Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: PFA Presents ‘Shohei Imamura’s Japan’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday May 25, 2007

Think of Japanese cinema and one of two things probably comes to mind: either the robust, action-filled, western-influenced samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa, or the more refined, restrained and elegant films of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Mikio Naruse.  

Shohei Imamura, one of the primary filmmakers of Japan’s New Wave, falls into neither category. His work focuses instead on the dregs of modern Japanese society. Pacific Film Archive is hosting a retrospective of the iconoclastic director’s work through June 30. 

The New Wave refers to the generation of filmmakers that rose up through that country’s studio system in the years following World War II. Unlike the directors of the French New Wave—outsiders who began as critics and then set out to re-define their nation’s film culture—the directors of Japan’s New Wave were trained, cultivated and encouraged by the industry they would later challenge.  

Imamura began his career as an assistant to Ozu and quickly came to the conclusion that, though Ozu was undoubtedly a great director, his restrained style was not for Imamura. When he finally got his hands on his own crew and camera, he veered in the opposite direction, renouncing the refinement and formal beauty of Ozu’s work and opting instead for a cinema of cruelty, perversion and dark humor.  

Imamura thought of himself first as an anthropologist. His goal was to document the world as he saw it, not to shape, explain or judge it. And in fact, after making such classics as Pigs and Battleships (1961) and The Pornographers (1966), the director turned to documentary filmmaking in the 1970s. 

As he explains in an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s new DVD edition of Vengeance is Mine, Imamura became somewhat disenchanted with actors while making The Profound Desire of the Gods in 1968 and afterwards sought other means of expression. For the next decade, he made nothing but documentaries, until returning to narrative, commercial filmmaking in 1979 with Vengeance is Mine, in which he fashioned a sort of reality-fiction hybrid. 

The film, showing Tuesday, May 29, is based on the exploits of a real-life killer who roamed Japan for a few months in 1963. Ken Ogata plays the role of Iwao Enokizu with a steely impulsiveness, the very personification of id. He seeks only the immediate satisfaction of his desires, regardless of the human cost.  

Imamura makes no effort to explain this man’s actions; he presents them as a simple fact of Japanese life in the post-war era. We learn much of Enokizu’s youth, his upbringing and his relationships, and though these details certainly help us get to know the character, there is still no clear motive given for his crimes. As critic Michael Atkinson puts it in the DVD’s liner notes, “Vengeance Is Mine … wastes no breath on compassion, no calories on decorousness, and no time on explanations.” Atkinson places Imamura among what he calls the “Sardonic Objectivists,” directors such as Fritz Lang, Luis Buñuel and Douglas Sirk, who tried to shed light on humanity’s dark side. Imamura, Atkinson says, was “a Japanese Samuel Fuller, fascinated with working-class ruin and primal impulse.” 

In the opening scenes of Vengeance is Mine, Imamura gives us the impression that the worst is over. The killer has been arrested and is being transported to prison. But soon we are subjected to flashbacks of Enokizu’s first two killings, graphic scenes which contain none of the usual screeching violins or tawdry effects of many a serial killer film, but are instead shot at arm’s length and with no adornment. Imamura sought no attention for his camerawork or framing; he wanted his technique to remain invisible. Thus, in simple documentary terms, we see murder not as a melodramatic plot point but as an almost mundane occurrence: grisly, clumsy and primitive.  

There are no pure innocents in Imamura’s films. The killer's wife is somewhat deranged and manipulative herself. This is one of the themes that runs through much of Imamura’s work: women clawing their way through the morass of Japanese society, resorting to the baser instincts in the struggle to survive. These are not the long-suffering women of quiet dignity as found in classical Japanese cinema—“Those women don’t exist,” Imamura once said—they are bold, lusty, self-interested and at times desperate, using whatever means available to survive in a society that is structured to subdue and degrade them.  

The result is a body of work unique in Japanese cinema, one that seeks not to organize and understand the world, but to simply document it without explanation or condemnation. 




Through June 30 at Pacific Film Archive. 2575 Bancroft Way. 642-1124. 



Starring Ken Ogata, Mayumi Ogawa, Mitsuko Baisho, Frankie Sakai, Kazuo Kitamura, Chocho Miyako, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Rentaro Mikuni. Directed by Shohei Imamura.  

140 minutes. Playing at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. $29.95.