The late Imamura Shohei is the kind of filmmaker who is too easily described as underrated, in spite of the evidence. The fact is, Imamura is very well-rated indeed; he's quite probably the internationally best-known Japanese director of his generation. But for those of us who love his work, it doesn't seem right that he should be largely ignored in the common scheme of things in favor of A-listers like Kurosawa and Ozu. There's just something special about his films, in a way that makes you wonder why everybody on Earth doesn't love him as much as you do, although it's probably obvious that "you" actually means "I" in that sentence.
But to the point: Imamura's first appearance in the pages of this weblog, the first of his two Palme d'Or winners, Ballad of Narayama from 1983 (incidentally, he is one of only seven filmmakers - six if we count the Dardenne brothers as a team - to win the big prize twice at Cannes). Based upon a traditional legend and a highly-regarded (and now mostly forgotten) film by Kinoshita Keisuke from 1958, Naryama is a plot-light study of a single year in a mountain village in the 19th Century, with particular focus on that region's peculiar treatment of the elderly: once any person has reached 70 years of age, and thus is theoretically unable to contribute to the well-being of the community he or she is carried to the slopes of Mount Narayama and left to die of exposure. This is at heart a pragmatic affair - the villages beneath Narayama are unthinkably poor, and most families are short of food - but it's dressed up in spiritualist clothes, with the mountain standing in for heaven as the place where all people will find their friends and loved ones happy and whole in the afterlife. Our guide to this grim custom is Orin (Sakamoto Sumiko), a 69-year-old matriarch who spends the last year of her life making sure that her family will be prepared to thrive in her absence.
To put this story in the context of Japanese culture, there's a giant conflict here between, on the one hand, the idea of one's duty to the rules of society (old people must die), and on the other, the idea that elders are to be honored and respected, and Imamura is happily unwilling to come down firmly for or against the villagers and their seemingly vindictive behavior. Which isn't limited to their arcane euthanistic philosophy, by the way: among other charming details of life in this village is the lengthy scene in which a family of habitual thieves is buried alive in a deep pit. Certainly, the writer-director doesn't hide his contempt for the petty and hurtful actions perpetrated by his characters, using frequent cutaways to animals attacking and devouring each other as a commentary on the essentially brutal, pre-civilised nature of the village (there's nothing subtle or unclear about this: the very first shot inside a human residence, after some helicopter shots establishing the village in the depths of winter, isn't of humans at all but of a mongoose stalking a snake). Yet at the same time, we're never made to hate these characters, viewing even the most solipsistic and amoral with something like affection and recognition.
That disconnect is perfectly characteristic of the director, whose work often focuses on people doing objectionable things, but for such honest reasons that we never view them as personally unpleasant. In a country famous for its adherence to social conformity, Imamura always went out of his way to celebrate the oddballs and misfits, usually in a sexually kinky context - and there's plenty of that in Narayama, which includes among other details a dying man whose last wish is that his widow sleeps with all the unmarried virgins in the village to break a familial curse, which comes as a relief to those virgins, whose only sexual release to that point was screwing the dying man's pet dog. This is the sort of scenario that very few filmmakers would ever hit upon, and this is why Imamura is absolutely irreplaceable.
It's not the only one of the filmmaker's customary tricks to appear in Narayama (he also got a great deal of mileage throughout his career with the metaphoric comparison of humans and animals, for example), and despite all this, I can't shake the sense that there's something not quite right with the film. It's nothing to do with the story or screenplay; as a narrative, Narayama is a damned masterpiece of the human condition. But the visuals just aren't quite Imamura-ey enough for this auteurist. Not that the film isn't beautiful: on the contrary, with all of its extensive nature photography, it's one of the most beautiful films produced in the 1980s. What I think I'm missing is Imamura's characteristic use of frames within the frame; his films are always positively sick with doorways and windows and fishtanks seperating the image into sub-images, isolating his characters in ones or twos and separating them from their surroundings. It's a recurring motif that fits in very well with his concurrent obsession with people off to the side of normalcy, and it would have worked brilliantly in Narayama, which is all about the isolation of the village society and the barriers thrown up between people within that society. But it hardly puts in an appearance, in favor of an essentially anonymous style. There are moments in the film that are directed by an unmistakable genius; certainly, the whole lengthy sequence in which Tatsuhei (Ogata Ken), Orin's eldest son, takes her out to Narayama, occupying nearly a quarter of the film's entire running time, is absolutely perfect filmmaking. But there are just as many places where the only sense we have that this is a great movie is because of what appears on camera, not how it is filmed. At any rate, there are many more cutaways to animals than the film really needs to make its point, and for that alone I'd be forced to reckon this as below the very peak of Imamura's filmmaking powers.
In the long run, though, claiming a film isn't up to the template set by Intentions of Murder and The Pornographers isn't much of a complaint. You can't argue with an emotional wallop when it comes along and knocks you on your ass, and Narayama has an urgent humanity that comes through even without the niceties of a rigid cinematic language.