Hogs and Battleships
Imamura began his career in 1951 as an assistant director at Shochiku Studios. There he had the opportunity to work with the renowned Yasujiro Ozu. He assisted the great master on three films: Early Summer (1951), The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953). Although Imamura would gradually came to respect Ozu, at the time he chafed a what he perceived to be the director's rigid, overly genteel approach toward film.
In 1954 Imamura moved to Nikkatsu, the financially troubled studio that had only recently re-entered the film business. Imamura found himself more at home in this new professional environment, where the commitment to teen sexploitation pics and yakuza movies better fit his freewheeling sensibility than the more refined fare produced at Shochiku.
In 1958 Imamura directed his first film, but it was not until Hogs and Battleships that he made a film that exhibited his distinctive take on life. This view is encapsulated in the director's oft-quoted statement "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself." This principle is on display in Hogs and Battleships, which focuses on the efforts of mobsters and other low-lifes to eke out a living on the periphery of a US navy base. In particular, Imamura depicts the struggles of his female characters, who, in contrast to the noble suffering exhibited by the heroines in the films of Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi, use every weapon at their disposal to get ahead in life. No shrinking violets, these women are every bit as tough and self-reliant as the men around them (if not more so).
Imamura followed Hogs and Battleships with other examinations of the lower echelons of Japanese society. Never condescending or moralizing, he paints stark portraits of life at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. The Insect Woman (1963) tells the story of a peasant who over the course of her life works as a factory laborer, prostitute, and madam, before eventually ending up as a domestic servant. The Pornographers (1966) chronicles the life of a producer of low-budget porn films.
In the 1970s, Imamura shifted his creative energies from film to TV documentary. Despite the shift in medium, he continued to treat the down and out, representing the experiences of bar hostesses, the so-called "Comfort Women," and ex-pat soldiers.
With Revenge Is Mine (1979), Imamura made a triumphant return to feature-film making. Over the next decade he directed some of his most important works, including Eejanaika (1981), The Ballad of Narayama (1983), and Black Rain (1989), for which he was awarded the Kinema Junpo Best Director Award.
Despite health problems, Imamura remained professionally active until the last years of his life, directing idiosyncratic films that defied easy categorization. He passed away in 2006.
He is currently the subject of a film retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive. For more information, go to Shohei Imamura's Japan.