The Insect Woman (1963)

14 12 2008

Much, much better than Endless Desire, which is the only other Shohei Imamura film I’ve seen. While that was rather second-rate JNW crime drama sort of film, this film is about a hundred times more accomplished, and also about a hundred times more interesting. It doesn’t at all resemble my expectations for it, but that doesn’t really matter all that much anyway. I expected a shaky-cam jumpcut filled elliptical experience, a la Yoshishige’s The Affair, but what I got was much more deadpan and minimalistic. In a way, this does anticipate Oshima’s Shonen but ultimately, it doesn’t end up being nearly as formally rigorous. On the other hand, it is much more natural than Oshima’s film and it actually has a sense of humor, something absent in many other Japanese new wave films.

With all that said, this is unmistakeably a Japanese new wave film. Plenty of transgressive content all around, from a girl breastfeeding her father to a man sucking puss out of a woman’s leg. More importantly, there’s plenty of musical cues that are obviously intended to be jarring, but come off instead, as incredibly silly. Watching a film like this really makes one appreciate Tori Takemitsu’s musical achievements present in many of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s films. It could be argued that all he did was create abstract sounds that clashed with what was going on screen, it becomes clear when watching an imitator (like in this film) how much of a genius he was, not to mention how important he was to Teshigahara’s success.

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This is only a small problem for Imamura’s film, though, as the music is only particularly obvious during the freeze-frame transitions. This is another “extremely JNW” formal element, but I’m not sure where I’ve seen before, or if I have seen it before. Regardless, Imamura’s use of still photographs is very impressive, though they are far from the scrapbook aesthetic of Harmony Korine, or even Peter Watkins. Speaking of Watkins, the obligatory demonstration footage here reminds me a little bit of him. No Japanese director in the 1960s is going to get originality points for this motif, but Imamura seems to use the footage a lot better than Oshima or Wakamatsu.

I should mention again that Imamura goes a somewhat different stylistic route than most of his peers. While Oshima would go on to make films with longer static shots than the ones in this film, his films wouldn’t have the naturalistic tone of Imamura’s. While the film is composed in the vein of Tsai and/or Kaurismaki, the story itself unfolds in a much more dialogue-driven way. There’s lots of talking here, which would be a problem if the performances weren’t all around fantastic. It’s especially impressive when one considers that the film spans more than forty years, yet does so in a way that is not completely gloomy or sluggish. In a way, the story is a little bit like Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu. As beautiful as that film is, I’ll always find the consistent dark tone a little too much. Imamura is not nearly as relentless in displaying his dramatic turns.

One of the reasons why the emotionally violent outbursts don’t bother me here is because Imamura’s purely observational camera gives said outbursts a slightly pathetic humor to them. This isn’t a Paul Morrissey movie, but it does feel like one at certain times, even with the  obvious dictohmy in formal qualities. Fittingly enough, there is a scene here where a secondary character shoots up heroin and it is oddly humorous because it happens in a completely natural way. Calling it a Tsai version of a Morrissey film is an exaggeration, but the work of both directors came to my mind many times during the viewing. Hopefully, Imamura’s other films have the same sort of brilliant balance between the comedic, the tragic, and the formal.

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