Shohei Imamura’s films dig beneath the surface of Japanese society to reveal a wellspring of sensual, often irrational, energy that lies beneath. Along with his colleagues Nagisa Ôshima and Masahiro Shinoda, Imamura began his serious directorial career as a member of the New Wave movement in Japan. Reacting against the studio system, and particularly against the style of Yasujirô Ozu, the director he first assisted, Imamura moved away from the subtlety and understated nature of the classical masters to a celebration of the primitive and spontaneous aspects of Japanese life.
To explore this level of Japanese consciousness, Imamura focuses on the lower classes, with characters who range from bovine housewives to shamans, and from producers of blue movies to troupes of third-rate traveling actors. He has proven himself unafraid to explore themes usually considered taboo, particularly those of incest and superstition. Imamura himself was not born into the kind of lower-class society he depicts. The college-educated son of a physician, he was drawn toward film, and particularly toward the kinds of films he would eventually make, by his love of the avant-garde theater.
Imamura has worked as a documentarist, recording the statements of Japanese who remained in other parts of Asia after the end of WWII, and of the “karayuki-san”–Japanese women sent to accompany the army as prostitutes during the war period. His heroines tend to be remarkably strong and resilient, able to outlast, and even to combat, the exploitative situations in which they find themselves. This is a stance that would have seemed impossible for the long-suffering heroines of classical Japanese films. In 1983, Imamura won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for The Ballad of Narayama (1983), based on a Shichirô Fukazawa novel about a village where the elderly are abandoned on a sacred mountaintop to die. Unlike director Keisuke Kinoshita‘s earlier version of the same story, Imamura’s film, shot on location in a remote mountain village, highlights the more disturbing aspects of the tale through its harsh realism. In his attempt to capture what is real in Japanese society, and what it means to be Japanese, Imamura used an actual 40-year-old former prostitute in his The Insect Woman (1963); a woman who was searching for her missing fiancé in A Man Vanishes (1967); and a non-actress bar hostess as the protagonist of his History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (1970).
Despite this anthropological bent, Imamura has cleverly mixed the real with the fictional, even within what seems to be a documentary. This is most notable in his A Man Vanishes (1967), in which the fiancée becomes more interested in an actor playing in the film than with her missing lover. In a time when the word “Japanese” is often considered synonymous with “coldly efficient,” Imamura’s vision of a more robust and intuitive Japanese character adds an especially welcome cinematic dimension.
All films are as director except where otherwise marked.