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The Insect Woman
The Insect Woman
Theatrical poster to The Insect Woman
Directed by Shōhei Imamura[1]
Written by Keiji Hasebe
(長谷部慶次)
Shōhei Imamura
Music by Toshirō Mayuzumi
(黛敏郎)
Cinematography Shinsaku Himeda
(姫田真佐久)
Editing by Matsuo Tanji
(丹治睦夫)
Distributed by Nikkatsu
Released November 16, 1963
Running time 123 min.
IMDb profile
JMDb profile

The Insect Woman (にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon konchūki) is a 1963 film directed and co-written by Shōhei Imamura and starring Sachiko Hidari.[1] It is a pivotal film in the director's career, and the first appearance on screen of the "Imamura woman". It tells the story of an earthy woman from the Japanese countryside who leaves village life for Tokyo where she is lured into working as a prostitute, serves a prison term, and finally returns home. The lead character's life is designed as a commentary on the experiences of Japan in the 20th century, and her character is Imamura's rebuttal to Japanese womanhood as previously portrayed in film. Though the film was controversial at the time of its release, Imamura and lead actress Hidari were lauded with domestic and international awards. In 1999 critics for Kinema Jumpo named it one of the the best Japanese films of the 20th century.

SynopsisEdit

Tome Matsuki is born in the rural Tohoku region of northern Japan in the years before the beginning of World War II. Her stepfather, Chūji, is slightly mentally handicapped, and her mother, En, openly has a lover, Onagawa. As a child, after catching Onagawa and her mother making love, Tome asks En if Tome and Chūji are husband and wife since they also sleep together. The adult Tome starts work at a textile factory where she becomes sexually involved with her boss, Matsunami. En wants Tome to marry Honda, the wealthy son of the factory owner. Honda rapes Tome, and she bears a daughter, Nobuko. At the factory, Tome continues her relations with Matsunami while becoming involved in union activities. With the post-war American occupation and the accompanying Cold War ideology, Tome is accused as a Communist.

Tome leaves the village for Tokyo where she first works as a servant for Midori Tani, who is the mistress of an American soldier. Tome then goes to work as a maid for Suma, the madam of a brothel. Suma lures Tome into prostitution and Tome becomes attached to the customer Karasawa, who is a yakuza. After Suma is arrested, Tome takes over the brothel, becoming a cruel and merciless madam. Tome is robbed and framed for a crime she did not commit. While she is in prison, Tome's daughter Nobuko comes to Tokyo hoping to earn money to buy farm machinery for her boyfriend in Tohoku. Nobuko begins an affair with Karasawa, robs him, and returns to Tohoku with the money. After she is released from prison, Tome also returns to her village in Tohoku.[2]

Background and LegacyEdit

Shōhei Imamura began his film career as Assistant Director to esteemed filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, working on his films Early Summer (1951), The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953). When he began making his own films, however, Imamura sought to rebel against Ozu's restrained and passive portrayal of Japanese life.[3] Some of Imamura's animosity towards Ozu's style may have stemmed from an incident with Ozu that caused Imamura some bitterness towards the older director. Imamura's mother had recently died from a brain hemorrhage. He became overcome with emotion on the set of Tokyo Story during the filming of the scene in which the mother dies from the same cause. Imamura retreated to the restroom, and Ozu followed him. While urinating next to Imamura, Ozu asked if he had gotten the scene right, if it looked realistic. Imamura later recalled, "At the time I thought him incredibly cruel, but I later realized that a great filmmaker sometimes has to behave like that."[4]

Pigs and Battleships (1961) is generally considered to be the first film in Imamura's first important period as a filmmaker.[5] In his mature films, beginning with this film, Imamura makes a show of a constantly busy, chaotic frame, in direct contrast to Ozu's carefully composed, static scenes.[6] Though Imamura consciously sought to create films entirely different from those of Ozu, some critics have pointed out similarities between the two directors[6] and Imamura admitted that it was from Ozu that he learned the filmmaker's craft.[4] Primary among these similarities was a shared concern in finding the essence of the Japanese national character. Ozu approached this theme with suppressed emotions and restraint, while Imamura showed earthy, erotically-charged vigor.[6]

