One of Japan's most acclaimed movie directors, Imamura Shohei had a very long career. 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 Home (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.
- The Midnight Eye has extensive reviews of Imamura's work.
- See our profiles of other Japanese movie directors