His career reached a midlife crisis of types in the 1980s, finally digging into the pre-industrial eras so popular otherwise and finding tooth-marked bones. WHY NOT? (1981; December 2 at 7:30 pm) is a robust, rollicking, visually grand F Troop–like farce about the fall of the shogunate in and around 1866, a historical template that of course places whores, rapists, and murderous gangsters centerstage. (It’s the only film on the subject you’ll find that spends more time between fallen women’s legs than on the battlefield or the street.) A remake of Kinoshita’s 1958 classic THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1983; December 7 at 7 pm) seemed inevitable, and so did the vodka-clear gaze Imamura casts upon that tale’s primitive village and its attendant ritual death, sexual sickness, and predatory priorities. After his superb, and uncharacteristically dignified, BLACK RAIN (1989; December 10 at 7 pm) — one of the most tasteful, and gravest, films ever made about the effects of nuclear war — Imamura disappeared. Eight perhaps purgative years of silence followed, and then he re-emerged with his retirement-years package, three buoyant, barbed demi-comedies taking an exhilarated view of the human zoo: THE EEL (1997; December 10 at 9:15 pm), DR. AKAGI (1998; not included here), and WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE (2001; also not included). His cynicism had not faded, but the acidic resentment of his homeland so palpable in his earlier films had seasoned into a more genuinely, generously Buñuelian view. Warm Water, in particular, is ruthlessly funny and lovely, a sex-filled farce that satirizes the idealized plenitude of female biology (as it acknowledges its intoxication), provincial life, romantic delusion, prostitution, and even racism.
But The Eel, a winner at Cannes (it shared the Palme d’Or with Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry), is also the work of a battle-seasoned codger warming in the sun of his own autumn. The piss-and-vinegar Imamura is famous for manifests in different ways — The Eel is an offbeat, unpredictable tale of secrecy, regeneration, and community, never ending up where it at first seems destined to go, and caring not a wit for conventional Western structure. A placid, orderly white-collar “salary man” (Kôji Yakusho) impulsively kills his faithless wife. Eight years later, he’s paroled, docile, brooding, and carrying only his pet eel, which he sets up in a tank in his new, built-from-scratch seaside barber shop. From there, Imamura’s tale meanders about as his hero meets and variously affects the local villagers and gangsters, all of them broad comic types. It climaxes with a barber-shop-leveling donnybrook that’s more Abbott & Costello than Japanese art film — but viewed as the filmmaker’s long-earned love letter to the tribe he railed against for decades but found himself helplessly a member of, it’s sublime.