Born in 1918, Tome is the daughter of an economically poor, dysfunctional family in early twentieth-century rural Japan. While working as a servant to the owners of the land her family tends, Tome is raped by the landlord’s son and falls pregnant. After the war has ended, leaving the child behind in the care of her mentally unstable father, she flees to Tokyo in search of riches and soon begins to work in a brothel. Learning her trade from an experienced madam, Tome ruthlessly climbs up the ranks of the sex trade and, with the support of her lover Karasawa, eventually becomes the owner of a successful call-girl business.
The relationship between cinema and external context is often slippery and difficult to define. This is particularly true of the narrative feature film, which historically has been primarily concerned with the linear progression of story and the logical development of character. Although there are exceptions, such as films which take a given historical moment as the material for a character-driven story (e.g. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)), the content of the average narrative feature film tends not to be primarily defined by social, political and economic contexts. Instead, it is reliant on generic archetypes (crude examples of which would include the love story, the police procedural film or the action film) and as such, any links to a given external context are often either circumstantial aids to verisimilitude or purely metaphorical. Because of this, analyses which base their approach on intrinsic, defining connections between a narrative feature film and an external context must tread carefully to avoid charges of over-interpretation, of either seeing things which may or nor be there or assigning too much relevance to innocuous details.
Such risks are not a factor when considering Sho-hei Imamura’s The Insect Woman, a film so firmly and obviously rooted in the socio-political and industrial contexts of its time of production that any critical reading of the film which did not consider the environment of 1960s Japan would be a naïve one. Alongside filmmakers such as Nagisa Ôshima (Cruel Story of Youth, 1960), Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower, 1964) and Seijun Suzuki (Gate of Flesh, 1964), Imamura was a key figure in the Japanese New Wave, a group of young filmmakers who sought to use their formally inventive work to directly and brusquely challenge what they saw as the inequities and injustices of contemporary Japanese society. Of course, the name, ideological nature and timing of the Japanese New Wave all bring about inevitable comparisons to the French New Wave, something reflected in the fact that the popular Japanese term for the movement was and remains nu-beru ba-gu, a phonetic translation of the French nouvelle vague. However, while there is some broad legitimacy in these claims, the industrial origins and social concerns of the Japanese New Wave give it a distinct identity of its own.
Many of the filmmakers involved in the Japanese New Wave began their careers in the film industry by working as assistants to established directors during the ‘golden’ age of Japanese studio production. In the 1950s, filmmakers such as Yasujiro- Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953), Mikio Naruse (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Street of Shame, 1956) produced films which are still today regarded as the abiding classics of Japanese cinema, especially by Western audiences. Imamura’s own apprenticeship was exemplary of this model, serving under the master practitioner Ozu on several films including one of the most celebrated pieces of cinema to ever emerge out of Japan, Tokyo Story. Rather than being inspired by his time working alongside the widely respected Ozu, Imamura found that his ideas on cinema greatly differed from those held by his senior. Finding the rigidity of Ozu’s filmmaking style, particularly the strict and inflexible instructions given to actors, to be ‘repugnant’ (Bock 1978: 289), Imamura would later comment that the great director’s influence on his career was a significant one, but only because it was an education in the type of films which he did not want to make.1
Given that many, if not all, of Imamura’s New Wave peers shared a similar disdain for the cinematic practices and ethical positions of the previous generation of Japanese filmmakers, it is understandably tempting to label the movement as being simply a reaction against the industrial conditions in which they were attempting to operate. However, as David Desser, in his groundbreaking study of the Japanese New Wave, stresses, such analyses completely preclude the socio-political environment of 1960s Japan and do ‘not suffice to explain the rigorous, insightful, insistent, and often angry challenges the best of the New Wave films and filmmakers issued to Japanese society’ (Desser 1998: 2). As opposed to the thematic and political cautiousness which arguably characterised much of pre-1960s Japanese cinema, New Wave filmmakers were not afraid to take an anti-authoritarian position by associating with radical left-wing political movements and unblinkingly addressing contentious subjects such as racism and sexual violence. While there was a degree of variety in the narrative and formal preferences of individual New Wave filmmakers, overall they were driven by a desire to present non-sugar-coated depictions of a Japan where the social, political and psychological effects of the war and subsequent American Occupation still loomed large.
