It’s a small but telling detail that Shohei Imamura entered the Japanese film industry as a clapper boy in Yasujirô Ozu productions. Turbulent with lurid dissonance and caustic humor, Imamura’s cinema is a conscious salvo against Japan’s vision of itself as an island of gentility and reserve, demolishing Ozu’s impeccably boxed-in compositions for the primal impulses swarming underneath. Prone to crawling with silkworms and shagging in barns, his characters are governed by appetite and the base thrust of survival, tearing through life with a promiscuous energy that makes Rabelais’s creations seem like polite cocktail guests.
Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes, the title of Criterion’s three-film Imamura collection, gives a concise encapsulation of the lower-depths maelstroms favored by the director, but doesn’t begin to hint at the affection he feels for the sundry slatterns, hustlers, and manic fornicators populating them. While fellow New Waver Nagisa Oshima maintains a quizzical distance from his subjects, Imamura is always down in the dirt next to his protagonists, admiring their animal vigor and tenacity even as he criticizes their motives and limitations. Not coincidentally, animals figure extensively in Imamura’s worldview.
Pigs and Battleships, his 1961 breakout film, is a corrosive satire erected on a pungent yet entirely organic metaphor that places post-war scrabblers on the same level with the hogs they keep. As American battleships crowd the coast of Yokosuka, Yakuza thugs, black marketers, and hookers flourish in the nearby slums. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) is a runty hood whose gangland boss is moving into the swine business; tending to pigs fed on garbage from the U.S. base and helping dispose of the occasional corpse, he has adapted himself to a degraded Japan where people clash over the scraps from their occupiers’ table.
If Imamura denounces the boorish entitlement of American sailors, he’s even harsher on the locals who readily kowtow to Western prowess or, worse, use it as an excuse to wallow in dog-eat-dog venality and political inaction. The central metaphor is pushed to its limits in a remarkable sequence in which the characters are trampled in a furious stampede of hogs, and men and animals are interchangeably loaded onto stretchers—the literalization of Imamura’s view of society as a mammoth pigsty. Despite its anger, however, the film ultimately finds hope in Kinta’s girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who, raped, battered, and abandoned, still refuses to content herself with nihilism. Tough and tenacious, she’s the Imamura heroine in nascent form.
From Ozu to Mizoguchi to Naruse, Japanese cinema is rich in feminine portraits. Imamura’s films are no less woman-centric, yet his heroines resolutely refuse the passivity and self-sacrifice of their maidenly predecessors. Tome (Sachiko Hidari) is the titular Insect Woman of Imamura’s 1963 film, born illegitimate in a snowbound village. As a young woman during the war, she’s bartered off as a bride, becomes a unionist rouser at a factory, and is seduced by her childlike stepfather (Kazuo Kitamura). Rural Japan is a harsh place for women (“Let it live or take it back,” the midwife asks upon learning that Tome has given birth to a baby girl), but booming Tokyo in the 1950s is scarcely more welcoming. City life hardens her, but it also enhances her innate refusal to be exploited: Beginning as a prostitute, she gets herself a patron, takes over the call-girl ring, and prospers into the Westernized 1960s.
Punctuating the story with with smudged freeze-frames and parallels to Japanese history, Imamura offers enough working-girl travails for a Joan Crawford festival, complete with the Mildred Pierce twist of having the heroine be finally conquered not by male oppression, but by her own daughter (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who has learned her lessons of ruthless survival all too well. Honoring the entomological title, the protagonist goes from tireless ant to shrewd queen bee and ends up a cranky roach, complaining, but an unbowed survivor all the same.
Audacious and subversive, the extraordinary Intentions of Murder is worthy of Buñuel. After years of neglect by a bullying, philandering husband (Kō Nishimura), Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) has retreated into bovine suburban drudgery. When her husband is away, a man (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) breaks into her home and rapes her. Tradition dictates that the attack should lead Sadako into shame and suicide; to her confused surprise, it instead seems to dissipate the numbing cloud of her servitude. The sensuality suppressed since her youth returns, the shock to the system turns the zombified housewife into a creature capable of passion and, as she’s reunited with her attacker (a pathetic, weak-hearted musician who, it turns out, is in love in her), violence.
While Pigs and Battleships and Insect Woman are characterized by raucous frenzies, Intentions of Murder is predicated on an icy calm that only heightens the daring of Imamura’s conception. Taking place within Sadako yet expressed visually through a stark, occasionally surreal mise-en-scène, the film’s double-pronged progression traces the protagonist’s search for her identity in tandem with her muted but steady deviation from patriarchal strictures. The idea of the woman surreptitiously becoming the queen of the castle may be a holdover from sensei Ozu (compare the ending with that of, say, Equinox Flower), but only Imamura could have enough faith in the power of humanity’s strange impulses to have his heroine will her violation into liberation.
Each film has a distinct approach to black-and-white (abrasive in Pigs and Battleships, primeval in The Insect Woman, stark in Intentions of Murder), and the Criterion transfer restores all three crisply. The monaural sound mix could use a little edge, but it's clear across the board.
Each disc gets a 15-minute discussion with the erudite film historian Tony Rayns, who situates the pictures within the Japanese film industry and Imamura's career, and comments from the serenely impish director himself, who appears in a pair of archival conversations with critic Tadao Sato for Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder and in an hour-long episode of the series Cinéma du Notre Temps ("Shohei Imamura: The Freethinker," from 1995) for Pigs and Battleships. Audie Bock, Dennis Lim, and James Quandt contribute unusually perceptive essays to the booklets.
Not a pillow-shot in sight in this trio of bracing provocations from one of Japanese cinema's great iconoclasts.