarium killing the fish, foreshadowing further betrayals that eventually unhinge the woman.


Allan Casebier addresses at length the important value Imamura places on irrational aspects of human nature. Defined as 'instinct, intuition, emotional response and other capacities possessed by humans independent of the ability to use language', Casebier suggests Imamura uses images to mine the unfathomable in human character and actions to portray qualities not only uniquely Japanese but also of value to Westerners who naively 'equate rationality with reality' (90).


In _The Eel_, a man who killed his wife after finding her inflagrante delicto with her lover, is released from prison. Lost to the ordinary world of human relations, he keeps a pet eel as his sole confidante. His plans for a quiet life as a barber in a small town are disrupted when he rescues a suicide who looks uncannily like his dead wife. Shady and manipulative characters from her past and his, troubles in tow, arrive for a final scene bursting with the energy familiar to Imamura fans. As characters demand money and turn the tables on one another, the man and the woman start and stumble their way around, toward love. The ending is tentative, shy, and uncertain as love can be.


Though _Dr Akagi_ (1999) is not featured in this book, it too addresses the soul through images as odd and effective as that employed in _The Eel_. Like an effective illusion, such images are not composed of simple appearances. The protagonist of the title races around town diagnosing all his patients with hepatitis as if he's found some omnipresent sickness of the soul. A Dutch prisoner of war, tormented horribly by his Japanese captor, destroys the soldier through what is required to extinguish the fire in the Dutchman's fierce soul. By the time the Japanese soldier's sword finally fells him, the prisoner's forbearance and fearless courage have sent the soldier into a rage that will be his undoing.


In his Introduction to Knut Hamsun's _Hunger_, Robert Bly describes the author's approach to the demonic that serves Shohei Imamura as well. He observes demonic aspects of human character without the hysteria which entraps both Billy Graham and William Burroughs. He watches a cruel impulse come forward but does not become moralistic like the former or lick his lips like the latter. Rather he looks at the impulse straight on like an old Zen master. [1]


The Imamurian woman is an ungovernable female who follows her own impulses, eschewing Confucianist ideals of duty and obligation except where it suits her. Refusing to take the road to suicide when dishonored, or assume the role of the cast-aside victim, his female characters explode narrow conceptions of female roles long seen in Japanese cinema: geisha; infinitely patient, long suffering wife and mother; or tough girlfriend who sacrifices herself for a gangster boyfriend. He not only confronts expectations within Japanese culture but also challenges Western assumptions about Japanese life.


Finally, Imamura pays affectionate tribute to his mentor, the anarchic filmmaker Yuko Kawashima, in two short essays, and criticizes his 'anti-mentor', Yasujiro Ozu, in one of the two interviews featured.


Compiled in one volume, these essays make a vigorous discussion offering multiple viewpoints, presenting conflicting interpretations, overlapping one another, paying tribute, confronting popular misconceptions about Imamura, and taking the filmmaker to task on how he describes his own work.


Written over time and independently of each other, there are gaps. The resultant discontinuity makes a stimulating feast of approaches and conclusions albeit each a basket to be unbundled and mulled over to digest fully. This book is chock-a-block with illuminating insights into Imamara's exploration of the psyche unique to the Japanese, especially: the fluid interplay between the unconscious and the conscious; his respect for all his characters however loutish; his portrayal of highly determined, sexually robust lower class female characters; and his criticism of material greed. Bringing together a range of voices, including the filmmaker, around one table, it is a banquet.


New York City, USA





1. Knut Hamsun, _Hunger_, trans. Robert Bly (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1967), p. xv.





_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_ (Akai Satsui), 1964.


_The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology_ (Jinruigaku Nyumon), 1966.


_A Man Vanishes_ (Ningen Johatsu), 1967.


_The Profound Desire of the Gods_ (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.


_Eijanaika_, 1981.


_Ballad of Narayama_ (Narayama-Bushi Ko), 1983.


_Zegen_, 1987.


_Black Rain_ (Kuroi Ame), 1989.


_The Eel_ (Unagi), 1997.


_Dr Akagi_ (Kanzo Sensei), 1999.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Catherine Cullen, 'Carnival of the Unconscious: On Shohei Imamura', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 16, May 2001 <>.



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