Speaking in an interview in 1985 (first published in Positif and republished in the DVD booklet), Japanese director Shôhei Imamura presented himself as something of a dissident among his contemporaries. He criticised Ozu’s ‘aesthetic’ approach and Ôshima’s reliance on trends to dictate his films’ subject matter. For Imamura, cinema presented another possibility beyond visual or technical mastery: an opportunity to shoot the truth. The presentation and unravelling of human nature was his motivation, not stylistics: ‘If my films are messy, it is probably due to the fact that I don’t like too perfect a cinema’.
Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) is certainly a messy film. Three hours in length, with a shoot that took 12 months longer than expected, Imamura’s masterwork is a mysterious and meandering epic; interesting and insightful but equally bewildering and mystifying. Close-up shots are few and far between. For the first two hours, the film is primarily composed of static long shots, its human protagonists becoming distant bodies in a wide and sweeping landscape. The viewer is left, somewhat baffled, to unearth the complicated relationships between these figures: a strange assembly of frustrated men and wild banshee women, who inhabit a fictitious island, Furage, in the Okinawa region of Southern Japan (which was then under American administration).
Explanations are gradually pieced together through snatched conversations and an elderly island inhabitant who acts as narrator through a series of folkloric songs. The lyrics tell the creation story of the island, which was formed through an incestuous sexual relationship between a divine brother and sister, whose actions incurred the wrath of the ruling god. The viewer slowly realises that this ancient myth is playing out for real within the dysfunctional Futori family, the ‘oldest on the island’. Mocked and vilified by the other islanders, this strange clan is locked in a spiral of penance and shame for their incestuous behaviour. The guilt and the role held by women find similarities with Genesis (and snakes are a recurrent symbol in the film); the male god was innocent until he decided that he needed a female to complete himself, but the woman acts as a temptress and symbol of sexual desire, resulting in the fall of man. Indeed, the two female characters (daughter and granddaughter of the Futori family) possess a feral sexuality that brings out uncontrollable, savage desire among the leading men. In Profound Desires of the Gods, sex is a primitive and unstoppable force that motivates humankind. Imamura was fascinated by anthropology and seemed to view humankind more in terms of zoological social structures than in terms of intellectual progression. Speaking in the same 1985 interview, he stated: ‘I am convinced…that despite successive external influences, the basic human qualities of a society will never change.’
So, the fate of Furage is bound up in the Futoris’ actions, and as an engineer arrives from mainland Japan to aid the island’s nascent sugar cane industry, it becomes increasingly clear that this dynasty holds the key to change. The grandson is chosen as the engineer’s assistant but the other family members either refuse or are unable to comply. The Futoris deter the engineer from bringing change by sabotage and seduction. The resulting, sometimes farcical, tussle between the rational plans of the engineer and the animalistic chaos of the Futoris stands as an allegory for the Westernisation and modernisation of traditional Japan. There is one particularly great scene where the engineer stands, sun-dazed and exhausted on the seashore, mumbling deliriously about Coca Cola. And while that may sound a little unsubtle, Imamura does not present a simplistic view about whether a traditional or commercial society is better; indeed, the primitive superstitions that cast a shadow over the lives of the islanders are presented as restrictive and destructive. As the battle between capitalism and traditional society strengthens and the love story between brother and sister deepens, the film begins to pick up pace, building to a tense climax: a welcome crescendo after several sprawling hours!
Profound Desires of the Gods is a complex film: sometimes infuriating in its mess but consistently magical in its strangeness. And, oddly, for a filmmaker so studiously disinterested in aesthetics, it is also very beautiful. Shot in an otherworldly palette of peaches, browns, turquoises, burnt oranges and tropical greens, the natural world of Japan provides a suitably extraordinary backdrop to this lavish, melodramatic epic.