Imamura Shohei (Tokyo, 1926 - )
One of Japan's most acclaimed movie directors, Imamura Shohei has a long career behind him. He started
out as an assistant to the great Ozu Yasujiro. But as a member of the
New Wave, along with Oshima Nagisa,
Imamura moved away from his former mentor's quiet understatement and traditional views to establish a
style that celebrates the primitive and spontaneous side of the Japanese character. Unhappy with working
on films that portrayed the establishment's view of Japan, all kimonos and tea ceremony, he wanted to get
to the essence of what it really meant to be Japanese and to show the gritty, animilistic postwar society
he saw around him. He described his work saying "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of
the human body and the lower part of the social structure".
Though many of Imamura's films portray people from the lower classes - prostitutes, traveling actors and
porn movie producers among them - he himself was born the third son of a doctor and studied literature at
Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University. He was attracted to film through his love of avant garde theater
and joined the Shochiku movie company in 1951. Apart from Ozu, Imamura worked under
Kawashima Yuzo, with
whom he moved to the Nikkatsu company in 1954. He earned his first screen credit as an assistant director
in 1955 and made his directorial debut with Stolen Desire (Nusumareta Yokujo) in 1958, for which he won a
New Talent award. His first movie to be significantly released abroad was Pigs and Battleships (Buta To
Gunkan) in 1961. It was also the first work to include what has become one of Imamura's major themes, the
man-as-animal metaphor. "I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. What is a human being?
I look for the answer by continuing to make films."
From the late 1960s, Imamura became particularly interested in documentary filmmaking. Being able to work
with a skeleton crew allowed him to concentrate on getting to the essence of the themes that interested him.
The subjects were often controversial, such as unrepatriated soldiers from WW2 in Private Fujita Comes
(Muhomatsu Kokyo Ni Kaeru, 1974) and Karayuki-san, The Making of a Prostitute (Karayuki-san, 1975), the
story of women sent to accompany the army as prostitutes during the war, later known as "comfort women".
Imamura began to receive acclaim from abroad in the 1980s as his work became better known. He won the
Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Ballad of Narayama (Narayama Bushiko) in 1982. A remake of a
1958 movie, with harsh realism it tells the story of a man following village tradition and bringing his
aged mother to die on a sacred mountain top. Following 1989's acclaimed Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), about a
family's fight to survive the aftermath of the Hiroshima atom bomb - and not to be confused with the
Hollywood movie - he had a long hiatus before making the excellent The Eel (Unagi) in 1997. This film won
Imamura a second Palme d'Or and helped to cement the reputation of its star,
Yakusho Koji, though Imamura left the festival early, sure that Unagi had no
chance of winning the top award. The pair made their way to Cannes again in 2001, with Yakusho as the leading man
in the less successful Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu).
A heavy smoker who enjoyed shochu, Imamura had a gourmet's palette, despite suffering from diabetes from his late
20s. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 2005, and though he underwent surgery, the cancer
had spread to other organs. He was hospitalized several times and spent most of his last week in a semi-conscious
state before passing away from multiple organ failure at a Tokyo hospital in May 2006. He was 79.
The Eel: Yamashita Takuro, paroled after eight years in prison for killing his adulterous wife, starts a
new life as barber in a small town outside of Tokyo. His closest companion remains his pet eel, which has
kept him company throughout his days behind bars. Gradually he begins to open up, becoming friendly with
the locals who frequent his shop. But his life changes radically when he saves Keiko, a young woman he
happens upon trying to commit suicide by the river next to his shop.