(Introduction is in my review of “Pigs and Battleships.”)
The 1963 “Nippon konchuki” (titled “The Insect Woman” in English— Nippon is Japan and konchuki entomology) is supposed by some to be Imamura‘s first masterpiece. “Insect Woman” covers events from 1918 to 1961 in three generations of woman who get pregnant without having husbands (though it seems that the third one may have one before giving birth). The hard life of Japanese women who become prostitutes, shown in long takes, is Mizoguchi territory. I don’t think that Imamura had anything to add to what Mizoguchi had shown/said. “Insect Woman” is not as depressing as “The Life of Oharu,” but is harder to follow and has a protagonist with whom I found it difficult to sympathize (let alone identify!).
Matsuki Tomé (Hidari Sachiko) manages to get out of the countryside (where she has been having sexual relations with her foster father (Kitamura Kazuo) for years and has a series of jobs that include sexual “favors” to bosses, including a rape that got her pregnant) to Tokyo, where after some time with a union organizer who is co-opted by/into management, she gets a job as a cleaning woman in an inn that is really a bordello. She becomes a prostitute and — after the war and the subsequent abolition of legal prostitution and the jailing of her patroness — a madame, then falls back to being a cleaning woman as her male patron Karasawa (Kawazu Seizaburô) takes up with her daughter, the cunning Nobuko (Yoshimura Jitsuko).
Nobuko is savvier than her mother and gets what she wants from men she twists around her finger (or some other part of her anatomy: Imamura’s most famous statement is “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure”). Nobuko (who has stayed in the countryside with her mother’s foster father) is as opportunistic as her mother, but more clear-eyed about how to get what she wants from men, and more ambitious I think. (Nobuko seems to me to fall up as well as to fall down, hoping for a comfortable life but not able to engineer one.)
The beetle struggling up loose dirt under the opening credits is not subtle, and Tomé has a similarly difficult time rising as the dirt keeps rolling her back down. The final scene has her struggling up a steep incline and slipping, bringing the movie back to its first shot. I knew that life was difficult for unattached Japanese women even without any representation of wartime shortages or the firebombings of Tokyo. I guess that Nobuko is more resilient and less noble and self-sacrificing than Mizoguchi’s prostitutes. Imamura, the entomologist of the Japanese lower orders, was not interested in their psychology but in the physicality of their life and material conditions. (In a forced hiatus after going over budget in making “Pigs and Battleships,” Imamura studied social anthropology. That was at the high tide of behaviorism in American social science, though I am not sure that this was also the case in Japan.)
Hidari is impressive, not least in credibly aging 45 years over the course of the movie and for not wallowing in victimhood — rolling with the punches of patriarchy as it were.(Indeed, she does not seem to have time to feel regret or disgust at her situation and the betrayals and exploitations she goes through.
I find the attempts to link her to various protests unconvincing, not least in that she never protests anything at all about her treatment. The many freeze-frames for jumps of years induces eye-rolling and it was difficult for me to stay with the movie that runs three minutes beyond the two-hour mark and reach its abrupt, inconclusive end. I liked “The Eel,” “The Pornographers,” and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” much more and admired “The Ballad of Narayama” and ” Black Rain” much more than “Insect Woman” and would recommend these later Imamura movies in preference to “Insect Woman” for anyone who has not seen them
The Criterion disc includes a 21-minute interview of Imamura by Sato Tadao following a showing of “Insect Woman (Imamura discusses the gains and difficulties of location shooting, the actors, and his hiatus from making movies to punish him afters “Pigs and Battleships”), and 14 minutes of critic/historian Tony Rayns (who criticizes the bits of macro history pretentious and sees the freeze frames as random and not at all iconic) and the booklet contains an informative and appreciative essay by Dennis Lim. The Rayns discourse is dated 2008; no date is referenced for the Imamura one. (I’d guess some time during the late-1980s or early 1990s.)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray