Outsider Art


Left: Shohei Imamura, Intentions of Murder, 1964, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 150 minutes. Right: Shohei Imamura, Pigs and Battleships, 1962, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 108 minutes.

IF JAPANESE FILMMAKER Shohei Imamura could have been anything else, he might have been an anthropologist or even an entomologist. He often positioned the camera at high angles, as if observing the behavior of an ant colony; a researcher as well as a reporter, the director assiduously studied social anthropology when not making films. Sensual rather than clinical in his approach, Imamura was interested in the “juicy” side (as he described it) of Japanese identity. Loners, misfits, gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes were his paradigmatic heroes and heroines. Their lives, driven more by superstition than religion, more by carnality than romantic love, offered, he felt, a more “authentic” representation of Japanese culture. His exploration of the outer limits of Japanese identity sought a kind of “truth” on film that he thought had never before been exposed.

At a time when Godard and Truffaut were bucking the conventions of classic French cinema and taking to the streets of Paris, Imamura experimented in parallel. His audacious, definitive collaborations with cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda employed documentary-style filming and a high-contrast expressionistic aesthetic to investigate social reality. Freeze frames, deep focus, flashbacks, and dream sequences also became characteristics of his early visual style.

Loss of innocence and brutal determination were his narrative model, the rejection of the conventional his guiding light. Artistically and technically, his films were a counterattack against the 1940s and ’50s studio dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Kenji Mizoguchi, and along with filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara, Imamura helped launched the Japanese New Wave.

Excerpt from Shohei Imamura’s Intentions of Murder, 1964

“Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes,” Criterion Collection’s newly issued boxed set of three Imamura films—Pigs and Battleships (1962), Insect Woman (1963), and his early masterpiece Intentions of Murder (1964)—offers insight into some of the key themes the director developed throughout his career: sex and criminality, feminine resilience, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan, and the aggravated acts of outcasts in a tightly battened culture. Included in the set are incisive interviews with Imamura from Japanese television. “Insects, animals, humans are similar in the sense that they are born, they excrete, reproduce, and die,” he notes. “I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. . . . I don’t think I have found the answer.”

“Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes” is now available on Criterion DVD. For more details, click here.

Isabel Sadurni