Imamura’s “Profound Desires of the Gods”

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I can see why “Profound Desires of the Gods” (Kamigami no fukaki yokubô, 1968, also known in English as “Tales from a Southern Island”) ended (if only for some time) Imamura’s career, much as the loathsome (if easier to follow) “Peeping Tom” ended Michael Powell’s… or, in nearly bankrupting Nikkatsu, as the just deceased Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” bankrupted United Artists (and was followed by a five-year hiatus from movie-making). (Also as with these two analog commercial debacles, there are some who regard the movies highly, even invoking the label “masterpiece.” Not me (for any of the three)!)

The only part I really like was the two canoe of masked paddlers closing in on the fleeing incestuous couple, Uma (Matsui Nasuko) and Nekichi (Mikuni Rentaro), though Nekichi tells his son that incest is only for the gods.

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It definitely does not help that the movie runs almost three hours with frequent animalistic sex, other animalistic human behavior, and lots of slithering snakes and other reptiles, including a gecko falling right on the mouth of the Japanese engineer (Kitamura Kazuo) on the (fictional) southern Ryuku island of Ishigaki, called Kurageijima (Jellyfish Island) in the movie, to fix machinery and ensure a water supply for a sugar processing plant, a project abhorred by most of the natives of the island, though pushed by what must be a hereditary chief. The chief assigns his grandson to assist the engineer, who rides roughshod over local sensibilitie (in particular, in cutting down a sacred tree). Meanwhile the boy’s father is chained, while given a Sisyphean taks to move a boulder, and his aunt Toriko is a deranged nymphomaniac. There is also a granddaughter (sister of the assistant) with the hots for the alien engineer.

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Though a part of the country of Japan since being conquered in the 17th century, ratified by a 1972 plebiscite, the Ryuku islands’ native population, particularly south of Okinawa, is not culturally Japanese (speaking languages not mutually intelligible with Japanese), so it seems a very odd place to find/observe the basic (aka “primitivist” and Shintoist) structure of patriarchy and female bawdiness that Imamura sought (in a very sensationalized “anthropology,” revealing “the true spirit of the Japanese,” an endeavor also claimed in the Japanese title Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku nyûmon” (An Introduction to Anthropology) of what is known in English as “The Pornographers.” And the equation of human females to resilient insect was old-hat from Imamura’s “The Insect Woman.” Still the opening of animals wriggling in drying up pools exceeds shots in earlier movies in bluntness about the difficulties of survival

What was new, besides shooting in color without his great black-and-white cinematographer, Himeda Shinsaku (replaced by Tochizawa Masao, who would later shoot Imamura’s version of “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983), was frequent static-camera long shots (though they are also some very tight closeups, especially of the libidinous maniac Toriko). Also, the engineer from Tokyo nearly disappears in the second half of the movie. Whether Imamura meant to criticize modernization and despoiling the island’s nature is not clear. I think he intended to observe rather than to editorialize, though cooking up rather than finding extreme behavior (here and in his other movies).

In addition to abandoning belief in its traditional gods and goddesses, the natives have turned (/are turning) their rice fields (supplying subsistence food for them) to sugarcane (for industrial production and export).

An epilogue, set five years later than the time of the visiting eningeer, has the remnants of traditional culture/religion are amusement for tourists (like the Polynesian Culture Center on Oahu).

BTW, the cast had signed on for six months and the shoot ran eighteen. Imamura only made documentaries for the next eleven years (returning with the docudrama, “Vengeance Is Mine,” also not a favorite of mine).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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