sábado, 8 de janeiro de 2011

Interview with Shohei Imamura

By Max Tessier (December 1977)

Q: What were the first ties between your studies at Waseda University and cinema?
A: At first, around 1950, I wrote and staged several plays at the University. People often asked me what type of theatre I was interested in and I would answer "Shingeki" (Modern Theatre), but in fact, I was rather critical of it and that's why I turned toward film. At the time, I was really interested in a type of Japanese theatre that is very popular, a common theatre, a sort of "sub-Kabuki" aimed at the lower classes. It is a theatre of extraordinary vitality: this explains why I made Nusumareta Yokubo (Stolen Desire), a film about an itinerant troupe performing this kind of theatre. The intellectual boy in the leading role, Hiroyuki Nagato, who is quite intrested in this theatre, is obviously in someway my double. For me, the vitality of this theatre recalls early Kabuki, back when Kabuki drew its subjects from daily life.

Q: How was your assistanship at Shochiku (1951 to 1954)?
A: When I entered Shochiku, I knew virtually nothing about film, let alone any directors. I was asked to name a director whom I would like to assist, and knowing only one name at Shochiku I answered: "Kinoshita" - and everyone burst out laughing. Because to be a Kinoshita's personal assistant, one had to be a "pretty boy"... So, somewhat at random, I said "Ozu" and in effect, I ended up working in three of his films (Bakushu, Ochazuke no Aji, and Tokyo Monogatari). Then in 1954, I left Shochiku for Nikkatsu where I became Kawashima's assistant. He was a rather popular director at the time. We were a very small team, quite in contrast to the imposing apparatus of Ozu's productions. However, though I may not have been much influenced by Ozu, I gained technical knowledge from him, how to make a film - perhaps more so than Kawashima.

Q: You also wrote several scripts, in particular for a few Kawashima films?
A: I was an assistant with my friend Yoshitaro Nomura (who became a director shortly thereafter) and together we wrote what are called "home-dramas" - typical Shochiku fare. In fact, I think I learned more from Nomura than from Kawashima even though I still wrote a number of scripts for the latter, among them Bakumatsu Taiyoden (The Sun Legend of the Tokugawa Era, 1957) which has gained a certain reputation in Japan.

Q: Do you consider your first films at Nikkatsu "realist films"? One gets the impression that the real Imamura style emerges with Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships) and that this film marks an important step for you?
A: I always wanted to make a film like Bunta to Gunkan but I still think that Hateshi Naki Yokubo (Endless Desire, 1958) foreshadows the film because it presents a number of similarities with Pigs and Battleships, especially where a kind of "formal dynamism" is concerned. Had I more means at my disposal when making Hateshi Naki Yokubo, this would be much more apparent. However, since it was only my third film, the Company would not give me the means necessary.

Q: What is the significance of food, especially of meat in your early films - and in particular the symbolism of pigs in Buta to Gunkan?
A: Since the entire story is built around the sale of pork meat, its importance is a given! But of course, pigs are always seen as the filthiest, the most vulgar of animals and this filthiness is linked to the very context of the action: the people living around the American base are themselves pigs. I also insisted on the comical side of pigs. In the final sequence where the pigs are released into the street, I wanted them to be really "symbolic". In fact, in order to get this effect, I wanted to film really fat pigs, but the budget only allowed for slimmer, smaller pigs which I ended up simply filming in close-up! So I finally didn't get as "grotesque" an effect as I had hoped for. In Endless Desire, Shoichi Ozawa is a disgusting little man, and the way he chews his meat makes him an even filthier dirtier man.

Q: In Buta to Gunkan, the relations bewteen men and women that we see in your later films are present; despite the nasty treatment and behaviour on the part of the girl's pimp, she nevertheless keeps returning to him, even at the end of the film...
A: But that's my "ideal" view of a woman; she must be strong, willful, full of vitality and attach herself to weak men - like me! But here, because the couple is still fairly young, the girl does not submit sexually to her lover, unlike in Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder, 1964). In any case, I believe that on the surface, Japanese women seem to have changed since the war, but in fact, they have stayed the same - at least the majority has. By the way, this applies to Japanese men as well.

