Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Insect Woman (Shôhei Imamura, 1963) Blu-Ray Review

Sachiko Hidari stars in Imamura's The Insect Woman (1963)...

Perhaps the most distinctive of Japan's New Wave filmmakers, Shôhei Imamura spent much of the 1960's examining the fallout of WWII on Tokyo's thriving backstreets, crafting four radical depictions of national grotesquery; The Insect Woman (1963), Intentions Of Murder (1964), The Pornographers (1966) and Profound Desires Of The Gods (1968), the latter of which is actually set on Okinawa. Throughout these pictures he navigated themes of incest, infidelity and identity, and in The Insect Woman - co-written with the surrealist Kenji Hasebe - we experience them through the eyes of Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari). The film begins in 1918, juxtaposing Tome's birth with the uphill march of a struggling beetle, and over the next twenty minutes we are allowed snapshot windows into the first 27 years of her life, emphasizing especially the incestuous relationship with stepfather Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura), which begins around the time of her eighth birthday ("You sleep with me so we're married, right?"). Finally we locate Tome in Tokyo, 1945, where she takes work as a prostitute to support her daughter back in Tôhoku (who has, disturbingly, taken up with her grandfather). But it's not long before Tome is ratting out her employer, Madam Suma (Tanie Kitabayashi), to the police, and assuming control of her brothel...

The film works hard to accommodate five decades of Tome's life into its two-hour time frame, but Imamura's economic direction ensures that, even across the film's myriad subplots, his protagonist is always center stage. Actually, The Insect Woman is a much bolder narrative experiment than anything produced by the nouvelle brats of Paris, and if Godard's À bout de souffle (1960) paved the way for, say, Quentin Tarantino, then this picture informed the rhythmic, image-driven style of Terence Malick. Imamura's method is elliptical, but to suggest that as a conscious development might be incorrect. The director despised talk of theory, and yet the form of Insect Woman appears a masterclass in just that - it's jagged in structure and tone, flipping between social-realism and outright absurdity (the oddly poignant scene where Tome breast-feeds her retarded stepfather) with ease. Imamura actually aspired toward a "messier" brand of cinema, hoping that some greater truth might be captured in the clutter. For this fact The Insect Woman can be hard to keep up with, but the director's anthropological approach to storytelling, resulting in an almost microscopic level of character detail, keeps us engaged. Years often pass without register, and the audience are trusted to examine Tome's emotional state - communicated beautifully by Hidari - to locate themselves chronologically.

Indeed, Hidari is the film's most impressive force, instilling Tome with such compassion and empathy that we can never truly hate her, even when she falls foul of wreckless ambition. We understand her ratting out of Madam Suma as an act of desperation, but the girl's established democracy crumbles when desperation turns into greed, and Tome begins to exploit her friends, even after accumulating enough wealth to support her family. Tokyo represents an opportunity for those willing to take it, and Hidari perfectly embodies the struggle of a woman whose transition from gullible farm-girl to hardened businesswoman is equally tragic and comic. And while it's true that Imamura uses the character to engage with present social concerns, she never becomes the cipher for political demonstration. He positions Tome in a city wresting with change, and in the smallest of gestures - the overhead passing of a USAF plane - we are reminded of Japan's occupation, and the impact this has had on the country's economy and job market. Before succumbing to Madam's manipulation Tome works as a nanny, looking after the child of a Japanese housewife, Midori (Masumi Harukawa), and her Yankee lover. We are left to assume that such a relationship was not uncommon, and certainly US troops would make the most of Tokyo's colour-coded districts (for a fascinating depiction of the red, watch Seijun Suzuki's Gate Of Flesh, 1964).

Of course, The Insect Woman also signals a break from the classical traditions of Japanese cinema, and especially those of Yasujirô Ozu, whom Imamura trained under on Tokyo Story (1953). Working-class females were commonly depicted by Ozu - and, indeed, his contemporaries Naruse and Mizoguchi - but their technical and emotional exactitude stifled the young Imamura, who thought that film should be purely expressive; each frame must be bursting with the feeling of its characters. He achieved this notion with 1961's Pigs & Battleships, but not until this following picture would he discover the thematic and visual identity that would run all the way up to Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (2001). If The Insect Woman isn't Imamura's best film then it's certainly his most significant, and a work of unparalleled ambition for its time. For that reason alone, it demands to be seen.

The Disc/Extras
Fantastic transfer from Masters Of Cinema, who are among the most caring, passionate distributors in the UK. Imamura's use of light is incredibly pronounced in this remaster, and despite some print damage the film is generally impeccable in its presentation - undoubtedly in its best shape ever.

Extras wise, the disc contains Nishi-Ginza Station (1958), Imamura's second feature for Nikkatsu after the superior Stolen Desire (1958). It tells the story of a docile husband named Ôyama (Yanagizawa Shin'ichi), who takes his wife's leave as an excuse to hit the town with freewheeling pal Asada (Nishimura Kô). It's an inoffensive little comedy, directed with some style, but Imamura falls under the same diagnosis Asada prescribes Ôyama; "psychological constipation." As explained by Tony Rayns' accompanying essay, the director felt straightjacketed by Nikkatsu, who had envisioned the picture as an hour-long advert for Frank Nagai's titular single (Nagai was a popular 50s crooner; he also appears as the film's narrator). The signs of Imamura's frustration are clear, but his economic storytelling and visual flare ensure that Nishi-Ginza Station isn't an entirely wasted opportunity, and its new HD remaster makes the most of those tropical locations, which prefigure '68's Profound Desires...

Outside of Nishi-Ginza Station the disc has one extra, a 21-minute TV interview (I think from the early 80s) between Imamura and critic Tadao Satô. Here the director discusses his relationship with Nikkatsu, the origins of The Insect Woman, and particularly his revolutionary filming techniques (the film was shot on location, a fact which throws up some interesting anecdotes). Satô is a good host and his genuine interest in Imamura's filmography encourages lively discussion. The accompanying 36-page booklet contains two essays by Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. His dismissive review of Nishi-Ginza Station goes some way toward contextualizing the work, but his piece on The Insect Woman is far more expansive and detailed, outlining the social and cultural state of Japan in which the film was made. It's not his most comprehensive work, but Rayns' style - halfway between academia and a fan letter - is hugely readable, and his passion is evident in every paragraph.

The Insect Woman was released on Blu-Ray on February 20th...

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