Shohei Imamura

Masterly film director of post-war Japan who was twice winner of the Palme d'Or
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The Independent Online

Shohei Imamura, film director and producer: born Tokyo 15 September 1926; married (two sons, one daughter); died Tokyo 30 May 2006.

The only Japanese director to twice win the Cannes festival's Palme d'Or, Shohei Imamura was a singular figure in Japan's film culture. His career spanned commercial entertainments, independent art-house films and challenging television documentaries, not to mention founding and running the country's first real film school, but he saw himself more as a socio-cultural anthropologist than as an artist. Asked to define himself by the critic Koichi Yamada, he famously replied, "I am interested in the relationship between the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of everyday life in Japan is built."

Imamura was born into a prosperous, middle-class Tokyo family (he was the third son of a doctor) in 1926, the year that Hirohito came to the throne. When his parents were evacuated to Hokkaido he entered a technical college in Tokyo, mainly to avoid the draft. Immediately the Pacific war ended, he won a place to read Western History at Waseda University - but spent most of his time black-marketeering (he bought cigarettes and liquor from American GIs) and working with a pro-Communist, anti-imperialist theatre group. He later recalled that this was the only time in his life that he had money; hanging out with bar-girls, gangsters and petty criminals comprehensively redefined his sense of Japanese society.

At the time the major Japanese production companies offered formal apprenticeships in film-making, and in 1951 Imamura passed the exam to join the Shochiku company. He was put to work as a junior assistant director, most notably on three films by the great Yasujiro Ozu, including the film widely regarded as Ozu's masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1953). In 1954 he moved to the newly reopened Nikkatsu company, where he developed a close relationship with the wayward populist director Yuzo Kawashima. (Six years after Kawashima's premature death in 1963, Imamura published a lengthy biography of his mentor.)

Nikkatsu allowed Imamura to start directing in 1958, and he completed four B-movies in 18 months for the company before deciding that he needed to originate and write his own projects. The first "real" Imamura film was Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961), a sprawling tragi-comedy about small-time yakuza around the US Navy base in Yokosuka; a young woman tries to keep her boyfriend away from the gang rustling black-market pigs, only to see him mown down in a pig stampede through the streets while she herself is raped by American servicemen. The film went seriously over budget, and the company didn't green-light another Imamura project for two years.

If Haruko in Pigs and Battleships is the prototype Imamura heroine, then Tome, the protagonist of Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963), is a blueprint for many of the women in his later films. Played by the unforgettable Sachiko Hidari, Tome is guided by her insect-like survival instinct, which sees her through wartime privations in the countryside and post-war shenanigans in the Tokyo sex industry, first as a prostitute, then as a madam. Imamura based the character on the kind of women he met in his black-marketeering days, stronger than the weak, exploitative men around them and eminently capable of confronting their own hardships and suffering.

Imamura's focus on women and his candour in dealing with sexual issues helped his films to find audiences beyond Japan in the 1960s. The Insect Woman was bought for British distribution, as was Jinruigaku Nyumon (The Pornographers: introduction to anthropology, 1966), a darkly comic adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka's novel about a purveyor of blue movies in Osaka who gradually retreats from all human contact.

But Imamura also had a more "experimental" side which proved harder to market both at home and abroad. His first independent production outside Nikkatsu, the semi-documentary Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes, 1967), sets out to investigate a real-life disappearance but increasingly blurs the line between fact and fiction. Equally disorienting, Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Profound Desires of the Gods, 1968) explores a Tokyo engineer's confusions as he's plunged into shamanist mysteries and baffling sexual experiences on a small Okinawan island. Now recognised as classics, these films lost money on first release.

Deep financial problems throughout the Japanese film industry in the 1970s led Imamura to embark on a new career as a director of documentaries for television. Appearing on-screen as presenter/interviewer, he opened up various unhealed wounds from the war years: several films dealt with "unreturned soldiers" (army privates who stayed in South-east Asia after Japan's defeat) and one with an exceptionally gentle and dignified old Japanese lady in Malaysia who had been forced to serve as a "comfort woman" for the Japanese troops during the war.

In 1974 Imamura founded his Yokohama School of Film and Broadcasting; this became the Japanese Academy of Visual Arts when it moved to custom-built premises in Shin Yuri-ga-oka (outside Tokyo) in 1986. Throughout the 1970s Imamura was supported by his wife's business, supplying artwork for animation films.

He returned to film-making with the masterly Fukushu Suru-wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance is Mine, 1979), a psychological drama based on the notorious killing spree of a real-life sociopath. This film (released here on DVD only last year) initiated two more decades of outstanding film-making, this time in the international spotlight. He won his first Palme d'Or for Narayama Bushi-ko (The Ballad of Narayama, 1983), an earthy and visceral adaptation of the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa about a village in which the elderly willingly embrace death to keep the community's population in balance, and his second for Unagi (The Eel, 1996), a quirky comedy-drama about the psychological rehabilitation of a man who has killed his adulterous wife.

Other late gems included Kuroi Ame (Black Rain, 1989), on the aftermath of the Hiroshima A-bomb, and Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, 2001), another celebration of the fecundity of women. His last film was a short for the international anthology feature 11'09"01 (2002), made in response to the 11 September suicide attacks on the US mainland; a symbolic vignette ridiculing the idea of a "holy war," Imamura's episode was scripted by his son Daisuke, himself an increasingly accomplished director under the name Daisuke Tengan.

Tony Rayns