Q: Since Hateshi Naki Yokubo (Endless Desire) you have worked with the director of photography, Masahisa Himeda, who seems to have developed a particular visual style, a highly contrasted lighting style where lighting serves to create a feeling of claustrophobia. Is this how he usually lights or did you request this as soon as you began working together?
A: I first collaborated with Kurataro Takamura, Kawashima's director of photography, then with Himeda. I have to admit that indeed, I did follow his suggestions for a number of scenes. For example, at the end of Endless Desire when Takeshi Kato kills Ozawa, I had planned to film the scene in two or three shots, but it was Himeda who suggested filming it all in one shot, with a camera movement. In the end, in the typhoon, you hardly see a thing, you can only hear the character's voices, but Himeda had the idea of using a lamp that swings back and forth in the wind intermittently lighting the characters. All this was done in close cooperation with the lighting cameraman, Yasuo Iwaki. In general, we always discussed the camera angle, the tone of the scene, etc. But Himeda has never liked free and open spaces: he always tries to put something in between the camera and the characters - ladders, ropes, lamps, anything!

(Nippon Konchuki, 1963)

Q: Did you choose the original title for The Insect Woman (1963), Nippon Konchuki, which means "Entomological Chronicles of Japan"? In the film, like in many that followed, one detects a growing interest for all kinds of insects: one thinks of the surrealists, of Buñuel who always put insects in his films...
A: Originally, I chose the only title Konchuki (Entomology), but it's the publicity department of Nikkatsu that wanted to add "Nippon", fearing that the public would mistake the film's meaning and take it for an addaptation of a La Fontaine fable! I actually stumbled across the title purely by chance: I was drinking sake while writing the script when I noticed an insect incessantly circling my ashtray. I thought to myself that my character found herself in somewhat of the same situation, and so I chose the title Konchuki. Moreover, at the time, I was dating quite a few "Furyo Shojo" women (delinquents, party girls) who thought once they were in their twenties they should calm down and become "adults". This experience confirmed my idea that despite appearences, the mentality of Japanese women has not really changed...
As for the insects and surrealism, I have to say that my scriptwriter, Keiji Hasebe was himself quite interested in surrealism and a certain grotesqueness. He suggested using strange effects as a way of further plunging into the depths of human nature: it surfaces quite well in Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder), but it's a little different in Nippon Konchuki. There, I emphasized more the terrifying fact that a woman's energy does not do much to change her situation, but instead it makes her turn in circles, such that she remains what a woman was, and still is, in Japanese society: submissive, dominated and sentimental.

Q: In Buta to Gunkan and Nippon Konchuki you introduce a number of different prostitutes who in the end seem to be the only "liberated women" in Japanese society...
A: It's not quite that, but I am very interested in people who have broken off from their families, their home-country - and I have noticed that most of the women who do this are obviously bar hostesses, actresses, prostitutes - just like actors in a traveling theatre troupe. It is these characters who interest me.

Q: Why did you select such a well known actress Sachiko Hidari for Nippon Konchuki, when in the next film (Akai Satsui), Masumi Harukawa, was virtually unknown to film audiences?
A: What interests me in an actress is her vitality, her energy, not her beauty or pretiness. There's the link between Sachiko Hidari and Masumi Harukawa. Sachiko Hidari showed all that energy in a film like Jochukko (The Maid's Kid, by T. Tasaka, 1955): she was running all the time - something rarely seen in a Japanese film. Masumi Harukawa was a very popular actress in the Nichigeki Theatre.

Q: You like imaginary oniric scenes, especially in Akai Satsui. In this film, there are several very beautiful and dreamlike scenes: the train, the nightmare, the empty silent tram. They tend to evoke Murnau's Sunrise.
A: I never had many theoretical intentions when I filmed those scenes. What I tried to do was express Sadakko's continual hesitation: her feelings as a "mother", her attachment to a family that wasn't her own and her irrational physical relation to a man who raped her. In this way, the tram scene becomes quite explicit: it expresses mostly how Sadako always returns to the family at the very moment she could escape and finally free herself. She never quite seizes this opportunity, and so her life will stay the same. It's a constant interior struggl. It is not that she is disappointed because she lives in the city instead of in the country, but because she has been separated from her real family - and that has nothing to do with the symbolism of the silk worms.

Q: Jinruigaku Nyumon (Introduction to Anthropology: The Pornographers, 1965) presents itself as a vivid critique of sexual frustration in modern Japanese society. How is the film directly related to the novel of Akiyuki Nosaka and were there many changes between the two?
A: One day, on a train, I read a really interesting Nozaka short story. In fact, the director Keiichi Ozawa was supposed to shoot a film adaptation of the story, but the Company would only let him direct if I wrote the script - which I did. But in the end, they also decided I should direct it. So, from the outset it's not a project I really wanted or planned on, but rather an interesting coincidence. We made a few changes, most notably the entire ending (the orgies) - I was unable to shoot the ending of the novel faithfully because of the censors as they would have distorted everything. In any case, I think it's normal that a filmmaker brings changes to the work being adapted - it's a way in which one can distance oneself from the original work. For example, in Fujiwara's novel, Akai Satsui, the action takes place in Shinjuku, but I set the film in Sendai, almost 250 km north of Tokyo.

(Erogotoshitachi yori Jinruigaku nyumon, 1966)

Q: For Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes, 1967), you did extensive documentary research - but the theme of the disappearence of the individual, of the loss of social identity, is the same as in the work of writer Kobo Abe, as in Moetsukita Chizu (A Man Without a Map), where do you see the differences?
A: When I shot Nippon Konchuki, I took notes from what a model in the film told me - and I thought it would make a good subject, but I never made the film. However, what interested me was not so much to create a well-made film, but in fact almost to throw my notes directly onto the screen. For a long time I have been interested in the problem of people who disappear into big cities without leaving any trace - what in Japan is called Johatsu (Evaporation or Disappearence). Like suicide, it's a fairly, widespread social phenomenon in Japan and I felt the system of direct notes could replace a pre-established script. There especially lies the difference with Kobo Abe, whose interest in this type of phenomenon remains still quite theoretical, abstract, literary.

Q: What do you reproach in your words "well made films"?
A: At the time of Buta to Gunkan, I wondered if there weren't too many limits placed upon this type of films, like those of Ozu, Kawashima etc... It bothered me deeply, this all-too-perfect balance annoyed me and right after making Nianchan (My Second Brother, 1959), I made a decision to break with this kind of cinema. I think Ningen Johatsu is the most successful example of this rupture. But I continued on with films like Nippon Sengoshi (A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, 1970) films that were more and more direct, less and less constructed...

Q: As you continued to make films, one got the sense that your character follow a certain itinerary; going from the North to the South of Japan, right down to the extreme South in Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Profound Desire of the Gods, 1968). Were you seeking, as it has often been said, the origin of a primitive Japanese people?
A: Since I was raised in Tokyo, I always believed as a child that peasants only came from Tohoku (the northern region of Honshu) because anyone who called himself a peasant and who came to work in the city called himself a Northerner. My first films then, show peasants from Tohoku. But when I returned South, I discovered peasants playing "shamisen", peasants who took more time to live-in short, I found a culture very different from that of the North. I became very interested in this culture of leisure/pleasure, quite atypical in Japan. This is not to say that this culture os leisure is one in which everyone is having fun all the time, but rather, in this Southern culture, people are closer to what is called the "homo ludens". And so, I wanted to show these people who are removed from modern Japanese society, who live on the periphery of a society that is very artificial and pretends to be democratic -Japanese democracy is nothing but an illusion. For me, this Southern culture was much more "real" and it was a way in which to criticize modern industrial Japan.

