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The anti-Ozu

By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  November 27, 2007

His style got looser and more modernist with the years, but Imamura’s world reflected his childhood experiences — he knew that with starvation and humiliation as primal forces, anyone can be driven to do virtually anything. THE INSECT WOMAN (1963; December 8 at 9:15 pm), a merciless tale about one raped woman’s helpless descent into whoredom, pimphood, and destitution that dares to limn more than 40 years of Japanese history in the process, and THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966; December 3 at 7 pm) consolidated his position and sensationalized his career worldwide, as well as offering up a vision of modern Japan — as a rat pit of feral opportunism, debasing Americanization, and sex-industry violence — we hadn’t seen before, and one that became instantly de rigueur. (Suzuki and Yasuzo Masumura both took the baton and ran.) Contemporary Japanese culture had traditionally wrestled with honor in one way or another, but nobility and its stress rarely occupied Imamura; for him, the instinct and depravity underneath the social cheesecloth provided enough drama.

Neither did he frequently seek shelter in the period drama, another of his countrymen’s habits. As thoroughly crazy as it is, the nearly three-hour THE PROFOUND DESIRE OF THE GODS (1968; December 2 at 3 pm) is a kind of crystallization of Imamura’s ideas, transported to the purified landscape of an island so secluded its inhabitants have evolved into animistic, incestuous nuts. (Cut-off island communities may well be the Japanese cultural-joke equivalent to our Ozark hillbillies.) Into this ranting hothouse, screaming with superstition and covered with creepy, hungry wildlife, comes a civil engineer from the mainland endeavoring to find a fresh water source so a factory can be built. Sorcery, nymphomania, incestuous temptation and guilt, monsoons, anti-drought rituals, hidden Sisyphean absurdities, ghosts, sado-masochism, crowd lunacy, and de facto marriage await him. Imamura reveals a conflicted metaphoric range here — his people are relentlessly scalded for behaving like animals, and yet the industrialization of this Pacific badland is a crime unto itself, a daunting sequence of bulldozed jungle focused finally on a disattached lizard’s tail flailing in the dirt. (Toward the beginning, a pig falls off a boat and gets savaged by sharks, and at the end a man meets a similar fate, in a reverse of the opening and closing run-amok images of Pigs and Battleships.) But Profound Desire, which was never released in this country, remains a hair-raising, richly imagined epic, filthy with unforgettable images and, by its end, beautifully mysterious.

As he aged, Imamura became more catholic in his interests and his tone, but he snaps at the jugular in VENGEANCE IS MINE (1979; December 1 at 7 pm), which returns to the moral squalor during and after WW2, as the country’s spume of self-hating guilt manifests in the form of a serial killer’s maturation and anti-career. There’s not a sane or healthy social unit in sight, but as Imamura aged, it became less possible to quantify him only as a social critic, and this film is paradigmatic, evading codification at every turn, or rather, fulfilling every description, sometimes in different scenes: psycho-social critique, serial-killer thriller, Nippon noir, black farce, whatever. In the first few minutes, we see Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) abruptly and apropos of nothing at all bludgeon a co-worker with a hammer and then jam a knife through his breastbone. From there, Iwao’s trajectory becomes less explicable, not more, a disorienting juggling act of self-control, repression, adopting masks. Without playing to the cheap seats, or displaying righteousness, Imamura critiques his nation’s troubled personality with a steel-tipped whip.

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