Shohei Imamura Retrospective
Only Shohei Imamura could create a character whose orgasms flood the Japanese countryside to bring bounty to local fisherman. His deep fascination with sex, women, and the working classes are all captured in this scenario from one of his last UK releases, “Warm Waters Under A Red Bridge”. His fiction films are lauded to the point that Imamura is considered one of the most vital and provocative filmmakers of post-war Japan. Imamura’s documentaries are charged with the same curiosity for sexual nature, for mystery and for the admiration of working people, yet they are not as well viewed or well known in the UK. We are screening four of his 1970s documentaries that have been called 'not just the best Japanese documentaries, but the best documentaries anywhere' by critics.
Imamura’s first doc, ‘A Man Vanishes’, is an ingenious collection of shadows that cleverly dances between fiction and reality like a David Lynch character. It investigates the disappearance of an average Japanese salaryman. Like a precursor to ‘The Imposter’, he composes an endlessly twisting character portrait of the man and the nation by combining many forms of documentary, dramatic storytelling and even theatre. You could be watching an alter ego of Cassevettes in that Imamura was at his best when being ‘messy’ - by letting life and fantasy collide and watching the embers reveal deeper truths.
Imamura’s powerful television series, ‘In Search of Unreturned Soldiers’, offer terse, detailed and ultimately harrowing investigations into ex-Japanese military men who re-started their lives after the war in South East Asia. Like any great director, Imamura subtly goads his characters but he is clear in his desire for his country to be honest with itself. And little wonder. Imamura was raised among the upper middle classes, yet commented later that his fellow students “were the kind of people who would never get close to the fundamental truths of life”, and soon found himself working in the black market. The hustlers, the prostitutes and the working classes drew his admiration and fascination as they were just the kind of people Imamura was looking for - perhaps because they were the only ones who could be trusted to tell the truth about Japan.
The humanism in Imamura’s documentaries finds its peak in 1975’s ‘Karayuki-San’, where he interviews Kikyo, one of thousands of women who were taken into sex slavery during the war. Her story is told with the kind of absolute dignity and affection that even the best doc directors could learn from. But by now Imamura was becoming doubtful about the documentary form and felt its limitations: “I… found myself wondering whether documentary was really the best way to approach these matters. I came to realize the presence of the camera could materially change people’s lives. I’m no sentimental humanist, but thoughts like these scared me and made me acutely aware of the limitations of documentary filmmaking.”
Despite his reservations, Imamura's approach to cinema and the Japanese psyche have had a lasting effect on Japanese documentary – indeed, Kazu Hara’s great ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On’ was designed in collaboration with Imamaura. Nearly four decades on, Imamura's documentaries are still as compelling and beguiling as ever. He seemed to master the form during the short years he worked in it. We can only wonder what else Imamura could have produced should he have continued to direct documentary instead of flashing through the genre like a meteor.
Supported by the Japan Foundation