In a 1994 interview with the Japanese filmmaker Toichi Nakata, the nuberu bagu figurehead Shôhei Imamura explained that his interest in lower-class women stemmed from his post-war black market experiences: ‘They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings. I grew to admire them enormously.’ It was a difficult period for Japan as the nation tried to rebuild both economy and morale, with lower-class citizens forced to undertake whatever work they could find in order to make it through the week. Imamura came from a relatively privileged background and studied Western history at Waseda University, but was less interested in attending classes than he was in associating with opportunistic racketeers and fallen women. Such encounters made a significant impression on Imamura, who felt sympathetic towards the hostesses, prostitutes and other women in demeaning jobs, and acknowledged the strength that made them more multi-faceted than mere victims of circumstances. Life is hard for the female protagonists of Imamura’s 1960s output, whose characters struggle with a host of obstacles (abuse, ostracism, poverty), yet usually manage to get on with things despite such setbacks. If such depictions of daily drudgery served to make wider points about Japan as a nation in the 1960s, the director never lost sight of the personal struggles. Imamura was very much an anthropologist, stating in a 1985 interview with Audie Bock, ‘My heroines are true to life – just look around you at Japanese women’.
Such themes would not emerge in Imamura’s work until he achieved a degree of independence from the demands of studio production line. As with many Japanese filmmakers, Imamura started his career as a contract player, initially employed at Shochiku Studios, where he worked as an assistant to Yasujirô Ozu on Early Summer (1951), The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953). Disliking the manner in which the quiet master would portray the Japanese society of the period, and desiring a better salary, Imamura departed Shochiku in 1954 to work at rival studio Nikkatsu, where he also served as an apprentice, assisting Yuzo Kawashima, and was elevated to co-screenwriter status with Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (1957). Having paid his dues on the factory floor, Imamura was offered the opportunity to direct with Stolen Desire (1958), a tale of travelling actors. His following films, Nishi Ginza Station (1958), Endless Desire (1958) and My Second Brother (1959), were pure pop, lightweight entertainments aimed at the youth market, but things changed when Imamura secured a larger budget to shoot Pigs and Battleships (1961). The director’s fifth feature is a scathing satire of post-war Japanese society that filtered its social-economic critique through the story of small-time crook Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who works as a waitress in a bar adjacent to a brothel. Haruko is the prototype for Imamura’s 1960s heroines in that she is horribly mistreated but remains resolutely practical and progressive.
Throughout the film, Haruko encourages Kinta to leave Yokosuka, a seedy port town where corruption is not so much under the table as out on the street, in favour of a new life in Nagasaki where Kinta could undertake a factory position. However, the young thug believes that he has what it takes to scale the underworld ladder, which turns out to be the kind of misguided self-confidence that fatally undermines life expectancy. Even before Kinta embarks on an ill-fated scheme involving pig-farming, Haruko is considering taking a walk, such is her level-headed nature. As this is an Imamura film, she will have to suffer a little more before she can make her escape from the slums of Yokosuka: reduced to prostitution, Haruko is gang-raped by three American sailors, then tries to rip them off in what could be an act of revenge or just a desperate need for relocation money, leading to a chase through Yokosuka’s red light district. In the closing scene, Haruko strides purposefully towards the train that will take her to Nagasaki, heading in the opposite direction to the large group of American sailors who have just arrived in Yokosuka; this signifies Haruko’s rejection of Japanese society as represented by local crime and the influence of the occupying foreign power, but her future remains uncertain and Nagasaki may just be the first of many temporary stops. While the story of Haruko is told in parallel to that of Kinta, Imamura’s subsequent films would move their heroines to centre stage.
The Insect Woman (1963) famously begins with Imamura making the potentially unflattering comparison between rural peasant Tomie (Sachiko Hidari) and an insect that repeatedly attempts to climb a mound of dirt, only to slide back and try again. Tomie goes through similar struggles in her efforts to gain a footing in Japanese society: born into the incestuous village community of Tohoku in 1918, she leaves her mentally retarded stepfather and unfaithful mother to work in a city factory, only to be summoned home where she is raped and impregnated by a local whose father owns her family’s land. She decides to keep the child and leaves her daughter Nobuko in the care of her stepfather to return to the city, promising to send money home. The episodes that follow show Tomie’s evolution from self-sufficient worker to self-interested operator: jobs as a labour organiser and a nanny are followed by a dalliance with religion, before she seemingly descends into prostitution, only to demonstrate some street-smart business skills when she reports her madam to the police so that she can take over the brothel. As with Haruko in Pigs and Battleships, Tomie has understood the unwritten rules of a Japanese society that is undergoing rapid reconstruction following World War II. But unlike Haruko, she embraces these changes, thereby evolving from abused peasant girl to ruthless entrepreneur. Imamura is unflinching in his observation of Tomie’s questionable choices, but certainly not judgmental, and provides a direct link to his previous film by casting Pigs and Battleships leading lady Yoshimura as Nobuko.
The attempts made by Tomie to advance her standing in Japanese society, economically if not socially, can be contrasted with the efforts made by Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), the heroine of Intentions of Murder (1964), to simply hold on to what she already has. The basis for Intentions of Murder was a sociological study that Imamura had conducted of a woman living in Northern Japan: Sadako is a common-law wife and mother who, at a young age, settled for a life controlled by a librarian husband who cheats on her and a mother-in-law who does not respect her. Although she dutifully performs household tasks and balances the family budget – an emphasis on the appliances in their home serves to note how such things can easily be taken away – Sadako is mistreated by Riichi, who is reluctant to officially register her as his wife because of her ’embarrassing’ peasant background. While the husband is away, struggling musician Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) breaks into the home and threatens Sadako with a knife in order to extort some money, his act of aggression extending to rape. Afraid of being ostracised from the family and local community if her violation becomes common knowledge, she does not report the rape, and Hiraoko actually becomes her lover as she seeks the sexual gratification that she does not receive from her husband Riichi (Kô Nishimura), who is having an affair. Hitting a low point, Sadako considers suicide, but comes back from the brink to reaffirm her familial status.
The heroines of Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder demonstrate remarkable survival instincts; resilient and surprisingly resourceful, they refuse to give up in the face of adversity and manage, in some small way, to improve or stabilise their respective situations, even if happiness remains elusive. Each has a moment that signifies their admirable stubbornness: Haruko refuses to marry an American suitor even though it would bring her family a much-needed $400 per month, the elderly Tomie keeps moving when her wooden sandal breaks, and Sadako firmly denies having an affair despite photographic evidence. Imamura seemed to consider Intentions of Murder to bring closure to this unofficial trilogy of strong-willed women and subsequently directed The Pornographers (1966), which revolves around the activities of adult filmmaker Subuyan (Shoichi Ozawa). There are interesting female characters in Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), the widowed landlady who sleeps with Subuyan, and her daughter Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), whom the filmmaker desires, but both are gone by the conclusion, which finds Subuyan living in a secluded area with a sex doll for company. To return to the 1994 Imamura interview, when Nakata suggested to Imamura that his heroines ‘all counter the Western stereotype of the submissive Asian woman’, the director matter-of-factly replied, ‘Japanese women generally are like that’. This exchange serves to underline Imamura’s point about Haruko, Tomie and Sadako: these women are as remarkable as they are ordinary, a contradiction that places them among the most fascinating heroines in the history of Japanese cinema.