Shohei Imamura's ribald, darkly comic films about messy human relationships and coarse, indomitable women repelled early European critics who had grown to cherish the graceful, exotic image of Japan typified by Kenji Mizoguchi films. Yet Imamura remains a critically important director, both as one of the seminal Japanese New Wave directors (along with Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda) and as a chronicler of a side of Japan rarely seen in Mizoguchi movies or tourist brochures.
Born in 1926, in Tokyo, Imamura attended the elite elementary and middle schools that normally would have aimed him toward a prestigious university degree and a comfortable career in business or government. His love of theater and loathing of bourgeois presumptions, however, steered him away from a conventional lifestyle. When he failed the entrance exam for the agriculture program at the national university in Hokkaido, he enrolled in a technical school to evade the draft. The day the Pacific War ended in 1945, he quit the institution and prepared to enroll in Waseda University's literature faculty. There he wrote plays and appeared on stage with a core group of actors, many of whom would appear in his later films, such as Takeshi Kato, Kazuo Kitamura, and Shoichi Ozawa. While his friends from Waseda entered the world of the theater, Imamura joined Shochiku Ofuna Studio as an assistant director in 1951.
At that time, Ofuna cranked out slick Hollywood-inspired movies. Fellow Ofuna assistant Nagisa Oshima assailed this bourgeois cinema, first in his archly political writings and then in his landmark films. Imamura's rebellion was more personal and more instinctive. He found himself assisting Yasujiro Ozu on Early Summer (1951), then later on The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), and his masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). Imamura found Ozu's notorious rigidity in both camerawork and coaching of actors to be repugnant. He directed his first film, Stolen Desire, in 1958, the same year that Ozu released Floating Weeds. Both films are about an itinerant acting troupe, but there the similarities end, as Imamura evidently set out to include everything that Ozu's stylized tale left out. While Ozu's characters are refined and passive, Imamura's are earthy and robust, brimming with latent violence and sexuality. While Ozu's camera remains low to the ground, lingering on empty corridors, Imamura's camera jumps from one angle to the next. In fact, his kinetic camera and dynamic editing resemble those of Akira Kurosawa more than those of his former mentor Ozu.
Imamura's first film also revealed a pair of nascent motifs that would run throughout his career. His fascination with the dialects and practices of the fringes of Japanese culture was first seen in his depiction of a down-and-out acting community in Osaka's rough entertainment districts in Stolen Desire; again in his portrayal of oppressive village traditions in Intentions of Murder and The Ballad of Narayama; in the mutually exploitative culture at the edge of the U.S. military base in Yokosuka in Pigs and Battleships and History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess; and in the incestuous, animistic customs of a remote Ryukyu island community in The Profound Desire of the Gods.
Imamura also populated his films with antitheses of stereotypical female film characters. Unlike the self-sacrificing feminine ideal as seen in such Mizoguchi films as The Life of Oharu, Imamura's heroines are overtly sexual, instinctive, deceitful survivors. Characters such as Tome, who rebels against a vicious madame and sets up her own call girl ring in Insect Woman, or Sadako, who struggles with rapists and family to get her deformed son entered in the family register in Intentions of Murder, manage to eke out a scant existence unfazed by oppression, poverty, or morality.
Imamura reached his first creative peak with his1963 masterpiece Insect Woman, a tragicomedy about one of Imamura's signature amoral survivors, followed by Intentions of Murder, and The Pornographers, a brilliant though disturbing black comedy about a pathetic man who becomes obsessed with his lover's daughter. Through most of the 1970s, he made a number of well-received documentaries; until 1979, when he released Vengeance is Mine, a brilliantly ribald film about a serial killer and his father. Since then, Imamura's international acclaim has soared. His 1983 film The Ballad of Narayama and his 1997 film Unagi both won the Palme d'Or from the Cannes Film Festival.
Imamura succumbed to liver cancer in May 2006 at the age of 79, although not before contributing two more features (1998's Dr. Akagi and 2001's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) and a short (for the omnibus film September 11) to the canon.