A milestone work in Imamura's early career, critic Tadao Satō points to The Insect Woman as the beginning of Imamura's distinctively objective examination of humanity. In his previous Pigs and Battleships and earlier films, Imamura took sides in his films, showing "good" behavior contrasted with "bad".[7] The direct translation of the film's title ("Entomological Chronicle of Japan"), indicates the scientific detachment with which Imamura viewed his characters beginning with this film.[6][8] With this objective approach, The Insect Woman marks the beginning of Imamura's interest in documentary. In the film he uses such typically documentary techniques as filming on live locations, and hidden microphones.[9]

Also, from The Insect Woman on, Imamura's main focus is on his female characters, showing them to be stronger than the males in his films.[7] Because of his interest in examining the lives of female characters in his films, and their place in society, Imamura is considered, along with Mizoguchi to be a "feminist" director, though the use of this term differs from that in the West.[10] Like Mizoguchi, Imamura's women are superior to his male characters. For Mizoguchi, they represent the "refined" aspects of high culture, but for Imamura, they represent the bawdy, vital essence of folk culture.[11] Imamura objected to past portrayals of women in Japanese cinema, such as those in the films of Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi, as long-suffering and self-sacrificing.[6][4] In contrast to this, Imamura's women are earthy, self-serving, with strong sexual appetites and instincts for survival. According to David Desser, Mizoguchi's women represent the "high culture" of the aristocracy and Buddhism, while Imamura's represent the folk culture, the essence of the Japanese character, of Shintō and shamanism.[12]

Due to its subject matter and its frank presentation, The Insect Woman was considered a "film of the flesh"[13] like the independent films of Tetsuji Takechi, Seijun Suzuki's later Gate of Flesh (1964), and the new eroduction genre (later called Pink Films) which had debuted in 1962. Pioneering Pink Film veteran Mamoru Watanabe, claims that The Insect Woman, in turn, had a much more significant influence on the themes and style of the new genre than did the official first Pink Film-- Satoru Kobayashi's Flesh Market (1962).[14] Not only Imamura's matter-of-fact depictions of sexuality, but some of the film's political commentary, such as the depictions of brothels near the U.S. airbase, were emulated by Pink Film directors throughout the 1960s.[14]

The Insect Woman was Imamura's first collaboration with screenwriter Keiji Hasebe, with whom he would continue to work on Intentions of Murder (1964), The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) and A Man Vanishes (1967).[7] Hasebe had previously worked with Kon Ichikawa on his early films including Conflagration (1958).[15] Shinsaku Himeda, Imamura's cinematographer on The Insect Woman later worked with Nikkatsu Roman Porno director Tatsumi Kumashiro. As Roman Porno was the big studio's version of the Pink film genre, Kumashiro's films obviously share with Imamura's the theme of sex. Kumashiro's films also exhibit such similarities with Imamura's as the use of hectic, energetic frame compositions and strong-willed women.[16]

ThemesEdit

The Insect Woman 2

Alternate poster to The Insect Woman

"Insects, animals, and humans are similar in the sense that they are born, they excrete, they reproduce, and die. Nevertheless, I myself am a man. I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. What is a human being? I look for the answer by continuing to make films. I don't think I have found the answer."-- Shōhei Imamura[9]

The idea of equating the lead character with an insect came to Imamura when he noticed a bug in his ashtray while drinking sake.[9] The purpose of the insertion of footage of insects in the film, like Kafka's insect in the "Metamorphosis", is not made explicitly clear. It is generally interpreted as a metaphor for the Tome's life.[17] Imamura signals, through this image, the central subject of the film: The lead character's stubborn, animalistic perserverance through life.[8] The close-up of the insect determinedly working its way is a metaphor for the lead character's life, and by extention, Japanese women as Imamura wished to show them.[6] However Imamura refuses to glorify Tome or to encourage the audience to pity her. He shows not only the misfortunes she endures through life, but also her own self-serving pettiness and cruelty.[8]

