One name that probably doesn’t come up in the Great Director conversation as often as it should is “Shohei Imamura.” The man is responsible for some of the most compelling and beautiful films in the history of the medium. Over the course of his prolific and regularly controversial fifty year career, Imamura masterfully swooped from comedy to drama to all the juicy places in between, becoming a father of the Nuberu bagu (Japanese New Wave) in the process. But Imamura transcends New Wave; his films crackle with an energy so idiosyncratic that it’s better to call them Imamura Wave.
Imamura was born and raised in Tokyo. He dodged the draft and went to Waseda University, where he got involved with the theater scene. Upon graduation, he began his career as an apprentice to Yasujiro Ozu. It’s fitting that one of the first films to bear Imamura’s name is Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which is widely considered to be one of the best films of all time. However, as Imamura began to develop his own identity as a filmmaker, he rejected Ozu’s more restrained, traditional methods. Where Ozu zigged, Imamura zagged. Imamura began his career-long obsession with capturing the true warts-and-all character of the Japanese culture -- and often, of humankind in general. Imamura wrote of Ozu, “He wanted to make film more aesthetic. I want to make it more real.1”
Imamura left Ozu and began working for the Nikkatsu studio in 1954. 4 years later, they released his directorial debut: Stolen Desire, an edgy, comedic look at a troupe of traveling actors living on the fringe. A few slight films later, Imamura would hit his stride with 1961’s Pigs and Battleships. He spent the 60s pumping out masterpiece after cynical masterpiece: The Insect Woman, The Pornographers, The Profound Desire of the Gods, and more. Each of these films examined Imamura’s dark, seedy Japan. Though far from pulp, they’re populated by killers, gangsters, prostitutes, pimps, rapists, and every unsavory character in between.
The 1970s saw Imamura delve further into the documentary filmmaking he began experimenting with in 1967’s A Man Vanishes. In that film, Imamura takes a close look at the concept of “johatsu,” the disappearing man. He spends the film trying to track down information about one of the many people who had gone missing without a trace over the preceding years. By 1979, he left documentary behind and was right back at it with the savage Vengeance is Mine. While his pace slowed a bit, he continued to make worthwhile films right up until the end of his days.
1997’s The Eel finds Imamura looking at Japan from a calmer, more forgiving vantage point than his earlier work. Loosely based on the novel On Parole by Akira Yoshimura, the film follows the exploits of a character named Yamashita as he struggles to begin a new life after an eight-year prison bid for murdering his unfaithful wife. His only friend? A pet eel that he has cared for since he went in. Yamashita sets up shop as a barber in a tight knit community and the plot gets steadily more involved as he befriends a woman with a striking resemblance to his late wife. In a way, the film contains a microcosm of Imamura’s entire career: there’s extreme violence, masterful slapstick, sex, and the technique of shooting through a fishtank was even recycled from The Pornographers. It’s a wild, beautiful ride! The Eel is a wholly unpredictable and singular film. It’s unlike anything I’d ever seen. The jury at the Cannes Film Festival agreed: They awarded the film with Imamura’s second Palme d'Or. (The first was for 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama.)
The 1990s was a bad time to be a Japanese salaryman. The country was in a period of economic distress bad enough that it is sometimes remembered as “The Lost Decade.” Within that context, and given Imamura’s obsession with starkly reflecting his country back at itself, it’s easy to view The Eel as a direct response to the conditions of Japan at the time. Money becomes a large plot point. While no economic disaster persay befalls Yamashita, he has to start over and embrace a simpler life. Many Japanese families in the 90s found themselves in similar positions.
An apt descriptor of Imamura’s approach to filmmaking, at least as he saw it, might be “pragmatic.” From an essay he wrote early in his career: “In my work, people take centre stage. I am much more interested in mankind than I am in other filmmakers. There are no shots in my films which do not contain human action. There are no empty landscapes or unmotivated cuts.2” Be that as it may, Imamura’s films are not lacking in visual poetry. In fact, they’re rich with it. As unwilling as Imamura is to present himself as an artiste, his films are some of the most beautiful, complex, and impressive in history. Like most of his films, The Eel seems to offer striking imagery at every turn, many of which are downright hallucinatory: the fishing boat against the water, the shots through the eel tank, the brightly lit flying saucer beacon.
Imamura died of liver cancer in 2006. As Terrence Rafferty put it, “it’s evident that Mr. Imamura was determined to spend his life and his career in stubborn resistance to everything — ideology, formal convention, squeamishness about the unpleasant truths of human nature — that might constrain his creative impulses, and evident too that he succeeded.3” Cynical as it was, there’s an undeniable candor and humor that shines through Imamura’s work and, as far as I can tell, shone through the man himself. His mission was the most noble one of any artist: the pursuit of truth. No grandstanding, no pandering, no ministering. Just truth and all the laughter, pain, and bodily fluid that comes with it. And as The Eel and the rest of his films prove, the truth is beautiful.
2 Quandt, James. Shohei Imamura. Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1997. Print.