For all the acclaim that Shohei Imamura attracted as one of the leading figures of the Japanese New Wave, he’s not often accorded the same standing among his legendary countrymen of the 20th century such as Kurosawa, Ozu, Kobayashi, or Mizoguchi. This trilogy of films, from later in his career, is evidence that he is worthy of consideration to be part of that pantheon. Two of the three could be just about considered the equal of the finest work of those illustrious names.
The Ballad of Narayama (1983) claimed the first of two Palme d’Or wins at Cannes for Imamura. It is a prime example of the director’s clear-eyed affection for the characters that inhabit the margins of Japanese society. Some time in the 19th century, the inhabitants of a mountain village eke out a hardscrabble existence. The rules and customs of this isolated, self-governing patch are as severe and harsh as their lives. Any village elder who makes it to the age of 70 must go up the mountain and await death. It is a ritual afforded much solemnity, falling somewhere between the pragmatic enforced obsolescence of Logan’s Run and the folkloric symbolic sacrifices of Midsommar. Formidable matriarch Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is approaching this milestone but is insistent on putting her affairs in order, not least finding a new wife for her eldest son Tatsuhei (Imamura regular Ken Ogata).
This is but the central strand of an episodic narrative that pulses and swells with the brutal rhythms of a truly desperate existence. There is humour, but for the most part it’s the throttled cackle of the gallows. Imamura threads the needle between the natural beauty of the landscape and a devastatingly unromanticised view of lives lived so close to nature. A dead baby found abandoned is dismissed as ‘fertiliser’, human interactions are juxtaposed with the local fauna, a family unmasked as thieves receive instant and summary justice. All interactions are stripped of unnecessary niceties and decorum. Public displays of sex and defecation are treated with the same level of respect. Every aspect of the film is the deepest crimson in tooth and claw.
The Ballad of Narayama is, without a doubt, a tough watch, but ultimately a strangely hypnotic and hugely rewarding one. The characters are memorable, and performed with a naturalistic lack of vanity that strikes a deep well of authenticity. The crowning achievement is a near silent final act in which the devoted Tatsuhei carries his mother up the mountain to her fate. Rarely has such an ordeal been endured with such tenderness.
1987’s Zegen (‘Pimp’) is by some distance the least of the three films, although graced with a quintessential antiheroic central performance from Ogata. Iheiji Muraoka is an escapee from a Japanese naval vessel who pitches up in Hong Kong in 1901. Through a mixture of luck, business savvy, and fervent patriotism he establishes an enormous chain of military brothels across South East Asia, from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. This episodic black comedy follows Muraoka’s fortunes over 40 years and depicts his ‘achievements’ with ironic detachment as this blindly fanatical nationalistic creates his own Japanese enclave, of which he is the de facto emperor. Of course, the authorities are dismissive, and Imamura himself mocks the expansionist aims of the Meiji era, after having spent centuries as perhaps the most purposely isolationist nation on the planet.
An odd comic filling between the two monumental works on either side, Zegen has amusing moments, but comes across as exploitative in its depiction of sex and sexuality in a way that The Ballad of Narayama does not. Perhaps it’s the addition of commerce that does this, but Imamura’s cool distance gives the film a weightlessness that never really engages with the morality of its protagonist. In this, Zegen comes across like the knowingly grotesque genre work of Teruo Ishii (Orgies of Edo, Inferno of Torture) given a respectable arthouse sheen. Thematically, it nestles nicely between its predecessor and successor in Imamura’s canon, but is far from the automatic recommendation of Narayama and his next film.
Black Rain (not to be confused with Ridley Scott‘s actioner of the same title and year) is a harrowing depiction of the horrors, both immediate and residual, of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The title refers to the radioactive sludge that poured from the sky in the surrounding areas a mile or so from ground zero. Although Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her family feel this patter on their skin, they’re spared the immediate physical effects of the blast, if not their sights. Instead, the radiation lurks like a secondary bomb within, ready to destroy the lives they’ve painstakingly rebuilt.
In some ways, Black Rain is not really about the bombing, but how Japan dealt with its victims. Yasuko’s potential romantic future forms a big part, but she’s treated almost like someone from a lower rung in the Indian caste system; almost untouchable. The carnage of August 6th is depicted, vividly and wrenchingly so, but otherwise Black Rain feels like a post-nuclear take on an Ozu film, a post-apocalyptic Late Spring with Tanaka taking on what would normally have been the Setsuko Hara role. The ex-Candies singer certainly has the same earnest and guileless appeal of Ozu’s celebrated muse. Imamura again, as in Ballad, offers a pragmatic but affectionate depiction of a simple life. By 1950, Yasuko and her family have reverted to traditional living – tending rice paddies and carp ponds. Modernity, with the bomb its apotheosis, rejected. Tellingly, the factories in the recovering city are beginning to churn out materials and munitions for the Korean War.
More subtle and melancholic in its approach than The Ballad of Narayama – its quiet anger buried deeper than the nuclear ash that constructs its surface, it is every inch the equal of that film. Stocism, endurance, and responsibility are again to the fore, and Imamura’s ire is again reserved for that aspect of the Japanese character that values honour and appearances instead of allowing the victims of an unspeakable outrage to survive and cope in their own way without censure and shame. It is the second of two near masterpieces in this trilogy.
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