The Insect Woman is a major step in Imamura's career in the character of Tome, who is the first appearance of the classic "Imamura woman": Earthy and sometimes selfish, but with a strong sex drive and instinct for survival.[8] Satō notes that Tome generally accepts her life without sadness, occasionally expressing self-pity in such a maudlin and trite way that it produces laughter in the audience rather than pity.[7]

Imamura situates Tome's life within historical events of 20th century Japan which are placed as background throughout the film. Tome's progression from pre-modern rural life to cynically capitalistic urban life is paralelled by Japan's own changes in the 20th century.[6] Imamura depicts Tome's village life as that of pre-modern Japan. Worshipping the female mountain god, monogamy is not the norm, and the father's role in the family is not that of the patriarch. According to Isolde Standish, the incestuous relationship between Tome and Chūji is not shown as taboo because of this lack of a concept of paternity. This is reinforced by the audience's knowledge that Chūji is probably not actually Tome's biological father.[18] David Desser traces Tome's life as a metaphor for the experience of Japanese in the 20th century. In her pre-modern rural life, she is part of a family. Sexuality is natural and innocent, and even incest has no bad consequences. Once Tome moves to the city, she becomes isolated, and corrupted through capitalism, and her sexuality becomes a product to be sold in the marketplace. Her work as a prostitute symbolizes Japan's "prostitution" to the U.S. in the post-war years. Her return to Tohoku at the end of the film signifies the hope of returning to the roots.[19]

Release and ReceptionEdit

The Insect Woman was released in Japan on November 16, 1963,[1] with Seijun Suzuki's Kanto Wanderer-- one of Suzuki's first films to be noticed by the critics.[20] It was a major critical success in Japan, winning fourteen domestic awards,[21] including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress at both the Kinema Junpo Awards and the Blue Ribbon Awards.[22] Not all critics were happy with Imamura's films, however. Critic Hideo Tsumura wrote, "The director of these films [The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder] has a despicable attitude as an artist, and he lacks social morality."[13]

The film was selected for distribution in the international market, and at film festivals. Some Japanese critics objected to the film's international showing, complaining that it gave foreign audiences a shameful impression of Japan. Critic Tsumura again complained, writing, "It's a business decision to export films such as The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder abroad, yet we should consider Japan's honor and face when we send films to international film festivals..."[13]

The Insect Woman debuted in New York's Toho Cinema on June 30, 1964, distributed by Jerome Balsam Films and Shochiku Films of America.[23][24] Reviewing it under the title The Insect, Variety was positive, commenting approvingly on the films sexual frankness which was seen as refreshingly new for a Japanese film, and making it "surefire material for art houses". Though Imamura's view of human nature was considered "dour", his observations were judged "right-on-target". The performances, from the leads to the minor roles, were all said to be "on the highest level", and Toshirō Mayuzumi's music score "spare" and "effective".[21]

The contemporary New York Times review was generally positive, if not overly enthusiastic, calling it "a realistic, occasionally sensational portrait of the Japanese rustic that seems basically honest and poignant even though it is bathed in the suds of soap opera." After praising the performances, the review concludes, "Mr. Imamura's cameras have caught picturesque scenes in mountainous Japan as well as in Tokyo's teeming streets. He has not spared us realism in some intimate scenes and sounds, perhaps with eroticism aforethought. But above all, despite the film's bathos, he has thrown a spotlight on some rural Japanese and some city slick-tender and, on occasion, touching."[24]

At the Berlin International Film Festival, Imamura was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear and Sachiko Hidari was awarded as Best Actress for her roles in The Insect Woman, and in her husband, Susumu Hani's He and She.[22] Nevertheless, The Insect Woman had some difficulties in playing European countries in its first international run, due to its sexual frankness.[13] On the other hand, the U.S. Variety review suggested that the film's adult themes would make it successful not only at art house cinemas, but in the exploitation market as well.[21]