Q: Would you say then that the roots of the Japanese are found in these isolated Southern Islands?
A: In fact, I believe these insular Southern populations have more in common with other Asian peoples (from the South-East) than with other Japanese. There one finds a civilization of pleasure, generally poorly regarded by the Japanese of the North. The idea of masculine beauty is very much a Southern idea, found in other countries of South-East Asia like Indonesia, and one finds it in these Japanese islands as well.

(Ningen Johatsu, 1967)

Q: After Kamigami, why did you stop making films involving extensive "mise-en-scène"?
A: My films frightened Nikkatsu, and I was told the public was not interested in them. In fact, believe that Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo was what you might call the last "different" card played by the Companies. Its commercial failure marked the end of a period begun ten years earlier known more or less as the "New Wave".

Q: Then you produced Nippon Sengoshi: Madamu Omboro no Seikatsu (A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, 1970) independently. Where was the starting point?
A: Of course, I wanted to tell a political history of Japan that was different, one that incorporated the tales of this bar hostess prostitute. In Yokosuka, I found this woman in a bar for gaijin (foreigners). It was the kind of place where no one had any family outside of the bar itself. These women are all a little adrift and are tied in some way to the problem of burakumin. Scorning Japan and the Japanese, they seek the company of strangers, only to find G.I's or American sailors. In general, the burakumin have broken all family ties to go work in the city - but they are unlike the Jews who generally maintain very close relations with their families. Farmers think the burakumin are inferior and reject them so the burakumin tend to collect in a big city suburbs, where they form their own slums.

Q: Among the films you made for television in the last few years are Karayuki-San (The Making of a Prostitute) and Muhomatsu: Kokyo ni kaeru (Mohamatsu Returns Home, 1973). Karayuki-San deals with former prostitutes of the Nippon Empire, prostitutes sent throughout Asia, many of whom stayed behind while Muhomatsu adresses the soldiers who return to Japan after many years of isolation. Do you think these people despise Japan?
A: I don't believe that these women and men hate Japan, because many of them were born during the Meiji era and are still quite patriotic. These prostitutes felt - quite falsely - liberated by the restoration of Meiji and consequently, they faithfully supported the Emperor. They attributed their newly found liberty to the Emperor - you don't get more patriotic than that!
But the old Karayuki-San in the film was a little affraid to go home because she had met people from Mitsubishi, etc... and felt that Japan would be another foreign country and not the idealized homeland that she and others, had in mind. When I went to Yokosuka, in Sasebo, in all these different cities with American bases, I realized approximately 10% of the girls were "burakumin".

Q: Surely you have seen the other very sentimental and patriotic film based on the same Karayuki-San story, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan Bohkyo by Kei Kumai (Sandakan 8). What do you think of it in relation to your film?
A: It once was suggested that I adapt Yamazuki's novel. I refused, because it was far too sentimental and showed only the teary side of the problem. When I met the real Karayuki-San of my film, I had in front of me a woman, still very alert, with good morale - a far cry from the depressing side of the novel. The other older women I met all told me they had been tricked, that they had been forced to go to these counties. I found this rather odd given that someone had to know what was really going on and that it was pretty difficult to ignore the lot of these women at the time. I thought there had to be another reason, most likely that they wanted to escape their family situation, and to leave Japan. In them, I found the energy that comes through my heroine of Nippon Konchuki - it's an energy I really underlined in the film.

Q: Right now, you have another project: the adaptation of Ryuzo Saki's novel, Fukushu suru wa ware ni ari (Vengeance is Mine): does it bear any relation to your previous films?
A: Yes, I would very much like to make this film because the heroine reminds me of those in my previous films, and there are a number of scenes that recall, at least to some extent, Nippon Sengoshi. But given the current situation, it will be very hard to make the film. Actually, it's a film that depends really on Shochiku. The company executives have read the script, but the way in which they have interpreted it doesn't bode well for future relations: we have absolutely opposite views of the film. But for the moment, it's the only solution, because the film requires a proper distrubution network that only a company can really offer.

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