Audie Bock states that Imamura and others ‘turned their backs on what now seemed to be the naïve universal humanism of the past and searched for the essence of Japaneseness’ (1978: 14). Indeed, the work of Sho-hei Imamura, particularly during the 1960s, is primarily concerned with the cinematic representation of the real Japan. What the ‘real’ means for Imamura is an unromantic depiction of the lower-class segments of society which were perhaps under-represented in the classical Japanese cinema of the 1950s. The focus of The Insect Woman is typical of this approach. Imamura centres the narrative around Tome, a woman from a rural community in Northern Japan, a region which had not been subject to much attention from a previous generation of filmmakers who had largely chosen to myopically concentrate on the nation’s larger cities. Given that the narrative of the film begins in 1918 and stretches through five decades, it is fair to say that the film’s subject matter, at least on the surface, is the historical position of Japanese women. But there is a wider focus and many of the issues approached in The Insect Woman are applicable to Japanese society at large. It could therefore be argued that women are merely the vessel Imamura uses to convey more macrocosmic social concerns; according to the film’s star Sachiko Hidari, ‘if you want to say something about Japan, you have to focus on women’, and critic Tadao Sato argues that, for Imamura, the status of the typical Japanese woman ‘realistically mirrored the conditions of the masses since they seldom rose to positions of leadership or became members of the ruling class’. 2 In The Insect Woman, Tome rises from simple prostitute to pimp, but her position is an ultimately insecure one as she is completely reliant on her male lover Karasawa, who financially and logistically enables the enterprise. Accordingly, when his support comes to an abrupt end, Tome is immediately returned to the lower economic classes from whence she emerged. By exposing the shallow foundations of Tome’s new wealth, Imamura could just as easily be said to be commenting on the superficiality of the economic ‘miracle’, which from the mid-1950s brought about an extended period of prosperity in Japan, as he is making a salient point about the continued inability of Japanese women to prosper in society without male patronage.
Nevertheless, there is a significant amount of material in the film which exclusively refers to the status of the Japanese woman. The poor treatment of Tome by her rural family speaks to the historical subjugation of Japanese women under ie (literally, ‘household’), a system of extended family, which saw women at the foot of a strictly organised patriarchal hierarchy headed by the eldest male of working age. While living in the countryside Tome, like most women under ie, has no practical or economic independence of her own and her survival is wholly contingent on those above her in the familial hierarchy. However, the version of ie in The Insect Woman is a distorted one, with the man who would normally head the family, Tome’s father Chu-ji (who is, in fact, not her biological parent), being mentally incompetent and thus unable to do so.
The time span of the film’s narrative corresponds with the gradual dissolution of ie which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. Tome initially leaves the ie by going to work in a silk factory before relocating to Tokyo, where she eventually becomes involved in prostitution. The trajectory of Tome’s life therefore references two of the most historically significant developments for women during this period; the increased, if not complete, independence which came for young women with the collapse of ie, and the rise and fall of urban prostitution. The two events are indirectly connected. There were various factors leading to the sharp rise in the smaller, nuclear-style katei (‘family’) units which replaced ie as the dominant mode of cohabitation, not least of which was the demographic shift from country to city which occurred amongst the younger generation as a result of an explosion of white-collar industry in Japan. The growth of these industries demanded a large workforce, who in turn had expendable income to spend on entertainment. Given that the office workers with the highest salaries were exclusively male, the early twentieth century saw an increased demand for female courtesans in Japan’s larger urban settings, particularly Osaka and Tokyo. Prostitution in Japan was far from a new phenomenon and had always been subject to a degree of official approval. In the early part of the twentieth century, this support reached unprecedented levels in the evergrowing urban expanses with the establishment of the ‘licensed quarters’, geographically defined areas where brothels operated with the full approval and protection of the police. Unsurprisingly, the immediate post-war years saw a change in the status of the sex industry in Japan, with licensed quarters being rapidly outlawed by the American Occupation and the nation’s first-ever crop of elected female politicians leading a gradual change in public opinion, with the eventual result being the criminalisation of prostitution in 1956. In The Insect Woman, the brothel which employs her as a prostitute is closed by the police and her own initially flourishing call-girl business eventually falls foul of the law, at which point she is left on the verge of destitution; a situation also faced by the thousands of women who were employed in brothels prior to 1956.
As well as directly referencing socio-political events (documentary footage of student protests is also shown in the film, as is Tome’s flirtation with trade unionism during her time working in the silk factory), Imamura’s inclusion of taboo themes in The Insect Woman similarly tallies with the Japanese New Wave’s commitment to presenting the realities of Japan. Violence by men towards women is given particular emphasis through the depiction of Tome’s rape – an incident which causes her to give birth to a child out of wedlock – and the beating which Chu-ji inflicts on his wife, who is herself characterised as deeply promiscuous. Yet the most shocking element of the film, thematically and visually, is the incestuous relationship between Tome and Chu-ji. In a particularly striking scene, Imamura shows Chu-ji suckling on Tome’s breasts in a graphic fashion, which would simply not have been seen in previous decades. The direct handling of taboo themes and the visceral style of this scene in particular are symptomatic of the willingness of a younger generation of filmmakers to exploit the 1960s Japanese film industry’s more relaxed approach to censorship, which had been fervent during the war and Occupation years, to enhance the poignancy of their work.
Given the various injustices committed on Tome and that The Insect Woman is essentially the story of her life, it might seem natural to assume that the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with her plight throughout. This is not the case, and Imamura employs several techniques in an attempt at objectivity. First, Tome is not presented as a character with the imperious moral code that a ‘hero’ might be expected to have. In fact, during the second half of the film she becomes a character who could best be described as callous of mind and mean of spirit. Although we can rationally posit that this transformation is the end product of the endemic abuse during her adolescence and young adulthood, it remains difficult to favourably identify with a character who financially exploits her call-girl employees and even physically assaults a girl who she suspects of disloyalty. Whatever the viewers may think of Tome, they are given equal opportunity to both sympathise with and be repulsed by her. At the conclusion of the film, there is no closure or resolution for Tome (and only a limited amount for her daughter Nobuko), further underlining Imamura’s refusal to spoon-feed his audience.
As well as coming up with dynamic approaches to narrative and character, the Japanese New Wave was also notable for experimentation with film form. In The Insect Woman, this stylistic innovation contributes to the final sense of emotional detachment from the events and characters of the film. The use of anti-realist devices such as the freeze-frame and accompanying voiceover prevent viewers from becoming fully submerged in the world of the film and gives opportunity to reflect on the wider implications of the on-screen content. Imamura himself stated that he made his films in such a way to encourage viewers to adopt a critical rather passive position; in other words, to think (Bock 1978: 293). Assaulting narrative, thematic and formal conventions, The Insect Woman is a vibrant example of Japanese New Wave cinema.
1. See Chuck Stephens, ‘The Lower Depths’, Film Comment, Vol. 42, No. 4, 2006, p. 11.
2. See Joan Mellen, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York: Liverlight, 1975, p. 201, quoted in Desser 1988:108; Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Tokyo, Kodansha, 1982, p. 76, quoted in Desser 1988: 122.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Nikkatsu. Director: Sho-hei Imamura. Producers: Kano Ôtsuka and Jirô Tomoda. Screenwriters: Keiji Hasebe and Sho-hei Imamura. Cinematographer: Shinsaku Himeda. Music: Toshiro- Mayuzumi. Editor: Mutsuo Tanji. Cast: Sachiko Hidari (Tome), Kazuo Kitamura (Chu-ji), Sumie Sasaki (En), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Nobuko), Tanie Kitabayashi (Madam), Seizaburô Kawazu (Karasawa), Masumi Harukawa (Midori).]
Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Tokyo, Kodansha, 1978.
David Desser, Eros plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1988.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.