In the decades since its release, The Insect Woman has retained a position as a pivotal film in Imamura's career and a major work in Japanese cinema. Donald Richie calls it a "joyous and affirming film", and Sachiko Hidari's performance "transcendent".[25] In 1999 critics of Kinema Jumpo named it one of the 100 best Japanese films of the 20th century.[26]

CastEdit

Awards and NominationsEdit

BibliographyEdit

  • Desser, David (1985). "The Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki)". In Frank N. Magill. Magill's Survey of Cinema: Foreign Language Films; Volume 3. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press. pp. 1505-1509. ISBN 0-89356-243-2.
  • The Insect Woman (1963) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Krafsur, Richard P. (1976). "The Insect Woman (Japan)". American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, The; Feature Films 1961-70. New York & London: R.R. Bowker Company. p. 536.
  • Lim, Dennis. (2011). The Insect Woman: Learning to Crawl. at www.criterion.com.
  • Mich. The Insect Woman. (24 June 1964). Movie review. Variety.
  • Weiler, A.H. "'The Insect Woman,' From Japan, Arrives at Toho Cinema" (July 1, 1964) New York Times.
  • "にっぽん昆虫記" (in Japanese). Japanese Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-06-27.
  • "にっぽん昆虫記" (in Japanese). Kinema Junpo. Retrieved 2011-06-27.

NotesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "にっぽん昆虫記" (in Japanese). Japanese Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-06-27.
  2. Synopsis based on Desser, David (1985). "The Insect Woman (Nippon Konchuki)". In Frank N. Magill. Magill's Survey of Cinema: Foreign Language Films; Volume 3. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press. pp. 1506-1507. ISBN 0-89356-243-2.
  3. Kendall, Nigel (2002-03-14). "All you need is sex; Japanese director Shohei Imamura tells Nigel Kendall the secret of life in The Guardian.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Richie, Donald (2001). A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History. Tokyo: Kodansha International. p. 186. ISBN 4-7700-2682-X.
  5. Winter, Jessica and Lloyd Hughes (2007). The Rough Guide to Film. Penguin. p. 244. ISBN 1-40538-498-0.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Lim, Dennis. (2011). The Insect Woman: Learning to Crawl. at www.criterion.com.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Satō, Tadao. Gregory Barrett (translator) (1982). Currents in Japanese Cinema; Essays by Tadao Sato. Tokyo: Kodansha International. p. 83. ISBN 0-87011-815-3.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Kim, Nelson (2003). "Great Directors in Issue 27 Shohei Imamura" at www.sensesofcinema.com.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Mes, Tom and Sharp, Jasper (2005). The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press. p. 28. ISBN 1-880656-89-2.
  10. Desser, p. 1505.
  11. Desser, p. 1506.
  12. Desser, p. 1509.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Phillips, Alastair and Julian Stringer (2007). Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts Routledge. p. 189. ISBN-10: 0415328489.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Sharp, Jasper (2008). Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. Guildford: FAB Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-903254-54-7.
  15. Richie p. 187.
  16. Sharp, p.139.
  17. Nygren, Scott (2007). Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History. University Of Minnesota Press. p.185. ISBN 978-0-816647-08-8.
  18. Standish, Isolde (2011). Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s Continūm. p. 89. ISBN-10: 0826439012.
  19. Desser, p. 1507.
  20. Mes and Sharp, p. 6.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Mich. The Insect Woman. (24 June 1964). Movie review. Variety.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 "Awards for The Insect Woman (1963)" at IMDb.
  23. Krafsur, Richard P. (1976). "The Insect Woman (Japan)". American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, The; Feature Films 1961-70. New York & London: R.R. Bowker Company. p. 536.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Weiler, A.H. "'The Insect Woman,' From Japan, Arrives at Toho Cinema" (July 1, 1964) New York Times.
  25. Richie, p. 271.
  26. "キネマ旬報「オールタイムベスト・ベスト100」日本映画編(1999年版)" at mycinemakan.fc2web.com. Archived from the original on 2009-02-05.
  27. "にっぽん昆虫記" (in Japanese). Kinema Junpo. Retrieved 2011-06-27.

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